On my ordination day, just over fourteen years ago, I placed my hands into the hands of the bishop and promised respect and obedience to him and his successors. Of all the promises made by a diocesan priest at his ordination, obedience is the one with the least day-to-day implications; and yet, it can be the most consequential. The comfortable rug of complacency can be pulled from under the feet by an unexpected telephone call from the bishop in his palace far, far away.
So it came to pass two weeks ago, as I was sipping my morning coffee in the kitchen of the rectory where I have resided for five years. I was about to set out to my “other job,” at the diocesan tribunal, when the call came: “Vincent, I hope you are well? I want you to come and see me.”
In the life of a priest, when the bishop calls it means one of two things nowadays: either you’ve done something wrong, or you’re on the move. Immediately, the mind is filled with questions: “What have I done?” “Where am I going?” These are the ponderings of the diocesan priest when the bishop calls in today’s Church. The security blanket of familiarity, of being in a nice parish, with lovely people, can suddenly vanish. Such has been the lot of many a priest.
The time had come for me to be made a pastor. My priestly life until then had been full—as an associate; Canon Law School in Ottawa, Canada; tribunal and chancery work; and continued parish responsibilities. But being appointed a pastor is a whole different ball game.
I realized very quickly that I had to make a list of all the things I had to do: contact the outgoing pastor, check out the rectory and the church, meet the staff. Will I need new carpet? The list became very long, very fast. Admittedly, I felt somewhat overwhelmed by all the practical things I had to do, compounded by the fact that I have a visual impairment, which brings its own limitations. I then had to share the news with my family and support circle, who were surprised, delighted, and encouraging.
Later that evening, I sat down to pray. As I recollected myself, I was struck by two phrases from the lives of my two favorite saints: St. Padre Pio and St. John Vianney. I realized that, in the midst of such a life-changing day, I had failed to put things into their true context. I had forgotten to put God first.
The famous words of Padre Pio filled my mind: “Pray, hope, and don’t worry.” I felt myself calming down and putting this new challenge into the hands of God. After all, I am His priest. Shortly afterward, just before Compline, the words of the ordinary who appointed John Vianney as parish priest of Ars in France came powerfully to me: “There is little love of God in that place, you will put it there.”
The grace of God had calmed me. Now He was challenging me to put my priorities in order—to put the spiritual things first, and all else will follow. I always had deep devotion to these great saints, who are exceptional examples of holiness and models of priesthood. Once again, they had helped me to focus on what was truly important.
The life of a modern pastor is fraught with pitfalls and challenges, a myriad of functions and duties—from having staff, to managing a school; from office work to fundraising. These are important and vital things indeed. However, they are all as straw without being a man of prayer, a man of God.
It is not for nothing that St. John Vianney is the patron saint of pastors. Like him, my first task will be to assess the spiritual state and needs of the people entrusted to my care. I will offer Mass for them, hear their confessions, anoint those who are sick, instruct them in the Faith, and preach the truth to them. These will be my priorities—this is the work of a pastor. I am no John Vianney, but I can try.
Today’s Church and the world offer many distractions and temptations to the priest: popularity, comfort, greed, lust, careerism, compromising the truth, laziness. I, indeed, will be no exception from these distractions and temptations. That is why cultivating a healthy life of prayer is the key to being an authentic and effective pastor. We all know a pastor somewhere who is guilty of one or more items on the list above.
So, I encourage you all to pray for your pastors. Pray for pastors everywhere. Pray for all the priests who will be pastors for the first time this summer. And please, pray for me as I embark on my new mission as a pastor. St. Padre Pio, pray for us. St. John Vianney, pray for us.
[Photo Credit: Unsplash]