When I picked up this book of stories and testimonies from priests, I simply intended to skim it and make a list of people who might profit by reading it. (Is it ever too early to start on my Christmas list?) Our parish priests, of course, and some other priest friends. Perhaps our only unmarried son. Hmm . . . any other promising young men?
I had a similar reaction when Pope Benedict XVI announced his Year for Priests. Good, I thought—the clergy could certainly benefit from renewal, and wouldn’t it be great if (other) lay people set aside time to pray more fervently for vocations? In other words, a fine idea, but not very relevant to me.
But a few pages into A Priest’s Life: The Calling, the Cost, the Joy, I began to wake up and pay attention. Maybe, just maybe, God had something to say to me. After all, every Christian has a vocation, not just priests and religious. As Fr. Alfredo I. Hernandez, VF, says in his story, "A life of commitment is not a burden to carry but rather the only way we can be truly free to love as God wants us to love. This is as true for the married person as for the priest."
Works in Progress. A Priest’s Life offers personal stories by twenty-nine very different individuals who have served God in diverse ways and places, from Togo to Ground Zero. Some of these men were aware of God’s call from childhood. Fr. Andrew Apostoli, CFR, was a six-year-old altar boy when he looked up and realized, "I want to do what the priest is doing." He’s been doing it for forty-two years.
To others, the call came as a surprise later in life. Fr. Peter Smith, a native of South Africa, had his life as a business attorney all mapped out. He had made a commitment to celibacy, but not until he was nearly forty did the possibility of becoming a priest (in Portland, Oregon) open up to him. Still others, like Fr. Mark Ross, alternately embraced and rejected the call several times before the "Hound of Heaven" finally caught up with them.
But no vocation is sealed and completed in a single sacrament, be it ordination or matrimony. Rather, as Fr. Cedric Pisegna, CP, puts it, "I am becoming a priest every day." Making his reflection my own, I substitute: wife . . . writer . . . Catholic. . . . And I ponder: "How might that ‘becoming’ look in my life?"
Mutual Support. The stories in A Priest’s Life bring home the point that clergy and laity are called to support one another in our vocations. Some priests recount painful struggles but also joyful discoveries precipitated by the people to whom they minister.
When Msgr. Scott Friend, from the Diocese of Little Rock, visited a village in Mexico, he was taken aback by the local custom of kissing a priest’s hands. But then he heard God tell him: "These people are here to remind you that you are my priest now. It is my priesthood you carry, and it is my priesthood they are reverencing." The same day, strengthened in faith, he extended those consecrated hands to pray over a sick man—and the man was healed!
Fr. John Adams shares about the "slow miracles" that have unfolded in his outreach to the poor in Washington, DC, "restoring hope and dignity to our homeless brothers and sisters." Some have not only turned their own lives around but have even returned to share in the ministry. "Their faith, their struggles, and their courage are truly inspiring," he says, and they sustain him.
"Priests need support and encouragement from God’s people," writes biblical scholar Fr. Daniel J. Harrington, SJ. He remembers a woman who attended his workshop on the Book of Revelation and told him afterwards: "I hope you realize that you are doing exactly what you should be doing." He did know it, and yet, he says, "I was greatly encouraged by this woman’s words and have treasured them ever since."
How seldom I speak encouraging words to the priests in my life, or even remember to pray for them!
Prayer Is Everything. In A Priest’s Life, I heard a renewed call to make prayer central in my life. Fr. James Hudgins, a busy high school chaplain who spends an hour and a half before the Blessed Sacrament at the beginning of every day, admits how stagnant and frustrated he felt before he adopted this practice. "Prayer is more than the execution of a task but rather the union of Christ with the soul," he writes.
Reading about how these priests love the Eucharist, Scripture, and the confessional gave me a new desire to enter into those rich resources of the church more frequently, more mindfully, and more expectantly. I was also refreshed to learn about some unusual ways to pray.
Seventy-seven-year-old Fr. Frank Moan, SJ, offers some inspiring and creative reflections on "horizontal" prayer—"when I’m on my back in bed." Prison chaplain Fr. Paul Breau advises inmates to "hold the cross in their hands and thank Christ for what he has given them that day and for all the love he gave them by dying on the cross."
God’s love—more fundamental than the particular work these priests do—is what shines through them and through the stories of A Priest’s Life. This is not a calling for priests alone. More basic than the work God calls each of us to do is that we love him in the doing, even when our only "work" is suffering.
Lord, I hear you calling me onward! And now I need another piece of paper to expand my list of priests—and lay people—who will find these stories touching and revitalizing.
Jill A. Boughton lives in South Bend, Indiana.Click here to purchase "A Priest's Life."