Tuesday, June 07, 2011

A Successful Priest

At some point in the life of every Catholic they should have a priest who changes the course of their life for the better, even if only for a short time. I was blessed to be one of the lucky ones. For the last 32 years I have known a true and faithful priest. He loved the priesthood and showed me first hand what  priest was. He was not only in persona Christi during the Sacraments, but throughout his entire life. I watched him empty himself for his flock nearly to the point of giving his own life. He answered the phone 24 hours a day and wouldn't hesitate to venture out at midnight in blizzards to anoint a dying person and stay for hours to comfort the family only to return to the church for 7 am Mass and a jampacked schedule for the day. That day, the short amount of down time he had was spent in the church at Eucharistic Adoration.

He wasn't afraid to preach about the immorality on television, to remind people about how to dress for Mass ("The Church is not a beach" will be engrained forever in my mind), he was constantly talking about the necessity of the Sacraments and the importance of the Mass, and the evils of abortion and cohabitation. These did not make him popular, but he didn't care.

He baptized me when I was 6 months old (He didn't want to because my parents weren't practicing Catholics, but his associate talked him into it), he also heard my first Confession, gave me my First Communion, was present at my Confirmation and at my wedding. I remember how he used to carry a pen in his shirt pocket and used to use it to tap me on the head when I was little. "Hey girl!" he would say. Years later it made me smile to see him tap my son on the head in the same way. I will admit that I was terrified of him as a young child (I think it was his enormous hands), but when I got to know him as a teenager I realized there was nothing to be scared of.

When I was 14 he was coerced (again by his associate) into letting me serve as a reader at Mass. This started me into a world I never thought would end with a career. I was always attracted to the Church. When I was 7 my friends started to attend CCD classes, but I had no idea what it was since we didn't go to church except for Easter and the Holy Ghost feast. I asked my parents to bring me and we went on a brief 6 month stint at the Episcopal Church. Even at 7 years old it wasn't enough for me. My grandmother had brought me to Mass every chance she got so I told my parents "I want to be Catholic". I ended up back at the church where I had been baptized with the priest who had baptized me and from the first day I was enthralled with the Mass. This attraction didn't die and I would go to daily Mass as often as I could with my grandmother.

The next year the associate was transferred at we had only one priest at the parish. He asked me to help him with many things and I would walk to the church every day after school to help him with whatever needed to be done. I washed dishes, answered phones, typed bulletins, trained altar servers, arranged flowers and more all under his supervision. In exchange for my work, he was the best mentor I could have ever wanted. We talked about so many things and there wasn't anything I wasn't comfortable talking with him about. His advice was always solid and he never once steered me wrong.

He was an extension of my own family. Our relationship was so much like father/daughter that when my now husband proposed, he asked Father for his blessing and permission. I knew I couldn't marry anyone he didn't approve of and I knew that if he was ok with it, I would be making the right choice. I'll never forget them going off into another room so Father could interrogate him on his commitment and understanding of marriage. They returned 30 minutes later and it was declared acceptable. As much as he loved seeing happy committed married couples, he loved promoting the priesthood even more. I loved to see him with my son. He loved to show him all the vestments and let him ring the carrilon. (I'm sure the neighbors loved that one) His last words to my son were "You would make a fine priest. Make sure you don't forget that".

He would often berate priests who worked "office hours" or were less than willing to give 100% of themselves. "The priesthood is not a job and the Church is not a business. Jesus gave it all and we are supposed to follow in his footsteps". Many times he would sacrifice himself to care for his people. One frigid rainy night he was very sick with the flu, when a house down the street from the church caught on fire. He didn't think twice to head out into the cold to pray with the families who had lost everything. The next day he was dreadfully ill, but continued on writing his homily for the upcoming weekend when he literally passed out at his desk. When he was rushed to the hospital we discovered that he was in heart failure and had double pneumonia. The nurse chastized him for not coming to the hospital and for standing out in the pouring rain, but all he said was "They lost everything, but they still had their faith. They needed a priest".

When he was transferred to another parish it was very heartbreaking for him, but once again I saw his dedication. In the midst of his grief when many people were telling him to say no to the bishop he said, "The bishop says he needs me there so I go. I promised obedience and it doesn't matter what I want".

One of the most extraordinary events was when a woman entered the church and asked for him. I brought her to him and she said that she was a parishioner at his brother's church (One of his older brothers was also a priest) and he visited her and anointed her when she was dying of cancer. She said that after the anointing her that her tumor shrank and she was cancer-free. She tried to give him credit for her healing saying that he has special powers, but all he said was "I didn't do anything. God makes miracles. Thank God, not me".

 I saw scenarios like these occur again and again, but I'm not saying that he was perfect. He was human and had his faults and we had our arguments. I am also not saying that he never took time for himself. He loved to watch soccer and to plant flowers and vegetables in his little backyard garden and look after his two pet doves. He loved good food and would often try to get away with eating dessert for dinner. One of my fondest memories was seeing him fast asleep on the recliner after a long night out with the sick and dying.

Even after he retired he continued to help at several parishes. I also watched him bounce back from the brink of death so many times that he almost seemed immortal, but over the past two years it became obvious that the end was coming. His health was failing and he could no longer live on his own. He was in constant pain and had extreme difficulty walking. The last time I saw him was at the Chrism Mass. It is how I would like to remember him: at Mass renewing his commitment to God and His Church.

He suffered a devastating fall a few weeks later and after weeks of suffering, Jesus called him home last Friday. He was 80 years old and would have celebrated his 53 anniversary in almost two weeks. His death has made me think about all that he taught me and all the people he introduced me to. He made my interest in the Mass grow, he was my first liturgy teacher, he put me in touch with all the people who could help me to turn it into a full time ministry, and he gave me my first parish job. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be who I am today and I surely wouldn't be a theologian or a liturgist today. I don't even know if I would be Catholic. I am pretty sure that if it wasn't for him, I would have been swallowed up by the ugliness and immorality of the world. He showed me Christ in the Sacraments, Christ in the priest, and how to follow and love Christ.

A Ti Meu Deus
Translation by: Domini Sumus

To you, my God
I lift my heart
I lift my hands
My eyes, my voice

To you my God I want to offer you
My steps and my life
My paths, my suffering

You embrace me in your kindness
And in your infinite goodness I find forgiveness
I will be your follower and give you my heart
I want to feel the warmth of your hands

To you, my God
Who are good and full of love
for the poor and the suffering
We serve you in expectant hope.

In You Lord
Humble will rejoice
Singing our song
Of hope and peace

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