Sunday, September 8, 2019


Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not
sit down and calculate the cost. Otherwise, after
the foundation, may find himself unable to finish the work.
Luke 14

Over the last twenty years, I have led over 150 priest assemblies in 10 countries. This coming week, I'll be in Saint Louis with the Bishop and priests of the Diocese of Belleville. After that I will be with the bishop and priests of the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan and after that the bishop and priests of the Diocese of Pembroke in Canada. In recent years, I have looked out at, and lectured, thousands of priests, hundreds of bishops and archbishops and a dozen or so Cardinals - something I never ever imagined I would do when I was a young priest.  

One of those priest assemblies took place a few years back in the Archdiocese of Tuam in Ireland. On my way from the Shannon Airport to the Shrine at Knock, where our meeting was held, the road was littered with hundreds of half-finished houses that had been abandoned during the burst of the housing bubble. So many people thought they could make a fortune borrowing money to build new houses on their farmland. It looked like a war zone. People simple misjudged whether the money would be there to complete their projects! It was sad on many fronts. 

In my last semester of seminary, one of our professors asked us to write a paper about what we expected in our priesthood. To the person, my classmates wrote idealistic papers as if we were all about to enter the “promised land.” I wrote that I expected to be a priest in one of the most tumultuous times of recent church history. My paper was ridiculed as being “too negative.” My classmates may have been a bit like Peter when he told Jesus “God forbid” when Jesus insisted on talking about the suffering to come. Disappointed with the complexities of priesthood and shocked by the reality of it, over half of my ordination class has left and are no longer serving as priests. Instead of being “too negative,” I may have been “prophetic.”  I am, of course, no better a person than those who left, but I believe I have survived and thrived these last fifty years as a priest because I expected to have problems and I took that into consideration from the beginning and made plans on how to handle them.

When I worked over at Saint Meinrad Seminary, after I left here, and would tell too much truth about priesthood to the seminarians, Father Jonathan used to tease me with “Not in front of the kids!” Father Patrick, quoting of Canon Law, on the other hand, would tell me that “Seminarians are to be told the truth about the priesthood while they are in the seminary.” In any regard, to anyone making the transition from seminary, I would simply say this: getting to ordination is easy compared to staying in and staying healthy and effective as a priest. If anyone “promises you a rose garden,” do not listen to them. Like marriage, priesthood can be difficult. The sooner you embrace that fact, the sooner you can call up the personal, emotional and spiritual resources you will need to deal with the difficulties of ministry as a priest in today’s church. As scripture puts it, “My son, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for a battle.” (Sirach 2:1) As I say on the first page of my book From Seminarian to Diocesan Priest: Managing a Successful Transition, “It’s one thing to pledge oneself to a high purpose, but it’s another to carry through.”

My commitment to priesthood was tested a mere two week after ordination. I had a very short “honeymoon” indeed!  I had my heart set on being an associate pastor in a nice large suburban parish. When the call came telling me that I was being sent to the “home missions” of our diocese, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, every bone in my body wanted to quit. After several futile attempts to change the minds of the powers-to-be, I angrily loaded my car, bought a map and headed to my new parish in the most remote corner of our diocese. Halfway there, I had a conversion experience, one that would serve me well in the years to come. I changed my mind. I decided to embrace what was ahead of me and to open my mind and heart to the experience at hand. Since I didn’t get what I wanted, I decided to want what I got. What I got was a time of unprecedented personal and spiritual growth, more than I could have ever dreamed of for myself.

On my twenty-fifth anniversary, while I was still pastor here, I chose the reading about Peter’s walk on water. I, like Peter, have managed to keep going when I have “kept my eyes fixed on Jesus,” rather than on how deep the water is or how high the winds are!

In the end, priesthood is not for cowards nor the faint of heart. One needs the heart of a missionary, the courage of a martyr, the patience of Job and the concentration of a tight-rope walker. The commitment to be ordained is not necessarily the same as a commitment to priesthood. Like marriage, true commitment begins when the honeymoon is over. Like the would-be follower of Jesus, who naively bragged about his willingness to “follow him wherever he went,” one needs to know that there are crosses to be carried. That is to be expected, but that need not be a source of discouragement. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Faint not nor fear, but go out to the storm and the action, trusting in God whose commandments you faithfully follow; freedom, exultant, will welcome your spirit with joy.”

Anyone who thinks about priesthood, marriage or religious life, should be good at calculating the cost beforehand and be willing to pay the price afterwards. As for me, after fifty years of walking on water, I couldn’t be happier - and I have people like you to thank! 

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