Thursday, June 7, 2012

Everything I Thought I Knew, I Didn't: Reflections on 15 Years of Priesthood

Today I celebrate 15 years of ordination.  I am celebrating it!  As I look back on the last 15 years of being a Catholic priest, I look at one heck of a journey.  There have been extraordinary highs and gut wrenching lows.  The seminary did the best it could to prepare me with a base of knowledge, spirituality, and human formation to help me meet the road as it unfolded over the years. To be honest, I came out of the seminary all wild eyed and ready to proclaim, serve, and restore.  I came in with a profound ( or so I thought at the time) desire to serve.  I thought I knew it all and what the people wanted.  I thought. It is not that I was horribly wrong or off base, it is just that I had no idea of the magnitude  of what lay ahead.  Thankfully, God has always moved my heart to engage Him and His people and to keep trying to adapt without losing anything of a true Catholic priestly identity.  That openness has lead to a wealth of epiphany moments.  I wish to share some of the bigger ones.

1: What I actually know about God, faith, and Catholicism is little.  It is not through lack of trying.  I am a rather well read person who always believes there is always more that I can and need to learn.  Content wise, I probably do know more than the average person, but is like being a scientist, the more you study the more we know how little we know.  It is a given that we simply cannot come to know everything about God; we struggle with just the tidbit He gives us through Divine Revelation. 15 years of preaching on the Scriptures almost everyday and I still am amazed at how many layers there are and how much more there is just on the surface.  15 years and I have yet to grow tired of preaching and studying the Scriptures because it is like a multi-faceted gem with an infinite numbers of sides; each begging to be examined and integrated.  The depths and power of faith, I have come to find out, will go as deep as we allow them. Because it is based in God, the experience of faith and grace is boundless.  The more I experience, the more I know that is still left unexamined.  The depths of the theology, philosophy, logic, and wisdom present in Church teachings is profound.  Some of the greatest minds of history help in reflecting upon Christ and what the Christ event fully means.  I am a smart guy, but I am not St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Chrysostom, or any of the other great minds that have populated our teaching landscape.  I read the writings of the great Fathers and mystics and realize just how little I know.  I like to think that my desire to keep knowing and delving deeper into the mysteries of the faith is pleasing to God.  It is a lifetime endeavor.  It is a perpetual challenge.

2: The People of God don't need another Savior.  We already have one.  The Catholic Church existed long before I became a priest and will be here long after I depart from this life. My role is to point to THE Savior.  I have found out that this is far from easy.  It is more than using the right sequence of words, it is by living a correct example.  That is difficult for me.  I think the easiest trap for any cleric to fall into is that trap of hypocrisy.  It is easy to preach love, mercy, forgiveness, patience, love of God and love of neighbor; it is much harder to live, especially knowing that my parishioners have the right to be able to see me living that example.  It has meant that I have had to wildly reign in my temper, a temper that has gotten me into much trouble.  The first time I lost my patience with a parishioner, it hit me after I was done of the potentially devastating effect of the Roman Collar.  I became aware that when I lost my patience, it just wasn't me as a person, but it came across as the entirety of the Roman catholic Church, if not Christ Himself, coming down on the person.  I shudder to think how many people I might well have driven away, how many vocations I might have crushed, how many good souls were rightfully scandalized.  I look back at those 2 or 3 incidents and still feel deep regret and sorrow.  As I have grown, my temperament has settled and my anger is usually saved for people who cut me off in traffic (and yes, I know I must work on that as well).

3: I am called 'Father' for a reason.  This realization has grown so much stronger over the past few years.  When we started Camp Maccabee some years back, it was with the understanding that all the same things needed to be a good dad and husband were also needed to be a good priest.  Archbishop Flynn told me that in a one on one conference during a retreat my 1st year in theology.  that conversation was probably one of the most significant of my life.  It took me almost 20 years to unpack that.  My role in a parish is that of a father.  It is my duty to provide from the wealth of our faith and to lead others into a deeper relationship with the God who entrusted me with their care.  The same can be said of dads and their children.  It is my duty to nurture and maintain union built upon stewardship and selflessness, so that each member of the parish knows they are loved, wanted, and needed as part of this parish family.  I use the term 'parish family' not in some sappy sense of forced fellowship of people who would otherwise have no connection, but in the same dynamic that Christ did when He used  familial terms to describe the relationship He has with us, we have with the Father, and that we have with each other.  It is not my job to dominate.  It seems it would  be easier if I tried that, but I know it would undo everything and drive off wide swaths of the family entrusted to my pastoral care.  It is a constant source for internal dialogue and external whining.  I know that I am far from being that ideal father.

4: The people don't need to know what I think, they need to know the truth.  So many times people have been confused because clerics have come down like Moses from Mt Sinai with their own slant or opinion on the teachings of the Church.  It creates great confusion and invites division.  My opinion saves no one.  My opinion is not synonymous with Divine Revelation.  My opinion can dilute the Gospel.  I will be held responsible for that.  I am well aware of that.  In fact, it frightens me.  One of my pet peeves is being lied to because when I am lied to, I can not make reasonable or correct decisions; it is hard to build decisions on a lie.  If I dilute the Gospel, I present a deceit and force other people who may not know better to build decisions on those deceits.  The reason I read so much is because I want to be as sure as I can that I am presenting the truth and giving those entrusted to my care a solid foundation.  Sometimes the truth can be challenging and provoking. In fact, the vast majority of the time it is.  The truth always provokes us to a deeper and greater relationship with God and with one another.  The truth challenges our bad habits and favorite sins.  I cannot tell people a deceit in hopes of not hurting their feelings,  or not making them angry with me, or in hopes of not losing money in the collection.  It is hard and the temptation to take the easy road and say what people want to hear (or what I want to hear) it ever-present.

5:  I wouldn't give this up for anything.  Even in the incredibly dark days of 2002 when the sex scandals broke and priests that I not only knew, but admired as well, I had no intention of leaving.  There were days when I was weary.  There still are.  There are still days of great frustration, but isn't that true for everyone? However, those days are greatly outnumbered by the great days, the powerful days, and the truly spiritual days.  The schedule can be grueling.  Being constantly in an unwanted spotlight is aggravating at times. I still get nervous preaching and teaching.  I still feel somewhat inadequate in some of my pastoral duties.  I am okay with that in that I have only been doing this for 15 years.  I know that I am far from the perfect priest and perfect pastor; I still have much to learn and much to grow.  I am not a finished product.  That said, I can say I have tried my best most of the time.  I sincerely hope that as time passes that I will progress deeper and become a better pastor.  Despite every struggle that I have faced, am facing, and will face, I love the challenge that being a priest in this society.  I love that I have to keep my own weaknesses in check with God's grace.  I love that I have learned much and still have much to learn.  I love that there will be never a reason for me to grow cold or apathetic.  I am interested in what the next 15 years bring, what I will learn, how I will develop, and how I can better be what God has called and created me to be.    I am okay with the fact that I will never grow wealthy by earthly standards.  I am okay with the fact that this society will probably never respect me.  I am okay with knowing that if I am a good priest there will be much sacrifice that lays ahead.  I look forward to the future and I am happy in the present.  the best thing that I have learned is that God is ever generous with His grace and mercy with anyone who willing to at least try to rise to the challenge of the Gospel.  Here's to many more years of learning. growing, and deepening.