Fathers That Form Me
A dear priest friend died suddenly last night, and it’s led to a day of reflection about his impact on my life and the lives of so many others. News of his passing started a social media blitz of stories filled with his dry wit, unwavering service, and spiritual fatherhood. This man didn’t have a biological family, but he leaves behind many spiritual children. My husband and I are two of them. During our time at The Catholic University where he served as a campus minister, he heard our Confessions, preached beautifully, led us on mission trips to Jamaica, guided us as we led retreats, and eventually officiated our wedding. He teased us and laughed with us. And although we hadn’t shared more than holiday texts in recent years, those texts always included, “I love you” and today’s news felt like a huge blow. We felt it so deeply because we feel his fatherhood so deeply.
At his core, this is what a priest is. He is Father. When he lays on that cool, marble floor on his ordination day, he offers himself to his bride, the Church. He gives his life for Her children – all of the faithful. He reflects to a suffering world the love that God the Father has for them. And through his Sacramental and pastoral care, the priestly father spiritually nourishes these children and helps them to grow to full maturity.
In my life, I have been blessed to meet innumerable holy priests that demonstrate the fatherly dimension of the priesthood. I realize that bad priests exist, but I’ve met many more good ones. As I look back at the priests who helped to form my spiritual life, I am blown away by the effect that holy spiritual fathers can have.
On my First Holy Communion day, Father didn’t just give me Jesus for the first time (that alone would have been sufficient!) He also called me to the altar at the end of Mass. He lit a candle and explained that its light represented the light of Christ. As he handed me that candle, he exhorted me to bring Christ’s light to everyone I met. Six-year-old me took that mission very seriously, and it has guided me since. This Father gave me a mission.
My parish priest during my adolescence was one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. His bright smile and charismatic faith demonstrated that a life with Christ is a life of joy. Admiring him so much, I once baked him an apple pie from scratch when he visited our family for dinner. As he took that first bite and choked it down before guzzling a glass of water, I knew that I had gotten the recipe wrong somewhere. Whew, that pie was bitter! But Father ate every bite, ensuring me that it wasn’t so bad with a kind smile. In a simple, silly way, this story illustrates the selflessness of the priesthood. Even bitter sufferings can be embraced with joy.
It was when I arrived on campus at Catholic U that I met the Conventual Franciscans. Decked out in long robes and sandals, these men could convince anyone (jock and honors student alike) to get their butts to Confession and Mass. They kept the hours of college students, meeting young people where they were and calling them to something more. Through their consistent presence, the Sacraments, retreats, and mission trips, they literally changed the trajectory of people’s lives. My husband is the man of faith he is today because of the men of faith those friars were. When going through a particularly difficult time senior year, a friar wrote me a letter affirming my dignity assuring me of his support and prayers. I still have and cherish that letter. The friars’ selflessness, evangelization, and humility were an inspiration to me and my husband during our time at CUA and continue to inspire us as we work in parish ministry.
My adult life has been spent working alongside my husband at parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington. Through this work, we have met, befriended, and love many more holy priests. They are committed firstly to being men of prayer. Their personal prayer life is the fount from which their ministry flows. They offer Mass and the Sacraments in a reverent, beautiful way. They are all things to all people – going from celebrating a funeral to officiating a wedding all in the same day! These men are approachable, merciful, and also, not afraid of speaking hard truths. They are priests because they are madly in love with Jesus Christ and His Church and have a special relationship with the Blessed Mother, counting on her intercession to sustain their vocations. They wake up to celebrate early Sunday Mass and still make it to Youth Group that night. These priests support Mike and me in our work - not seeing our mission as a threat to some sort of "priestly power" but seeing our ministry as an avenue in the Kingdom of God, another arm on the Body of Christ.
I could go on. I could tell you about the newly ordained priest I saw dancing and lip syncing to One Direction at a wedding reception the other day, exuding joy. I could tell you about the Carmelite priest who is my son’s godfather or the one who reads the kids bedtime stories when he visits or the one who brought me Holy Communion and peace when I was in the hospital with my sick newborn. I could recount the time I was stuck outside in a monsoon at World Youth Day between my husband and my priest, figuring that was a good way to die if it was God’s will! I could go on and on, because my life has been shaped by countless spiritual fathers who have brought Christ to me.
But instead, I’ll ask, what can we do for them? What can we do for the spiritual fathers who give their lives in a constant manner for the sake of all of us? A few ideas come to mind.
Open our homes to priests. Invite your priest over for dinner, and if you befriend a particular priest, tell him that no invitation is necessary. Keep reaching out even after he has left your parish. It’s like when Jesus visited Martha and Mary. They were such dear friends of His that their home was a place He could return to for relaxation and nourishment. Similarly, I think it’s important for priests to have a “home away from home” in the homes of the faithful. This way our spiritual fathers can truly feel part of our family.
Be honest about the struggles and joys of your vocation. Being a priest isn’t easy. Neither is being a married person. Or living any vocation for holiness. If priests and lay people can be honest with one another about the struggles of living their particular vocation, they will be less likely to “compare and despair.” Sharing both the crosses and the joys of vocation with transparency will help build up each vocation in a healthy way.
Thank the priests who formed you. If you know the priest who baptized you, or gave you your First Holy Communion, or married you, or heard a Confession of yours that was particularly powerful, or preached a homily that shaped your life, etc. let him know! Thank the priests who have brought Christ to you in a powerful way. These words of encouragement could be the conduit of consolation just when a priest needs it.
Pray for priests. Until recently, I thought of “pray for priests” as praying for more men to become priests. Turns out, that’s not it. Sacrificial priests need our prayers. If a holy priest is constantly giving of himself, he must be filled in return. Our prayers can go a long way to sustain and build him up. So think of a concrete prayer and/or sacrifice you can commit to for priests. Perhaps it’s a weekly Holy Hour, or a daily rosary, or every midnight diaper change; whatever specific thing you will remember to offer consistently.
Thank God for the men who lay down their lives in service of the Church. Thank God for the men who bring us the True Presence of God Himself through the Sacraments. Today I am keenly aware of the spiritual fathers who have shaped me. May I never take them for granted, but do all in my power to support and love them in return!