Almost thirty three years ago I was laying down on that carpet, on the same spot where they receive Holy Communion at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Worcester and the cantor led the gathered Congregation in the Litany of Saints. At twenty-seven I had no idea what God held in store for me, But I did know that the carpet was itchy against my nose, and I remember thinking that with all the anxiety coursing through my veins that I was feeling a bit dizzy. Which is when it occurred to me that at least if I fainted while laying on the floor, I wouldn’t have far to fall.
But I didn’t faint. Rather, I stood up and knelt before Bishop Flanagan and felt his hands upon my head and heard him pray to God on my behalf. The prayer he prayed, has been used by Bishops to make Priests for over a thousand years. It asks God, “the author of human dignity” to draw near, recalling how when Moses and Aaron found it hard to govern the Israelites, God “chose men next in rank and dignity to accompany them and assist them in their task.”
You, Lord, provided the Apostles with “companions to proclaim and carry out the work of salvation throughout the whole world.’ So now, the Bishop continued, “in our weakness...grant us these helpers that we need to exercise the priesthood that comes from the Apostles.”
“Grant to these servants of yours the dignity of the priesthood. Renew within them the Spirit of holiness...May they be worthy coworkers with our Order, so that by their preaching and through the grace of the Holy Spirit, the words of the Gospel may bear fruit in human hearts and reach even to the ends of the earth.”
“Together with us, may they be faithful stewards of your mysteries, so that your people may be renewed in the waters of rebirth and nourished from your altar; so that sinners may be reconciled and the sick raised up.”
“May they be joined with us, Lord, in imploring your mercy for the people entrusted to their care and for all the world.”
So that’s my job description, as it were, first prayed over this head when it was fully covered with hair, on the first day of an adventure I could not then begin to imagine. Since then I have been the happiest of men, an unworthy instrument of God’s grace in the lives of those whom I have been called to shepherd from birth to death.
The life of a Priest is pure grace, seldom easy, but always exquisitely beautiful. I wish I could tell you what it feels like to hear a penitent weep when welcomed home after 35 years of being lost. I wish you could know what it’s like to give viaticum, anoint in faith, and commit a soul to God as she breathes her last breath.
To be and be called “Father,” to so many, to be called to preach the Gospel with conviction and joy, to be invited to bring Christ’s healing presence and truth to the most intimate pains of the human heart.
And most of all, to join the sacrifices of your lives to the one perfect Sacrifice of Christ offered upon this altar, and to receive the power through Christ to transform mere bread and wine into his own Body and Blood. To stand behind that altar before which I was ordained, and to offer the sacrifice which is the source and the summit of each and all of our lives.
In almost thirty years, I have never doubted, even for a moment, that God chose me to be a Priest. Oh there have been good days and not so good days, trials and temptations, fears and exhaustions. But all that goes with being a human, and it is in my humanity, and with my weaknesses, and even with my sinfulness that God has chosen me to be your Priest and to make me strong in Christ.
How did it all start? For me it started with the example of my mother and father, when first I learned to make the sign of the cross, when they, like John the Baptist, would point to the host young Father Reugher was holding aloft at the old Our Lady of Lourdes Church and say, “look! There is the Lamb of God!”
It started when priests like Father Kelly and Father White and Father Lange would ask, “Have you ever thought of being a Priest?”
It started when God began to call my name, just as he called Samuel. And, like Samuel, it took me a long time to answer. But that never stopped God from calling.
It started with prayer. I can remember when I would walk home from Millbury Memorial High School, I’d stop almost every day in Saint Brigid’s Church and just sit there and stare at the little red light over the tabernacle. And no matter what pains or confusions or adolescent angst was coursing through my veins that particular day, that light told me that Jesus was still there, and still calling my name, and still waiting for me to answer him.
So, eventually, and slowly and with stops and starts and plenty of detours, I sought him out, and heard his words: “Follow me...come see where I live.”
Follow me to green pastures and still waters where prayer will refresh your weary soul.
Follow me to the cross and join all your sufferings to my sacrifice upon the cross.
Follow me in loving others as I have loved you, without counting the cost and unto death.
Follow me, and me alone, renouncing the world and all that might keep you from me.
Follow me, feed my lambs and tend my sheep.
And, you know, it’s funny. For just as he called me, I know he is calling some young man who hears my voice right now. You’ve suspected it for a long time and it’s probably confused you. He is calling you to a vocation not unlike the vocation to marriage and parenthood or the religious life, or even to a lifelong dedication to sanctity.
But with you, it’s different. For when it gets real quiet you can hear his voice calling you to be a Priest. Like Samuel and like me, you’ll probably find all kinds of excuses to avoid him. But he will keep calling you until you listen.
Open your heart, my dear younger brother, and you will never regret it. I pray for you, even before I know your name. For God knows your name and waits for you to follow him, until that day when you too will lay on that carpet and realize that your nose is itchy, and kneel before that altar and begin the most unbelievable adventure of your life.