Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Priesthood and the Joy of Friendship with the Laity

Our BU Catholic Center Men's Day Hike in Maine
Tonight I was having dinner with a few brothers in our presbyterate and I checked my phone to see what time it was.  There on the screen was a text message from a young husband and father who was a high school kid in my first assignment as a priest.  Over the years, we've stayed in touch and have enjoyed a friendship that is one of those beautiful gifts of priestly life.  I married him and his wife, baptized his son, exchange occasional emails with his parents, and talk occasionally with him on the phone.  

The text, just a sentence or two long, made me feel the beauty of what it is to be a priest.  I turned to one of the priests with me and said, "Read this."  In my life as a priest, God has surrounded me with extraordinary people.  It really moves me.  And, I realize that I need to be surrounded by extraordinary people.  This kid, for instance, was not even finished with high school when I left his parish.  Somehow, we've kept in touch. We talk about spiritual things and we talk about regular life.  We don't speak often, but we are friends in the Lord.  In this friendship, I experience the friendship of Christ. For me, it is kind of a beautiful thing.  As much as my priestly friendship has been a blessing to him, so his friendship has been a blessing to me.

There are many other people who keep in touch with me.  Some of them are devout, faithful Catholics.  Some of them are seeking to know what God's plan is for their life.  Some are trying to discern whether God is calling them to priesthood or to married life.  Others have left the Church or only practice the faith sporadically.  When we talk, sometimes the subject comes up.  At other times, it remains the unspoken subtext.  I love being in touch with these people.  

There are people who keep in touch with me who are struggling to pray, struggling to remain chaste, struggling with same sex attraction, struggling with the Church's teaching on contraception, struggling because they are divorced and remarried, struggling to believe that God exists, and struggling in a thousand other ways.  Some of them would probably say that they are not struggling at all.  They've just moved on from what the Church teaches and either don't care or do not agree.  But, they're all in touch with me.  They know that they will never hear from me something contrary to what the Church teaches.  But, they also know that I love them.  And love them I do. 

I have to admit it. I like to be loved.  I don't mean that I like to be popular.  I mean that I like being loved.  I like being part of people's lives.  I like to be invited to their homes for dinner, to hang out at a baseball game, to grab a beer together, to receive a text message, or even to be given a hard time on Facebook (rarely and under particular circumstances :-) ).  For me, all of this is part of the joy of priesthood.  I know that I've helped people along the way in their relationship to Christ and I'm grateful for that privilege.  But, these people help me too.  All of them.  Take for example the people who aren't going to church or the people who are struggling with some moral teaching of the Church. They know without any doubt where I stand.  And yet, they still desire a friendship with me.  This amazes me.  They still invite me to their homes, send me warm messages, and nurture our friendship. This is so beautiful to me.  And, it helps me in my life.  I've been really privileged in my life as a priest to have lay people--young and old--who have loved me.  

This has been one of the great surprises of priesthood for me.  The friendship of the laity has been a great source of strength for me.  Their good example encourages me.  Their desire to grow in holiness and to fight the good fight encourages me. Even those who are far from the Church at this particular moment in their life encourage me by the very fact that they'll send a Facebook message here and there to talk about spiritual things.  To live life together, to eat together, to play together, to pray together, to baptize their children, to eat dinner at their table, to hike together, to learn together, to laugh together, to struggle together, to worship together.  Whether I be half their age or twice their age, these people communicate to me the love of Christ.  I've been really blessed in my life as a priest to have such great laity to encourage me.

I sometimes feel like I'm a father with a wallet full of pictures of his family.  Within minutes of talking to someone, I'm pulling out pictures of the lay men and women I've encountered in my various assignments.  "Oh, this family is really amazing."  "Oh this kid is such a great kid." "These people are so devoted and intelligent."  I boast about them.  I love that I love them as much as I do.

All of this came to mind tonight because a young man, who is for me a great example of someone living his Catholic Faith, decided to send me a text.  His example of Faith continues to inspire me and to encourage me.  I met him because seventeen years ago, I was his parish priest.  Seventeen years later, I'm so grateful that Jesus surrounds me with people like him; people who are living signs to me of the presence and mercy of Christ.

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