Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Priest and the Chalice of Sacrifice

As I have written previously, my childhood mentor and dear friend passed away a few weeks ago. This is a post I wrote two weeks ago, on the evening of his funeral Mass, and have waited to post until now in preparation for when this chalice will be used for Father’s Month’s Mind Mass that will be celebrated tomorrow.

A priest’s chalice is always one of his most treasured possessions. Often it is given to the new priest at his ordination by his parents or grandparents, and they are even often handed down from priest to priest. It is more than a cup. It is a chalice – a cup of sacrifice which at Mass holds the Blood of Christ which was shed for us. The chalice itself is a sign of the self-sacrificing ministry of the priest. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus Himself referred to his Passion and death as a chalice which He prayed would pass him by. Despite this prayer, Jesus accepted the will of the Father.

Father's chalice was given to him by his childhood priest. Many, many years ago I noticed there were two sets of inscriptions on the bottom: one very old and faded and one still old, but clearly newer. The newer one had Father’s name and the date of his ordination while the older inscription had the name of his childhood priest and the dates of that priest’s ordination. Sadly, I no longer recall his name or dates. Father was always very possessive of his chalice which was simple gold with the design of a crown of thorns around the cup. On the node and the base, there were scenes from the Passion. It was unlike any chalice I have ever seen but at the time I missed the profundity of it.

I asked Father why the chalice had a crown of thorns around the cup and he said it reminded him that every priest is called to sacrifice not only at Mass but in life. “Being a priest is not about doing what you want, it’s about doing what God wants even if it goes against what you want. You have to always be willing to sacrifice and a good priest will find joy in that sacrifice”. Father did sacrifice himself even at the expense of his own health. I watched him struggle for years with congestive heart failure and severe arthritis, and later with kidney disease, diabetes, and colitis but none of this ever stopped him from preaching and ministering.

Many years ago, he became seriously ill and his doctor was going to call an ambulance to transport him to the hospital from the doctor’s office, but he convinced the doctor that he was well enough to drive himself to the hospital. When an hour had passed and he hadn’t arrived at the hospital the doctor called the rectory to ask me if I knew what had happened. I was shocked when the doctor told me about the severity of Father’s condition not because I didn’t know he was very, very ill, but because he had called me from the car to tell me he was leaving the doctor’s office and was one the way to anoint a parishioner who was near death. The doctor was livid! By the time Father arrived at the hospital, his condition had deteriorated so dramatically that we were unsure if he would survive the night and within an hour he was beginning to lose consciousness. The doctors came and prepared us for the worst. However, he had one of his almost miraculous recoveries which we soon grew very accustomed to.

One day when I arrived when he was still very ill, he was very agitated almost to the point of tears. He told me that the Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion had brought Communion to the patients, but had skipped his room. It was now evening and he was still waiting for someone to come. I was also an EMHC at the same hospital so I went and checked the list. Sure enough he was on it and the EMHC had passed him by so I brought Communion to him. The complete joy and peace I saw come over him as I lead the prayers, that he was barely able to join in with, was beautiful and the moment when I gave him Communion is one I will always treasure. Just that once, I was able to bring Christ to the man who brought Christ to me and brought me to Christ. I will admit that was an odd event that felt as awkward as it was beautiful. In that moment he was a priest, but at the same time it was as though he wasn’t a priest. The battle between his humanity and his divine vocation became clear has his human frailty seemed to conquer his body, but his vocation and his love of God clearly possessed his soul which could never be conquered by anything else.

He did survive this illness and as he was recovering, he talked with the nurses about the faith and even went to hear confessions and administer the Anointing of the Sick to the other patients in the section of the hospital where he was. It was very moving and those he ministered to were profoundly touched. Before long, his room became so full of people because the families of the other patients would visit him as well that the doctors placed restrictions on who was allowed to visit. Father wasn’t able to get any rest because of all the people! Those restrictions frustrated him because he knew there were people who needed a priest, but at the same time he also knew this was a time when he truly needed to care for himself first. There were many days that I simply sat and read as he slept. Every so often he would awaken for a second to make sure that I was still there. He was very concerned that he would die alone.

For the last 7 years, his feet were so swollen that he had been unable to wear shoes and instead wore slippers everywhere. Just moving slightly would often cause him to cry out in pain, but he never stopped serving his flock even though his means of service changed as his heath faltered. After he retired he would celebrate Masses at many churches and would often go to the funerals of his former parishioners. Even as he was dying he wrote one last homily that was given out at his funeral. I have not read it yet, but I will as soon as I am ready. Until his final illness he wrote a regular column in a local weekly newspaper and gave daily radio reflections on one of our local radio stations.

He was always ready to be called home to God and made it clear that everyone should always be ready because we never knew when God will take us. He was blessed with the gift of having time to get extra ready. I am thankful that he had the opportunity to go to confession before he grew too weak and that he was able to receive the Anointing of the Sick and Viaticum. He also had the gift of having a priest present at his death as several of his closest priest friends were praying at his side in his last moments. This was very fitting for a priest who would make it a point to sit with the dying whenever he could and would go out of his way to ensure they received the sacraments.

When I saw the bishop using Father's chalice I couldn’t control the wave of tears that came over me. That chalice was so connected to him, and his priesthood, that seeing someone else using it was an overwhelming sign of his absence. In a few years that chalice will have a third inscription as a young man who Father inspired is ordained to the priesthood. I hope this young man accepts all this chalice represent both as the Eucharistic Cup of Sacrifice and as the symbolic cup of sacrifice which each priest must accept in his own life.

I have loved priests for a very long time, but I have never really known why. For some time I even considered joining an order of religious sisters whose charism is caring for priests as rectory housekeepers. Over the past week, I have come to realize that this love and desire to go out of my way for them is my response to Father’s example of sacrifice and the deep respect I have for all priests because of his example. Father's example also deepened my love and understanding of Christ and has allowed me to see Christ in every priest and to see that doing for a priest is truly doing for Christ.

The photo is of The Agony in the Garden window from the Church of the Assumption in Franklin, LA.

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