This time of year, most of the priests of the Diocese of Arlington celebrate the anniversary of their ordinations to the priesthood. As I mentioned at Mass last Sunday, there was no happier day of my life than my ordination day, as I know most priests will tell you. What a phenomenal gift the Lord gives to priests. And yet it is a gift not really meant for us personally, since the whole purpose of the priesthood is to serve God’s Church and all of His people. But that just makes the gift the priest receives that much more wonderful.
As you know, I entered seminary when I was 31 and had spent about 11 years building a life as a lay man living in the world. I had a relatively successful career going, I owned my own business and my own home, and I had my share of friends. Life was pretty good. Which is why I had a particularly hard time understanding why God seemed to be calling me to the priesthood—for the longest time I kept asking myself: why would he give me so many good things if he wanted me to give them up to be a priest.? Eventually, that question sort of answered itself: what good is a sacrifice if it’s not the sacrifice of a good thing, or even the best thing? And why would God call me to the priesthood as a form of escape from unhappiness? So, 20 years ago this August, with not a little fear and a lot of encouragement and prayers from friends and family, I packed up and left my home in San Antonio and drove to Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland to prepare to become a priest for the Diocese of Arlington.
It has been a long, hard road since then, in seminary and in parish life as a priest, filled with many heartaches and frustrations. I’ve had more people than I can count tell me that I’m the worst priest they’ve ever known, a hateful and cruel person, or a miserable excuse for a man. But it’s also been the most wonderful of adventures, filled with joys, exhilarations and spiritual rewards beyond anything I could have ever imagined or hoped for: so many people telling me I changed their lives, lifted their spirits out of the darkness of sin and despair, even healed their illnesses, and saved their souls, not to mention strangers telling me that I’m the greatest priest in the world, and that they love me. It’s an incredible gift, this priesthood. But, of course, all this has very little, if anything, to do with me, really. It is Christ who has done any good that has been done through me. I know I am a man of many flaws and sins. Yet, what a wonder and sacred privilege to be allowed to be an instrument of His ineffable grace.
And this is only scratching the surface. By far, the most profound and inexplicably glorious aspects of the gift are those received in being so intimately close to Christ sacramentally, especially in the Eucharist and Penance.
I write this to you today not because I feel the need to draw your sympathy or praise, or relish the opportunity to bare my soul by revealing such private thoughts. By now, you probably have come to understand that I am an introvert, and a very private person. I do not relish sharing this part of my soul.
But sometimes it is clearly necessary to give witness to the generosity of Jesus Christ, even it if means doing what you don’t wish to do. Especially in these days when so many young men are called to the priesthood, offered this incredible gift by Jesus Christ Himself, and don’t ever even bother to consider the offer seriously. They should. They must.
Because, again, the gift, the vocation, is not so much about them, as it is about the rest of God’s children. Who will feed His sheep and tend His lambs, if not them? Who will forgive sins, change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, if not them? How will anyone understand God’s word if no one will explain it to them? How will they receive the fullness of the gifts of the Holy Spirit if there is no one to lay hands on them?
How will any of this happen if there are no priests? If those who are called will not answer because it seems too hard, too boring, or too foreign to their understanding of life, or their ambitions in life?
It is a hard life, but not so hard that with His grace it can’t be lived and relished. And see the rewards it brings like no other life—it is never, ever “unrewarding” or “boring.” And it is indeed foreign to what most people think of as an “ordinary life,” but who wants ordinary when you can have extraordinary? And it may be contrary to your ambitions, but why set your ambitious sights so low, when Christ calls you to share in the exalted kingly office of the Son of God, by becoming a servant of the servants of God?
My brothers and sisters, my children: pray for your priests as they remember their ordinations this month and next. But more importantly, pray that young men will have the courage, the boldness, the faith, to accept the call of the Lord Jesus, and join the priests you know in this great adventure, this great vocation of the Holy Priesthood. Especially if one of those young men is your friend, your brother or your son—or you yourself.
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles