Thursday, June 9, 2011

Supporting the Priesthood

We talk about praying for vocations. Some even do so. But it occurs to me that there would be more young priests coming into the Church if we lay people did something else besides pray. What do we do, practically, day by day, to support the priests we already have? I have been trying to do more in the small world of our parish, but in the process I have also come up against the shortcomings of my own thought.

As I have written before, our parish is blessed with two priests, two visiting seminarians, and a man who will be starting at St. John’s Seminary in the fall. In addition, until his ordination in May, we had a transitional deacon visiting us regularly. This is inspiring for us parishioners—to see in our field of vision during Mass as many as six men who either are priests or are on the path to becoming priests.  What vocation shortage?!

Personally, I have made efforts to support these men in very small ways, and I know others have done the same. Let’s set aside the fact that I genuinely like all of them and view them as friends. When I serve at Mass, especially for our new assistant pastor, who is just getting his feet on the ground here, I try to go the extra mile to be of help, showing him the ropes. So that he can attend daily Mass in our parish, I have been giving rides to work to the fellow who will be entering the seminary in the fall. That this guy has become a close personal friend is a pleasant by-product of what began as a gesture of support for the priesthood. These are admittedly small gestures, but I think they are important because I cannot be a priest myself and do not even have sons who might be priests themselves one day. All I can do, it seems to me, is to serve our priests and seminarians as well as I know how.

But then I notice the way I think and it shocks me. I was at Mass yesterday morning. Our pastor was celebrating and one of the seminarians was serving. I looked at the seminarian—a fine young man who likely will be a fine young priest some day—and I suddenly caught myself thinking, “How can he be so willing to give up his life? He must have doubts.” Well, of course, he must; everyone has doubts. But the gist of my thought involved “giving up his life.” To me, a lay person, this meant, in the passing current of my thought, giving up a lay career, financial advancement, toys, freedom of movement, and especially the intimacy of marriage and family.

This seems a most reasonable thought, and few passersby on the street are likely to disagree with it. But it represents a dramatic reduction of the humanity of that young man—and of us all. Have we so given up on God and eternity that the only things we have left to grasp or “hope” for are the things of this world? For a moment, I looked at this young seminarian as somehow shortchanged or even handicapped by his vocation. It was a bit like looking at a world champion chess player and thinking he wouldn’t make a very good linebacker.

When I noticed my own thought and its implications, I realized that it is not enough to support the priesthood with actions and prayer. I have to support the priesthood with my very way of thinking. Because if my thoughts follow the path they were on yesterday morning, it is not long before the priesthood looks like something less to me, not more. And when my thoughts take that path, my actions are sure to follow.

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