Celebrating a vocation


I mean this. May 21 was the 55th anniversary of my ordination. I would not surrender one hour of my 55 years as a priest. 

Several modest but meaningful events to commemorate the occasion led me to think about God’s goodness to me, and to so many others, and how differently lives unfold. My extended family gathered for a reunion in Nashville, Tennessee. I drove to Louisville, Kentucky, for a private dinner with two seminary classmates. We have kept in touch all this time. In Nashville, my eighth-grade class met for a wonderful lunch, and on the day itself I returned to my alma mater, St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. 

My brother priests in Louisville are hale and hardy. Deo gratias! We did not reminisce about days past. We talked about the Church, the world and people, and how priests today might serve the Lord more effectively. Being with them was a tonic and a challenge. Their vocations are as sparkling as ever. 

None of us, however, has led a life without crosses and heartaches. 

Lunch with my eighth-grade classmates was delightful. I was edified by them as we prayed together. Several told me, their faces dancing with joy and pride, about their grandchildren, now on their own, and healthy and happy. 

Some seats at the table were unoccupied. A boy in our class went on to high school and college and quickly became extraordinarily successful. He attended my ordination and first Mass. Within the year, he died of brain cancer. As he lay dying, his heartbroken mother said, “He did not want to die, but he is not afraid to die. He has his faith.” 

One of my first baptisms of an infant came to mind. The baby’s young parents were so thrilled at his birth. In high school, he became addicted to drugs and took his own life. His parents, in grief, turned to the Blessed Mother. It was their consolation. 

The first priest in my class to die, one of the best and brightest among us, was struck and instantly killed by a hit-and-run driver. Another seminary schoolmate, two years after ordination, walked into the rectory on Sunday afternoon. A burglar searching for the collection from Mass shot him to death. The bishop asked me to break the news to his mother. Her eyes flooded with tears, but she told me that her son was with the Lord, whom her son loved. 

Still another seminary friend lost both legs and an arm to diabetes. In his wheelchair, he became the busiest confessor, counselor and spiritual director in town. Another busy confessor is blind. 

Some gave up on the priesthood or felt that they had made a mistake in deciding to be priests. Some gave up on the Church altogether. Some humiliated the Church. One is in prison. Each story is filled with bewilderment and pain. 

Fifty-five years as a priest have shown me the power of faith. Faith in the Lord has pointed the way, and pushed the sharp stones out of the way, for so many people whom I have known, but the years have provided another lesson. 

We all are human beings, including popes, bishops, priests and nuns, the person begging on the street, the sinner. A frightful memory of my priesthood is of the countless cases of adultery that I have seen, let alone the untold thousands of stories of unhappy marriages. Human beings.

Systematic racism is as vividly real now as it was when my priesthood began, in the culturally segregated South. Crime is as real as it was. So is war. Human viciousness and human indifference to the hardships of others, still, are alive and well. Human beings. 

We need God. We need priests to bring us to God and God to us. 

Thank you, Lord, for calling me — unworthy, imperfect, only a human — to be your priest. Amen. Alleluia!

This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.


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