During a Lent several years ago, I was at the home of some friends of mine and one of their daughters--who was eight years old--had given up candy for Lent. Earlier in the day, she had attended a birthday party and the hosts had given each child a large bag containing a treasury of different candies. When I arrived at the home, agony was written all over the child's face. She desperately wanted just one piece of that candy.
After dinner, I looked over from where I was sitting and could see the young girl in the living room. She was kneeling in front of a chair, holding a package of "Smarties" in her hand. As tears quietly dropped from her face, she slowly twisted open the ends of the package, and just as slowly sealed them back up. I remembered thinking at the time that it looked like that picture you always see of Jesus during the Agony in the Garden. To my amazement, the little girl held strong. I think I would have caved. I don't mean I would have caved when I was eight years old. I mean that I think I would have caved now. What can I say? I'm weak.
The example of the eight year old girl has remained with me for close to a decade. Witnessing others strive for holiness is, for me, a vital part of living the Christian life. I need witnesses in my life. I need to be surrounded by people who strive for holiness. I don't need them to be perfect or to be free from weakness. I just need to have around me people who are engaged in the battle; people who are growing in virtue.
As a man, a Christian, and a priest, I am continuously grateful that I am able to spend my life witnessing others live the life of discipleship. This witness spurs me on toward victory. It is for me a joy to spend my life close to the people. It is in this closeness that the presence of Christ makes itself visible to us. For me, while being close to the people is a "ministerial approach," it is much more than that. Being close to the people is a human, Christian, and priestly necessity. Pope Francis remarked some months ago about the shepherd needing to take on the smell of the sheep. The other side of that is that when the shepherd lives closely to the sheep, the sheep come to know the shepherd. It is important for the shepherd to be close to the sheep so that he knows them. It is equally important that the shepherd be known by the sheep. I think we priests make a significant mistake in pastoral judgment when we live remotely from the people. It is good for the people to know that we too are in need of conversion, that we too are seeking to grow in virtue and in holiness, and that we too need the communion of the Church. It is of mutual benefit for priests and people to live their humanity with each other.
Today, we are standing at the threshold of another Lent. I'm grateful that I will be living this joyful season in closeness to the young witnesses at the Boston University Catholic Center. They are young people who are daily striving to become more prayerful, more pure, more charitable, more faithful, more generous, more virtuous etc. They hunger to be closer to Jesus and to become more like Him. Their striving towards holiness and virtue is edifying, challenging, and encouraging to me. They live their Christian witness with a beautiful humility, seeking from God the grace to overcome faults and to persevere along the path.
Like the eight year old and her candy, these young college students are a witness to their shepherd. When the shepherd smells like the sheep, it is good for the sheep. But it is also good for the shepherd. One of the reasons that I am looking forward to Lent this year is because I know that I will be spending it close to some pretty awesome (albeit, smelly) sheep. I hope that these close quarters not only produce a deeper communion in our smelliness, but that we all emerge from Lent looking more like the Good Shepherd. We are in this together and I'm looking forward to that.