Today I would like to share with you something more personal than I usually do. I would like to tell you why I am a priest. Not how I became a priest, but why I am a priest. I suppose it’s something you probably don’t think of very often, but people often ask me why I became a priest.
First of all I believe that God called me to be a priest. There was a real sense of God calling me in this way and it was a persistent call. Although it was something both exciting and wonderful, it was also something scary and painful. I knew it would mean that I would not get married, which was a natural attraction for me. But what I always say to people is that the calling to be a priest was stronger than the calling to be married, even though both were there.
The year I entered the seminary was the year when all the scandals began to break in Ireland. It started with my own bishop having had a child and it got steadily worse with all the sexual abuse scandals. This made all of us in the seminary think a lot about why we were there. Morale hit rock bottom, but perhaps that also made us choose to follow because we really felt we were being called to follow and serve God as priests. After I was ordained the scandals continued and the atmosphere in our society was very difficult. I know it was the same here in the US. Because of the way the media presented it, almost every priest was considered a pedophile, which was very difficult, as you can imagine. Why would I want to be part of an organization that tried to cover up such horrific scandals? The reason is simple: I believe.
I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord; that Jesus is the Son of God. I believe that Jesus is present in the Eucharist, not in a symbolic way, but really and truly present. The bread and wine really and truly become the Body and Blood of Jesus. Since I believe that is true, there could be no more extraordinary miracle to be part of as a priest. I always consider it the greatest privilege that I have as a human being and as a priest, that through my human hands, the Holy Spirit comes down and changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, when I pray the words of consecration. How humble is God that He will obey the words of a human being. It is always a privilege to be allowed go to the altar and celebrate the mass, even when I’m half asleep on a Monday morning, or when I humanly don’t feel like doing it. Sometimes it scares me when God reminds me that I am a sinner and struggle like everyone else and yet He allows me to do this for you his people, because He wants us to be able to receive him in Holy Communion. For all of us that is an incredible gift. I do not understand it, but I believe it, because it was Jesus himself who taught us this.
Being able to hear confession is also a great privilege. To be God’s instrument to bring his forgiveness and mercy to people is something wondrous. That people will come to me as God’s instrument, is both humbling and wonderful. What I see when people come to confession, is not the sins they confess, but people coming before God for his mercy and that is a very beautiful thing to see.
As a priest I am often called to people when they are sick and dying, right to their bedside. And even though I do not know them, they will tell me things that they will not even tell their own families. Spiritually, I am preparing them for their journey into the next world. I am often asked to anoint someone when they are about to turn off a life support machine, because the person is brain dead. I am asked to be there when families are going through great joys and great sorrows. Also, extraordinary things happen on a regular basis, where I am led to people who need me that I didn't know were there. For example, a couple of years ago I was going to see a patient in Lee Memorial hospital. In the elevator a young lady asked me if I was a priest. I told her I was. She asked me how would she be able to arrange for a priest to come to her husband who had fallen and broken his back? I offered to go with her right then and there. We went to the room where he was unconscious. She shyly said to me that they were Catholics but that they were not married in the Church. I told her this wasn't the time to be worrying about those things. So I anointed him and then she asked if I could bless her and her children, which I did. She was in tears, so grateful that God had sent a priest to her at this difficult time. That kind of thing happens to me all the time.
Is it difficult? Yes. I have struggled with it every day since I was ordained 21 year ago. Twice I almost left. In fact one time I thought it was all over and I had even told people that I was leaving, not because I wanted to, but because I thought that I couldn’t handle the stress of it anymore; the daily hostility I was experiencing and the sense of isolation I felt in some of the places I was working. Yet each time the Lord called me back and showed me that He would take care of it and He did.
In his first letter to the Christians in Corinth (1 Cor 1:27) St Paul writes this:
God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise,
and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong,
and God chose the lowly and despised of the world,
those who count for nothing,
to reduce to nothing those who are something,
so that no human being might boast before God.
In a mysterious way God seems to delight in calling and working through the nobodies of this world, so that it is all the more obvious that it is his power at work. This is something He continually shows me. My faith keeps changing and growing and the path is often difficult, but I believe it is the most important path we will ever be asked to follow and so I will continue. Every day I pray for the grace to persevere and be faithful. I suppose it’s something that all of us would do well to pray for. Am I happy as a priest? I don’t know if happy is the word I would use, but I feel very blessed to be a priest and I wouldn’t want not to be able to do this, for anything. Like everything, there are times of great happiness and times of sorry. I am extremely grateful that God has given me the change to do this with my life.
I would like to finish with this quotation where St. Paul is talking about his own life.
I believe nothing can happen that will outweigh the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For him I have accepted the loss of everything and I look on everything as so much rubbish, if only I can have Christ and be given a place in him. (Philippians 3:7-8)