Every year at St. John's Seminary, in the weeks before priestly ordination, we celebrate "Deacon's Night." It is an opportunity to honor the men about to be ordained. It is a fun night, marked by a lot of joy, humor, and gratitude. This year, I was one of the speakers, and was asked to share some thoughts on priesthood.
I was really surprised when Third Theology asked me to share a few brief reflections on priesthood this evening. I was even more surprised to learn that my script would not have to be submitted to Fr. Tom for editing and approval. But then I learned that that was only because my talk would have to be submitted to a sub-committee of the for final approval.
You have spent many years listening to homilies, conferences, and lectures the priesthood. You have read innumerable texts on the topic, and presumably, you will spend the rest of your life deepening your understanding of the great gift that you are about to receive. So tonight, I simply want to share something from my heart. Something that is not so much a profound reflection on the priesthood as it is something that I’ve noticed along the way. Something that has grown within me and has sustained me along the way. It is something that I am truly grateful for and it is something that I also hope will be the case for you. It is basically this: I hope that you live your priesthood constantly surprised by it. It is too good, too amazing, and too awesome to live it in any other way.
Every Thursday at Compline we pray these words: “He has put into my heart a marvelous love for his faithful ones.” I think the greatest surprise of priesthood for me has been just that. The Lord really pours into my heart a marvelous love for his people. It’s not something I did. It’s not something I worked at. It’s not something that I accomplished. In an act of pure goodness, the Lord poured into my heart a marvelous love for his faithful ones. I never thought it was possible to have so much affection and love for people. Whenever I see the term, “Pastoral Charity,” I think, “He has poured into my heart a marvelous love for his faithful ones.”
You will someday be seated in your chair on Good Friday, and you will watch people whom you love deeply approach the Cross and adore. You will know so many things about them. You will know their heartaches, their worries, their anxieties, their failures, their struggles. As they kiss the Cross, you will know very well the crosses of each of them. You will recognize how close you are to these people. You will look at them with a love that is incomprehensible to yourself. You will once again be surprised by how good the Lord is. You will think to yourself, “He has put into my heart a marvelous love for his faithful ones.”
This love has been a constant surprise to me, a constant source of joy. It comes in extraordinary and grand moments, but also in little moments. A kid I met 25 years ago when I would go and watch his high school baseball games—he's married now and has a family—a few months ago, at the end of a phone call, he said to me, “Fr. Barnes, I just want you to know that I pray for you every night.” In that brief remark, I was once again surprised, joyful, and filled with gratitude for the gift and grace of the priesthood, for the gift of the Lord pouring into my heart a marvelous love for his faithful ones.
I am grateful that continues to surprise me. After 25 years of hearing confessions, I am still surprised by how good the Lord is. I am still surprised that people come and unburden themselves in that way. I am still surprised by that exhilarating exhaustion that comes from hearing hours of heartfelt and painful confessions.
Sometimes we talk about work as though there some out there that if you do these three things, vocations will happen. But, in my experience, every time someone I know enters the seminary, it is a new surprise to me. Their vocation is not the result of a program or a series of well-planned steps. Their vocation is the result of . And grace is always surprising. I think one of the most effective ways that we can encourage priestly vocations is for priests to live their priesthood as men who are constantly surprised by grace, surprised by what the Lord is doing in our midst.
I hope that those of you who will soon be ordained will live your priesthood in a constant state of surprise by what the Lord is doing you, through you, and around you. I hope you spend your priesthood with a constant expression of, “How is this even possible?” When we are surprised, when we ourselves are moved, then we have the capacity to move others.
Another thing that has surprised me about priesthood is the people that the Lord has placed in my path. I am really surprised by how good the Lord has been to me. He has continuously surprised me—in every assignment—with unexpected friendships. Whether they be young people, married couples, college kids, priests of all ages, seminarians—the Lord continues to surprise me. As you get older, you can kind of settle into an attitude that there can't be any more surprises left. But my experience is that the Lord always continues to do new things, to give new encounters.
I hope that those of you who will soon be ordained will not be afraid to your priesthood close to people. The professional priesthood—the priesthood that is lived remotely and at a distance—is a priesthood devoid of surprises. And a priesthood devoid of surprises is a priesthood that gradually becomes inhuman and cynical. My experience has been that when we live closely with people—eat meals with them, do crosswords together, play ultimate frisbee together, share our hearts with them, live our humanity with them—then Christ uses these moments to do surprising things. First of all, he surprises the priest himself. And a priest surprised by grace is a joyful priest.
The last thing I want to say is that for me, the surprise of priesthood continues right here and right now. Some days, I catch myself sitting in chapel, just scanning the faces on the other side of the chapel. It’s a total surprise to me how good the Lord is. We are not that far from that day on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus called his disciples. He is still doing something new. He is still doing surprising things. What happens in this house is surprisingly beautiful. Every day, in this house, the Lord the hearts of seminarians so that those hearts will be properly formed to receive on the day of ordination, the outpouring of His Marvelous Love.
In a few short weeks, the Lord is going to pour into the hearts of these brothers of a marvelous love for his faithful ones. I am deeply moved by that. I am completely surprised by that. I hope that you will spend the rest of your life—every day—moved and surprised by that grace. The lives of the faithful ones entrusted to your care will be all the more fruitful because their priest lived close to them and was a priest always surprised by grace.