“Why, then, did you become a priest?” My friend, a priest who has spent his entire life in parish ministry, could not understand how I could leave my pastorate to accept a non-parochial assignment. Challenged, I knew the answer at once.
“I became a priest,” I replied without hesitation, “so that I could celebrate Mass.”
Celebrating Mass brought me joy the first time I did it 54 years ago. The joy is undiminished today.
Before I approach the altar each morning I sit quite still for a full half-hour, repeating throughout the entire time the prayer-word Maranatha (“Come, Lord”). I learned this form of prayer over two decades ago from the writings and tapes of the late Anglo-Irish Benedictine, John Main. His disciple Lawrence Freeman continues his work today, worldwide.
As a young teenager I struggled with discursive meditation: using the imagination to picture a biblical scene, the mind to reflect on its meaning, and the will to make acts of faith, hope, love, repentance, and thanksgiving. By age 20, when I entered seminary, discursive meditation gave way to spiritual reading and reflection — and as the years went by, more and more to what the books call “affective prayer.” “Don’t let me get away, Lord,” I would pray over and over again; or “Not what I want, Lord, but what You want.”
Around 1980 the American Trappist, Basil Pennington, taught me the method of centering prayer. In 1981 I published a booklet about it, mostly cribbed from Pennington and his fellow Trappist Thomas Keating. It remained in print for 25 years, and sold almost 200,000 copies — a sign of today’s deep spiritual hunger. I moved on from centering prayer to Main’s prayer of the mantra a few years later.
Years ago I had difficulty spending 20 minutes in silence before the Lord. Now the full half-hour often seems too short. I am disappointed when I hear the deacon preparing for Mass in the sacristy, and know I must break off. A married man with a devoted wife and a host of grandchildren, he likes to chat before Mass. I don’t. I am too full of what I have just been doing, and the even greater thing I am about to do.
“Put off the shoes from your feet,” the Lord said to Moses at the burning bush, “for the place where you stand is holy ground” (Ex 3:5). None of us is worthy to enter the presence of the all-holy God. Hence the threefold prayer for mercy at the beginning of every Mass.
I listen closely to the reading (two on Sundays) and to the gospel. If the deacon is not present, I read it myself. Then, with all the conviction and fervor at my command, I proclaim the love that will never let us go — briefly on weekdays, at greater length and from a full manuscript on Sundays.
My appreciation of the Liturgy of the Word has grown over the years. When Vatican II spoke about “the table of the world,” it was not only acknowledging a central postulate of the Reformation. It was also resurrecting ancient Catholic terminology. At the beginning of every council session, the book of God’s word, not the monstrance with the consecrated host, was enthroned on the altar: a reminder to those present that everything they said and did stood under the judgment of God’s word.
The Eucharistic prayer remains for me, however, the heart of the Mass. Seldom do I fail to be moved by the narrative of institution with the words of the Lord himself, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood,” which fascinated even Martin Luther. I recite the words slowly, with reverence and awe, slightly bent over paten and chalice, as the rubrics direct.
Does this help anyone? I cannot say. I know it nourishes me. No man ever longed more ardently for the arms of his beloved that I for that daily encounter with the Lord. Those precious moments with him, repeating his words, are quite literally the high point of my day. I recall them as I write these lines. I look forward to their repetition tomorrow.
How moving to read the words of an English priest, Rev. Hugh Lavery, on his 50th anniversary of priesthood:
I was new to priesthood when a wise old canon told me that the influence that most moved the people to sanctity was how Mass was said. People need the Mass as they need food and affection. A liturgy which has aptness, form, and reverence at the close makes real the presence of the Holy.
Where in all this are the people for whom the priest is ordained, to whom he is supposed to minister? Those were the questions which prompted my friend’s challenge, “Why, then, did you become a priest?” He could not understand a priest being satisfied without full-time pastoral ministry. This is what nourishes him. He assumed that it must nourish me too. It does not — or at least not to the same extent.
I became a priest not to be with people, but to be, in a specially intimate way, with the Lord. I honor priests who experience this intimacy through pastoral ministry. I consider them my superiors: better priests, and better human beings. I experience intimacy with the Lord most of all at the altar. Ministering to people can be fulfilling — but also frustrating. Not everyone wants what the priest has to offer. God always wants us. The worship I offer him at the altar is imperfect. Yet he never spurns it. And, for me, the offering of that worship never palls.
I treasure the words of the late Tom Burns, longtime editor of the London Tablet:
Those who have had the good fortune to travel widely and meet priests in many countries will agree that though they may have met embittered and frustrated men here and there, for the most part their encounter has been with dedicated men: unselfish to a degree, simple and honest and above all happy in their vocation. Such travelers must ask themselves if they can say the same of all their married friends.
Priests would give different reasons for this happiness. For me the supreme reason is the privilege, so far beyond any man’s deserving, of offering daily the sacramental memorial of the one, full, perfect, and all-sufficient sacrifice of Calvary, and being nourished by — and distributing to the Lord’s holy people – that daily bread for which Jesus taught us to pray.
“Have you ever regretted being a priest?” a young evangelical friend asked me.
“Never,” I told him. “Not one single day. It’s all I ever wanted.”