Why I love being a priest

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Image: Holy Cross Father Joseph H. Carey, C.S.C., chaplain for the Alliance for Catholic Education, greets students at the University of Notre Dame.

I love being a priest
because it is great to be something that has been around so long that it is practically hard-wired into the human brain. There have probably been people recognizable as priests about as long as there have been people recognizable as people. If a guy wandered out of the Pleistocene epoch and into a church and saw me behind the altar he’d likely have a pretty good idea what I was and what I was doing. And if Origen of Alexandria or Theodore of Mopsuestia or Eleanor of Aquitaine or Shakespeare of Avon or Shakespeare’s tailor walked into the church, they would know exactly what I was and exactly what I was doing.

Because a priest is such an ancient thing to be, an encounter with one touches very deep chords in the human mind and heart. Strains of longing, hope, and dread are sounded, as are any number of other feelings, some for which there are not yet names, and doubtless some for which the names have been forgotten.

Once you are known to be a priest, you are treated differently. Walk through an airport in clerical dress: A stranger might pull you aside and pour out a story of joy, grief, or repentance; moments later you might receive from another passerby a glance of such unfathomable loathing that it makes you miss a step. Despite the unpleasant aspects, the thing I love about all this is that my meetings with other people are freighted with possibility. The energy is there, at some level, for almost anything to happen. And, God willing, what happens might be full of grace.

You hear the stories
I love being a priest because I hear about miracles. Many people think miracles don’t happen, or are very rare, but that is only because people tend not to tell each other about their miracles. But they’ll tell a priest.

I know a woman who was comforted by an angel and a man who was visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary. And then there are the conversion stories. I know a fellow who when he was a graduate student was teetering on the brink of faith. One night, while walking past the darkened shop windows of a deserted city street, he offered up a silent prayer: “God, if you are there, and if you care, please give me some kind of sign.” At that moment a shabbily dressed man on a bicycle came around the corner riding in the opposite direction. As he passed he looked the student in the eye and said, “God loves you.” Game, set, and match.

I’ve spoken to a Chinese physicist who converted from atheism to Christianity because ice floats. He told me that every other liquid sinks when it freezes. If water sank when it froze, he assured me, the earth would be entirely lifeless. We exist because water behaves in this odd way. That, he said, cannot be a coincidence, and so he believes in our Creator.

You get to say things others don’t
I hear stories like these because people feel it’s OK to tell a priest things they would find awkward to say in public. Happily, there is a corollary to this instinct: It’s OK for a priest to say in public things that would be awkward for other people to say. As a priest I have a kind of diplomatic immunity from the social taboos against talking about God—or anything else that really matters—in polite company. When I speak up I will at worst see an expression on someone’s face that seems to say, “Oh well, what do you expect? He is, after all, a priest.” I can speak badly, or I can speak deftly, but at least I’m free to have a go.

What I love most about this special priestly license is the freedom it gives me to speak without irony. Almost invariably, when folks do speak about God in public, they hedge their remarks with protective ramparts of irony. That way no one can be certain that they really mean what they say, and if push comes to shove they can pass it all off as a joke.

I love not joking. I love being able to speak about God simply and freely from the heart. I love being a priest because, years after the event, people will come up to me and tell me that something I said changed their lives. And more often than not, if I can remember the occasion they are referring to, what they heard is not what I meant to say. I suppose I could be bemused or even annoyed by this; instead I take it as welcome evidence that the Holy Spirit is using me as an instrument through which people hear what God wants them to hear.

You give out the Good News
Akin to that are occasions when I manage to say something useful during a pastoral encounter that I am dead certain I couldn’t have come up with on my own. Again, in those moments, the presence of the Holy Spirit seems palpable. And when I preside at the Eucharist, I am the instrument of Christ, who is the real priest. I love being a priest because the Mass is a distillation of what it is to be human. After the gospel and the Eucharistic Prayer, what is there left to say about human nature? And as for culture, the Mass is imbued with cultural riches that reach back through the Middle Ages to ancient Rome and Athens to Mount Sinai and beyond. An epic poem or oratorio could be written about nearly every phrase and gesture. In fact, countless artists, knowingly or not, have taken inspiration from the themes, shape, and textures of the Mass.

Holy Cross Father George A. Piggford, C.S.C., director of the Honors Program and associate professor at Stonehill College, Easton, Massachusetts, in the classroom with students.
Holy Cross Father George A. Piggford, C.S.C., director of the Honors Program and associate professor at Stonehill College, Easton, Massachusetts, in the classroom with students.
For instance, I teach a course about the Catholic novel. For years I have been telling my students that when they have an essay to write for class and are stumped for a topic, there are two questions that can be fruitfully discussed in relation to any Catholic novel. The first is: What is the good news that the novel holds out? No matter how bleakly the human condition may be depicted in a Catholic novel, there will invariably be some element of hope on offer. The second question is whether the main character is ultimately saved. The condition of his or her soul is what really matters.

It has occurred to me only recently that these two questions correspond to the two main parts of the Mass. The good news is a kind of gospel. It is analogous to the Liturgy of the Word. The theme of whether the protagonist is saved is ultimately grounded in the Liturgy of the Eucharist in which the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ are offered so that sins may be forgiven.

You belong to an amazing community
And I love my order, my particular tribe of priests. I love the Congregation of Holy Cross because when you sit down to dinner in community there will be someone in the room who knows the answer to just about any question you can imagine. I love Holy Cross because the familiar, unprepossessing fellow sitting next to you is sometimes a world authority in his field or has poured out his life in selfless service to the people of God, or both.

I love Holy Cross because, in a crisis, a fellow with whom you’ve had an apparently casual, friendly relationship will be revealed as a well of wisdom and compassion. I love that several hundred good men have my back. I love the way we honor each other’s fathers and mothers and families. I love that Holy Cross hospitality is legendary. I love that Holy Cross men seem to know instinctively that you do not have to stand on your dignity in order to have dignity. We spend the greater part of our time together talking about sports or the next movie we want to see, but we are having those conversations with men who have given their lives over to service of Christ and his church with unqualified generosity. They have known success, and had their share of failures, but they are still here, and they are still Christ’s men.

I love spending time with men who are very different than me in the ways the world cares about but with whom I am in deep agreement on the things that really matter. I love the high regard we have for good, hard work. I love to sing the Salve Regina with my Holy Cross brothers. I love the way you often discover, after knowing someone for a long time, that they have a profound devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. I’ve found over the years that this turns out to be true of most of the best of us. I love the transformation that seems to come over someone you think you know well, and perhaps have taken for granted, when you have the privilege of seeing him minister to God’s people, particularly in a moment of tragedy or great joy.

I love the stories about the old days and the great and colorful men who did so much to make us who we are but who now sleep in Christ. I love that we remember our beloved dead in prayer by name on the anniversary of their deaths. I love that 100 years after I’m gone someone will be mentioning my name aloud in prayer. I love being able to visit the community cemetery where I will one day be buried myself. I love being able to work in places where we have been so long that the lifeblood of our community is in the bricks.

I love to visit a Holy Cross community and its members somewhere in the world for the first time and feel instantly at home. I love the way that members of Holy Cross parishes and schools and universities feel about their priests. I love to visit our seminary and meet young people who remind me of Holy Cross men who have gone before, almost as if there were some kind of spiritually transmitted Holy Cross genetic code.

And those are some of the reasons I love being a priest. 

Excerpted with permission from Portland magazine.

Father Charles Gordon, C.S.C.Father Charles Gordon, C.S.C. is an assistant professor of theology at the University of Portland in Portland, Oregon.




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