|Castle Island, South Boston|
It's tempting to run through a lengthy list of the significant changes that have occurred in the culture and the Church in these past seventeen years. They are many. But, it is not the rapidly changing culture, the spread of secularism and relativism, the scandals in the Church, or the incredible technological advances of the last seventeen years that most strike me today. It's not what has changed that most captures my thoughts today. It's what has remained the same.
Seventeen years ago, I left the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and really had no clue about what lay ahead of me. But, I knew one thing: I was a priest. I am grateful for the permanence of this character. Its permanence is maddening in its beauty! No sin, no fault, no weakness, no stupidity of mine (and there are many) can erase this permanence. It's kind of like painting a room over and over again, but the foundational color just keeps reemerging! I am a priest.
As ideologies antagonistic toward the Church continue to grow exponentially in our culture, this permanence is reassuring. No matter how the culture changes, I have the profound experience of something permanent and stable. I can face these things with serenity and with strength because, at the foundation of my life, there is something permanent and unchanging. I am a priest.
As the local Church that I was ordained into has gone from one crisis to the next for the better part of those seventeen years; in the experience of seeing the human weaknesses that negatively affect decisions in the life of the Church; in the experience of seeing and experiencing the wounds of the Church; in all of this--like the paint on the wall--the original color keeps re-emerging. I am a priest.
This permanent character of priesthood is something for which I am grateful. I am grateful that it does not depend upon me. Certainly, I am called to be faithful to my vocation, but the permanent character of ordination means that it begins with God's fidelity. I am always called to return that fidelity, but God is faithful first. No matter what changes, no matter how I fail, no matter how the Church is persecuted, no matter the failures of others, there is something permanent and stable in my life. I am a priest.
I do not say, "I am a priest," with some sort of pompous pride. In fact, it is just the opposite. It is the experience of a profound gratitude. It is something that I was given despite all of my unworthiness. It is this permanence of priestly character that provides a certain confidence in the day to day living out of my vocation. I am a shepherd not because I chose Him, but because He chose me.
A lot has changed in the relatively short period of seventeen years. But, today I am grateful for what has remained the same. I am grateful that this indelible character of Holy Orders is indefatigable. I am grateful that priesthood is firstly about union with Christ. In these first seventeen years, I have had the privilege of shepherding some amazing people both in parish life and in Campus Ministry. What is especially beautiful for me is that the love I have for them is more than an act of my own will. The love I have for them is a gratuitous participation in the love of the Good Shepherd. This love was begun in me seventeen years ago and will last forever because He has promised, "You are a priest forever." Seventeen years into eternity, I am profoundly grateful to Jesus and to His Church.