Thursday, October 28, 2010

15 Years

The Apostle Jude, whom the Western Church honors today (along with Simon the Zealot), is traditionally invoked as the patron of desperate situations, lost causes, and hopeless cases. So it was altogether appropriate that, when I was finally ordained a priest, it happened, 15 years ago today, on the feast of St. Jude.

My 15th year as a priest has been an especially exciting one for me - a time for new and different experiences. Now in Knoxville as pastor of the oldest parish in East Tennessee, I spent the days leading up to my anniversary on my first retreat with the priests of the diocese.

The site for the retreat was a retreat center attached to an Augustinian parish in Maggie Valley, NC, in the Smoky Mountains. It was about a 100-mile drive from downtown Knoxville to Maggie Valley – much of it illuminated by the incredible beauty of the bright autumn colors. The Retreat Center itself is on the side of a hill. Further up the hill is the parish church, where we concelebrated Mass each morning and had Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and Confessions on Wednesday night. A true gem of a building on a beautiful site, its clear glass windows open to the grandeur of nature, the church was built by a Detroit businessman, a wealthy widower who was then ordained (at age 80) to minister there. Now it is in the care of the Augustinians, who live in a lovely friary next to the church and serve the parish and the retreat center - the same Augustinian province that staffed my home parish in the Bronx and taught me in High School. Small world! I’d recognize that habit anywhere!

Like diocesan priests, Paulists (defined by the Church as a Clerical Society of Apostolic Life) do most of our ministry in local churches in close collaboration with the local diocesan presbyterate. The retreat director’s repeated emphasis on our need as priests to acquire the skills of spiritual leadership readily resonated with me as a new pastor, particularly aware of the challenges involved in serving as my parish’s new spiritual leader.

A priest has a preeminently public, i.e., ecclesial, identity - rooted not only in the priest’s personal relationship with God but in the priest’s relationship with the people he has been appointed to lead. People need to hear and experience the Good News through the priest’s ministry. Hence the importance of his ability – and limitations – in meeting that need.

A very wise, older Paulist once advised me at a particularly low point in my Paulist life that I would find spiritual fulfillment – and, presumably, holiness - in my experience of ministry. How many times have I repeated that to myself over the years? How many times have I heard it repeated here these past few days?

So now I’ve finished 15 fulfilling years in priesthood. As I begin my 16th year, I can do no better than to make my own the words of the prayers of the Mass for the anniversary of ordination: May I be an ardent but gentle servant of your gospel and your sacraments … May I always live in truth the mysteries I handle at your altar.

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