By the time this article is released I will have celebrated my first anniversary of priestly ordination. The gift of the priesthood and my consecrated life are sources of great joy to me and I hope to others. During this year many extraordinary things have occurred to help me appreciate the simple moments with my Carmelite brothers and sisters, parishioners, and fellow clergy, but I have learned one important thing from my community: namely, that events in one’s life need to be celebrated. It is in this light that I feel called to offer a reflection about my first year as a priest. My thoughts below are not exhaustive but are merely a few things the Lord has blessed me with during this year.
Silence: A place of intimacy
Silence is necessary for all Christians, but for the priest it is a foundation stone of his spiritual life. Why? It is in silence that the priest learns intimacy. The human person needs intimacy for the sake of life, because we were created to be social beings. Priests renounce certain possibilities for intimacy, such as the married life, yet the need for intimacy is still present. How is silence the answer, then? It is in silence that a person learns to become present to another.
This presence is not about doing for another person in silence but about being with that person. The Lord calls His priests to become aware of His presence through silence, so their hearts will learn to rest in Him. Ministry is a noisy thing. Imagine the clatter that occurred in the kitchen for Martha when Jesus went to dine with her and her siblings. The noise of ministry is necessary because it allows us to discern the cry of the poor from the roar of the world, so we as priests can act accordingly.
Yet, God often whispers to make himself known, and we need silence, like Elijah on Mount Horeb, to hear the voice of the Lord. Perhaps you are thinking, “Well it was noisy on the mountain for Elijah,” and my response would be: Yes it was, but silence is not a mere absence of sound; it is a disposition of the heart. Yes, the body needs periods of low sound or natural sound. However, this disposition of silence is about a focus on the One who gives life. As St. John of the Cross wrote, “The very pure spirit … communes inwardly with God, alone and in solitude as to all forms, and with delightful tranquility, for the knowledge of God is received in divine silence” (The Sayings of Light and Love, 28). Thus, as a new priest, I found in the inner room of my heart the need for silence so my heart can be open to divine intimacy with God, in whom I live and move and have my being (cf. Acts 17:28).
Prayer: Becoming vulnerable
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen wrote, “A priest is not his own.” This phrase does not merely give reference to the ministerial life of a priest but to the joys and sorrows of his whole life. A priest is a public person and thus needs to be aware that a certain vulnerability is necessary for the life of the people to shape him and to help him grow as the man of God our Lord called him to be.
One of my favorite thoughts on prayer comes from the letters of St. Teresa of the Andes: “A prayer in which a person is not aware to Whom he is speaking, what he is asking, who it is who is asking and of Whom, I don’t call prayer… no matter how much the lips may move.” Prayer is an exercise in vulnerability. The very act of prayer is to turn one’s heart away from the self to Another and through this action to become aware that we are not utterly self-sufficient.
Priests, through the sacrament of Holy Orders, are entrusted with the ability to act in persona Christi. Christ, from the moment of the Incarnation, chose to make Himself vulnerable to humanity even to the extreme of allowing that same humanity to nail Him to the Cross. As priests, we must be like our Lord. Stoicism can be a dangerous path for a priest: his face becomes hardened when walls have begun to surround his heart.
Becoming vulnerable to our people is not an easy thing. I understand this, and I am aware that the journey of vulnerability is different for each priest, but it is a necessary journey nonetheless. Christ was willing to weep before His Apostles, so we must not be afraid of our tears. I know I find myself becoming more teary-eyed at Mass when I look at the people I love and know that there have been priests who would harm them. Some have noticed and a few have asked about these tears. I learned to simply tell them I am sad and, where appropriate, to tell them why I am sad. Becoming more vulnerable makes it possible for a priest to become more integrated in relationship to all aspects of themselves, so we can continue to grow in Christian maturity.
Community: The saintly school of humility
Becoming a saint is not a private process. St. John of the Cross wrote to the new members of his community that “… those in the monastery are craftsmen placed there by God to mortify you by working and chiseling at you” (Spiritual Counsels, 3).The people in our lives, via a parish or religious house, are there because God wants them there. Those people are His hands by which we are made into saints, just as we are His hands for them.
This process of sainthood is not easy, and it is impossible without humility. We do not own our ministries; instead, we are transformed by and through them. The people of God in any area existed before any given priest arrived, and by the grace of God will outlast any particular priest who serves them. Being a priest is an important thing but not that important. Our ministries must not revolve around us but around Jesus if they are to be fruitful.
Being shaped by one’s community, in humility, makes it possible for a priest to live out the fourth line of the Our Father, “Thy will be done.” I am lucky if I know 75% of the ministerial work that goes on in the parish I serve. This thought at first frightened and scared me, but then I got to know the people doing the work. Through getting to know my fellow ministers at the parish, through listening to them (which is a humble act in itself), I learned that this parish is not about me. This parish is about us, the body of Christ, serving in a broken world that yearns for the merciful touch of Jesus.
Mary: The need to ponder
I believe with St. Thérèse of Lisieux that Mary has always been more of a Mother to me than a Queen. St. Teresa of the Andes wrote in her diary: “The sick man finds in your maternal heart the water of salvation that allows your enchanting smile to blossom forth and makes him smile with love and happiness.” During my year as a priest, Mary was the teacher who taught me the necessity of meditation. Pondering allows a person not merely to rest in the mystery of God but to journey into that mystery. This work of pondering is not only an intellectual activity. As important as the intellect may be, pondering as Mary is a work of the heart.
Mary’s heart was inflamed by her bride the Spirit, and she allowed the work of the Spirit to be done in her through the act of faith, shown through her profound “Yes” to God. Yet, the wisdom of the Spirit is inexhaustible, while remaining intimate, and it is in that space that Mary finds her place to meditate on and about the God who loves her. The place in which Mary ponders is not one of isolation, but of family, and that is why she reaches out to us as our Mother.
The Book of Wisdom reminds us: “I also am mortal, like all men, a descendant of the first -formed child of earth; and in the womb of a mother I was molded into flesh …” (Wisdom 7:1). Just as Jesus was formed in His Mother’s womb and in her home, so we too are invited into her place of pondering so we can be molded by her in the Spirit. As priest, when we rest in this place with Mary, we become aware that we do not have it all together nor do we have all the answers, but we learn and experience the great nourishment that comes from the fruits of the Spirit that are to be found in that place with Mary.
It is not an easy time for the priesthood, but I doubt that there was ever an easy time to be a priest. The darkness of the abuse crisis within the United States will be felt for generations to come, and the burden of its guilt will be on the backs of priests. This burden given to us by the wickedness and evil of our brothers is part of the wood that makes up the cross we have been entrusted with as priests. However, we need to remember that this cross is not our own and Jesus seeks to carry it with us. This is what it means to live out Colossians 1:24, “I complete what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body the Church.” The four things I mentioned above helped me to realize that this cross I now partake of is not a work of self-invoked heroic virtue – the fruit of pride – but an opportunity for love. It is love that Christ showed us as the Good Shepherd and now invites His priests to participate in, so His Shepherd’s Heart may be known by all those who feel lost in the world.
“Here in the tiny Host I find the fruit of love.”
~ St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face.