A Priest Remembers
Fifty years ago I celebrated Mass for the first time. It was the fulfilment of a dream I had had from age twelve. From an early age the Church fascinated me. Every time I served Mass I would look at the priest and think: “One day I’ll stand there. I’ll say those words. I’ll wear those vestments.” When I was finally able to do so, at age 25, I was so happy that I recited aloud in the sacristy afterwards the whole Te Deum (the Church’s ancient hymn of praise on great feasts).
Some years ago the St. Louis priests had a celebration for one of our number who was leaving to become the bishop of another diocese. Speaking to us about his own experience of priesthood, he said: “There have been times when other vocations seemed more attractive.” Spontaneously I turned to the priest-friend sitting next to me and whispered: “I’ve never felt like that.” So if you ask me: “After 63 years, have you ever regretted it?” I can only answer: “Never. Not one single day.” Priesthood is all I have ever wanted. If I were to die tonight, I should die a happy man. Many of my brother priests would say the same. The late Chicago priest, Fr. Andrew Greeley, who researches such things as a sociologist, wrote recently: “Priests who like being priests are among the happiest men in the world.” When I read those words, I sent him an e-mail: “Andy, you’re right. I can confirm that from my own experience.”
Have all those years been happy? Of course not. That doesn’t happen in any life. I have encountered numerous bumps and potholes on the road of priestly service. My experience has been similar to that of the older married woman, a daily communicant, who told me: “Father, when you walk up to the altar on your wedding day, you don’t see the Stations of the Cross.” I’ve never regretted the commitment I made a half century ago, however, any more than she regrets hers.
Among the many joys of priesthood is the privilege of witnessing the wonders of God’s grace in people’s lives. I recall an elderly woman in my first parish, a spinster with pince-nez glasses secured by a gold chain in her pierced left ear lobe, whose problem was scrupulosity. A daily communicant, she had such an elaborate schedule of devotions and prayers at home that to visit her one had to make an appointment. Like too many Christians, thought of God as a stern judge watching for her to fall afoul of one of his many complicated rules. She seemed never to have heard the good news of the gospel: that God loves sinners. A stroke put her in the hospital. With her speech impaired, she could say only Yes or No. Visiting her one day and searching for conversation topics, I said: “You’re thinking about dying.” “Yes,” she responded. “Well, you’re ready to go, aren’t you, whenever the Lord calls you home?” With a beautiful smile and without hesitation, she answered: “Why not?” She died a happy and holy death shortly thereafter. I remember thinking at the time: how wonderful that the Lord made the sunshine of his love shine on her at the end, so bright and clear that she recognized it and could rejoice.
From my first year of priesthood I remember child’s voice in the confessional: “I stamp my foot at my mother, and say No.” That hit me hard. That little one is so sorry for that small sin, I recall thinking. My own sins are worse – and I’m not that sorry. I believe the Lord sent that child into my confessional, to teach me a lesson. I’ve never forgotten it.
Ten years ago a man came to me, bruised and bleeding from a failed marriage. Blue collar, with a high school education at most, he was one of our Easter Bunnies: at Mass then and possibly at Christmas, otherwise no evidence of spiritual life at all. Today he is a daily communicant and frequent penitent. He is the first confess that the change is due entirely to God’s grace.
Every priest can tell stories like those. hey help explain why the late Fr. Andrew Greeley called us priests “among the happiest men in the world.” For me, however, the greatest reason for happiness is the privilege, so far beyond anyone’s deserving, of being able to lead God’s people in obeying Jesus’ parting command to “Do this in my memory:” changing bread and wine into the Lord’s body and blood, making present the unrepeatable sacrifice of his life on Calvary. Celebrating Mass was wonderful the first time I did it, a half century ago. It is, if possible, even more wonderful today. The great St. Louis priest, Msgr. Martin Hellriegel, blind in the last of his 91 years, called the celebration of Mass “the sunshine of my day.” Sixty-three years on I can say the same.
Fr. Hughes serves at Christ the King Parish in University City. His latest book is Stories Jesus Told: Modern Meditations on the Parables (Liguori).