Today is Good Shepherd Sunday - the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.
It is perhaps a difficult time for vocations to the priesthood. We know that the numbers of those going forward for the priesthood are much smaller than they ever used to be. We know that the average age of priests is increasing, in some places alarmingly so. We are often told that the great woes of the Church are the fault of the clergy, of clericalism, of celibacy, of the secrecy and privilege which surrounds the priestly life. It was hardly surprising to read the other day of one American Bishop asking ‚”Why would anyone want to be a priest at present”? It might have been intended to be a rhetorical question ... though I can’t be sure.
Why would anyone want to be a priest?
Why do I want to be a priest?
[Now admittedly I am not your run of the mill priest: I am married and have not only a wife but children and grand-children. Some say this makes a priest more sympathetic or knowledgeable of people’s lives. I’m not so sure. I think celibacy has great benefits to the Church, and is an indication of the sacrifice of himself that every priest must make. If being a family man gives a certain insight - which is arguable - then celibacy gives a certain freedom, and that is certain. I would never argue against the norm of a celibate priesthood.
But actually the focus of the priestly life is elsewhere. And the joys are found everywhere. ]
So why am I priest?
Because this gives me the greatest privilege any person can ever have: to share something of people’s lives, and in doing so bringing the grace of God to them.
Every week I sit and talk with those who are bereaved and distressed. Every week I discuss the struggles of prayer and daily living with those who come to confession. Every week I am asked for advice by those in difficulty. Every week I am challenged to justify what I believe in. Every week I have the joy of sharing what I hold to be true and I try explain it. Every week I visit homes, schools, hospitals and sometimes prisons and meet the young and the old, the working and the retired, the healthy and the sick, the good and the not so good. I frequently share with a family the joy of the gift of their child, by celebrating baptism with them. And I am part of the preparations of a family as they approach the joy and excitement of their wedding. I am called out to anoint the dying and pray with them, to console their relatives, to bring some little comfort in a difficult time. I chat with young children, talk to teenagers and converse with adults. On occasion I meet the homeless, the desperate, recovering alcoholics, parents separated from their children. I sit on committees and boards and governing bodies and have the responsibility and privilege of sharing in decisions which affect people’s lives.
And most of all, I celebrate, with joy, the sacraments and especially the mass, the supreme sacrifice in which bread and wine become His body and blood, in which grace touches our lives, in which heaven touches earth.
And this is the point - the real point. Because I know there are many things I’m not so good at. I talk a bit too quick and I’m always a bit too busy. I’m late starting mass and sometimes forget appointments. It is often difficult to know what to say to those in distress, and to know how to help those in trouble. I make decisions which sometimes work out, but sometimes don’t? Sometimes people are upset, or hurt, or overlooked. I forget people’s names ... I’m sure you could add to the this.
But here is the amazing thing. When I have struggled with my words or an answer, or discussed for a long time a difficult problem someone says to me, “Thank you so much Father, I feel so much better” or “your words are really helpful” or even “I enjoyed your homily” or the words I wrote for the Sentinel or said on the radio some other extra-ordinary and unexpected words of compliment.
And I know I don’t deserve them. This is not me who has done this. I know that. This is God working within me. This is heaven touching earth. This is the operation of grace. The grace of holy orders.
This is why I am a priest.