Ordination Anniversary. This coming Tuesday, May 18, I celebrate the 25th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. It was, and remains, the happiest day of my life. 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 as a certified public account, I owned my own practice and my own home; I had a lot of good friends and I was active in my parish. 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, 30 years ago this August, with not a little fear, but with 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. Seriously.
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, brought them closer to God, 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. Over these last 11 years here at St. Raymond’s, 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 challenging life, but not so much so 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 beloved sons and daughters: pray for your priests as they remember their ordinations this month and next—pray especially for me and my 13 classmates ordained on May 18, 1996. But also 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.
“The Priest,” a Poem. Consider the poem written by the great Dominican priest, Fr. Jean-Baptiste Henri Lacordaire, OP:
To live in the midst of the world without wishing its
To be a member of each family, yet belonging to none;
To share all suffering; To penetrate all secrets;
To heal all wounds;
To go from men to God and offer Him their prayers;
To return from God to men to bring pardon and hope;
To have a heart of fire for Charity, and a heart of bronze for Chastity; To teach and to pardon, console and bless always.
My God, what a life; and it is yours, O priest of Jesus Christ.
Praised by Jesus Christ! Now and forever!
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles