Confessions of a happy priest
About 18 years ago I attended a retreat like this myself. I watched Paulist priests make connections between events in the everyday lives of college students and the stories of the Catholic faith. They challenged us to think, to pull things together for ourselves, to watch for the signs of the Holy Spirit in the world around us. I remember watching them and thinking, “I want to do what they do.”
It’s March 2002. I’m ducking through the Columbus Circle subway station at full speed, loosening my coat around my clerical collar. Winter has been turning into spring in New York City. At the newsstand on the platform, there are more headlines on the clergy sex abuse scandal. The uptown train rumbles down the tracks.
The doors to the train hiss open, and I enter. Suddenly every single person in that train looks up at me. They all stare for a split second at the man in priestly garb.
This has never happened to me before here. A priest, a Buddhist monk, a Hasidic Jew—we’re all part of the urban scenery. In New York City, people walk around with multiple piercings, Technicolor leather clothing, absurd retro hairstyles. There was a man who hung around Times Square naked for a while. No one bats an eye. Even if people notice, they don’t presume to eye you directly. It’s the unwritten code of the city.
But here I am with every eye in the train on me. I know what they’re thinking. I should have brought a sandwich board sign to wear: “I am not a child molester.”
I know who you are
It was a difficult season to be a priest, after that scandal broke. There were stares and barely concealed giggles. Mothers with small children crossed to the other side of the street in front of me. It made me feel self-conscious, defensive—even though the vast majority of people (especially those in Catholic parishes) were kind and supportive.
In a sense it was an extreme example of a particular challenge of living as a priest. When you walk around in a Roman collar, a lot of people think they know what you are about, how you think, who you are. There are questions about whether you are permitted to have a drink, watch television, visit your family. People constantly apologize for cursing in front of you. They consider it scandalous if you believe in evolution, listen to popular music, tell a ribald joke, or in fact make any reference at all to human sexuality.
People automatically assume that I am stodgy, old-fashioned, quiet, and moralistic. Yet the reasons I became a priest had to do with the way priests I admired were rambunctious risk-takers who communicated passion, energy, and above all the mercy of Jesus in a way that gave people hope in the midst of their imperfections and doubts.
Making space for God
And imperfections and doubts are certainly part of the priestly landscape. The first anointing of a sick person I ever did as a priest was in Spanish, which is not my first language. Nervous as hell, I went off to Roosevelt Hospital on an emergency call. A Mexican family, all with sad eyes, greeted me and asked me to anoint the patriarch of the family, who was close to death. I produced the oils, gathered the family around, and began the ritual.
All the way through I worried that my pronunciation of Spanish was inadequate to the occasion, that I wasn’t being culturally sensitive enough, that I didn’t really know how to be there for them at this key moment. My anxiety grew as I tripped over a few words in the ceremony. I was unsure exactly which final prayer I should use. By the time the rite was over, I was convinced I had done them very little good as their priest.
I turned to face the family I had failed in their hour of need. There were tears running down each of their faces. They thanked me profusely. We stood in silence, honor guards at their father’s final passage from this world. I found out later he died not many hours afterward. After the anointing I went out to a bench in front of the hospital and wept. I understood then and there that what I do as a priest is about a lot more than me. I make space. God goes to work. Especially as a leader of prayer, but also as preacher, teacher, pastoral counselor, my job is to make space for people to experience the sacred, to make way for God to do his thing.
Ups and downs
Now I do it, and, as I said before, I sometimes still can’t believe that people let me do this as my job, my career, my life’s work. I feel like the luckiest person on earth, especially when I hear some of my friends complain about their work.
Not that it is ever easy work. You work very hard, and temptation is constantly thrown your way, especially to power. As you make space for God, it’s disarmingly easy to believe that you are the one making it happen—your glowing personality, your charm, your deep spirituality. Humility goes out the window, and you forget to listen.
The priesthood is the hardest and most wonderful thing I have ever done.
The missionary life
It does get lonely at times. The loneliness can be hard to bear, and some guys leave in the first few years after ordination. In the middle of seminary, I was contemplating flying the coop myself, and I told a priest I knew that I wanted to marry and have children. He told me that in the priesthood I would have a different kind of family, would be father to many children. Was he right?
Yes and no. There’s nobody there day in and day out like in a family. Yet in my own seven years in the priesthood, I have been privileged to know and walk with a large number of people, and I’ve been close to quite a few of them. I cannot imagine another vocation where I would have come to know so many people of so many different races, ages, marital statuses, cultures, and backgrounds. In the Paulist faith communities I have served, all kinds of people have been welcome, and that has made for a wonderful and diverse experience. I truly have had many brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children (see Mark 10:29-30).
The Paulist community of which I am a part is a missionary community, so even though I am a Californian, I have spent the whole of my priesthood in New York City. I have found myself working in remarkable places—for three years in a multicultural Hispanic community on the West Side of Manhattan, lately on weekends at a predominantly African American and partly Dominican American parish in Harlem.
This white kid from Orange County, California sticks out a bit in these locales, but I find that the very way in which an outsider cares and has committed himself to walk alongside the people here seems to help them in some way know that God is present. Certainly it’s mutual—their willingness to welcome this stranger speaks to me loud and clear of a God who knows no partiality but loves us all and remains ever with us.
God in the mess
“Christmas is ruined!” A priest I worked with used to say that (with a touch of sarcasm) whenever he thought someone was overreacting to a small parish disaster. It always made me laugh, and ultimately it gave me the idea for a Christmas midnight Mass homily I gave a few years back (one for which I am still remembered at that parish). I dumped a bag full of wrapping paper, bows, cellophane, tissue paper, scotch tape, and ribbons on the sanctuary floor in front of the altar and announced summarily, “Christmas is a mess.” I elaborated on all of the literal and interpersonal disasters of the holidays and then went on to talk about the messy circumstances of Christ’s own birth in Bethlehem. The point is, life is messy yet God comes to us in the middle of a messy world.
Don’t we all experience life as a deeply imperfect and flawed reality? In the world as we know it, human beings lead complicated lives. We get sick. We fear. We lose confidence, have doubts, love, and fight. We have friends and enemies, and sometimes they are the same people.
When I was ordained a priest, a friend of mine wrote me a poem entitled, “Stay in the mess.” I always try to remember that. God is in the mess, and that’s where priests ought to be, too. Right here in the middle of the ambiguities of life, we are called to help people make space for mystery. It’s exactly the opposite of the stereotype some people have—that religious people should only hang out where everything is clear and pure and nice. Instead we go where God goes—to the mess.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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