Shortly after I was ordained a priest, a friend of mine asked me what my experience was like thus far. Somewhat hesitantly I said, “embarrassing.” He began to laugh; assuming I was joking, and then asked me again. “No, seriously, what is like to be a priest?” “Embarrassing,” I replied again, this time without hesitation.
I always knew I was called to be a priest. The most peaceful moments of my childhood were when I was serving Mass as an altar boy. Though I was too young to understand what was happening, my heart encountered this profound joy each time I served Mass. The candles, incense, and paintings were signs pointing me beyond this world. Though my childhood was blessed, I began yearning for this other world that I experienced each day at Mass.
The priest, I began to realize, had a pivotal role in this experience. He was not a coach, a sergeant, or a stage director, but simply a man, chosen by God to facilitate this transcendent experience. Whether he was celebrating Mass, hearing confessions, or giving last rites to the dying, the priest brought heaven with him through his priestly ministry. The day I realized this I remember asking myself, “What else could I want from life?”
What I found perhaps to be most remarkable was that the priest, at least the ones I met as a kid, were not the holiest, smartest or best speakers that I encountered. There was nothing that distinguished them in outward appearances from others. They were, like all of us, frail and broken, struggling with their own humanity, while trying to reconcile how God could call somebody like them to this vocation.
In my second year of priesthood I had the honor of baptizing my brother-in- law during the Easter Vigil. He was raised without any faith and after several years of marriage to my sister he decided he wanted to become Catholic. After I poured water over him three times, baptizing him “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” I saw something on him I had never witnessed before: a smile that radiated pure joy. Struck by the simple beauty of the moment I embraced him and said, “Welcome home.”
Perhaps my greatest joy as a priest is hearing confessions. Over the years I have heard countless confessions and have witnessed the immediate change inside a person once the words of absolution are spoken. Often people come to confession, burdened, anxious and afraid, yet they always leave confession with the hope that is born from experiencing the mercy of God. Once an elderly man, old enough to be my grandfather, kissed my hands after confession and said, “Thank you Father. You have given me my life back.” Immediately, tears flowed from my eyes and I was reduced to silence.
Finally, there is the Eucharist. Whether it is a friary chapel, a cathedral, or a simple country church, heaven enters this world through my hands under the appearance of bread and wine. In my first few weeks as a priest my hands would begin to shake during the consecration and I would ask myself after each Mass, “Did that really just happen?” In the midst of this confusion a fellow Franciscan said to me one morning after Mass, “Thank you Father for the Eucharist.” I was completely dumbstruck. Later in the day I realized that without the priest, there is no Eucharist. Once more, the tears flowed and I was again reduced to silence.
In all of these events, I, as a priest, am not a mere observer. I am, and I say this with deep humility, the bridge on which God travels to meet his people. The priest is, obviously, not the only way for this encounter to occur, but he remains a consistent and definite means of God’s presence in this world.
When I told my friend that being a priest was embarrassing what I really meant was that it is humbling. I am somewhat shy, never comfortable in large crowds and certainly never comfortable being any sort of leader. I was an average student in school, given more to daydreaming and writing than academic study. Like the Prophet Jeremiah I tried to tell God “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth” (Jeremiah 1:6). Regardless of what I perceived as apparent obstacles, God felt differently.
Seven years have passed since my friend asked me what it is like being a priest. If I were asked that question today, I would respond once again by saying, “embarrassing,” only this time I would be sure to add how grateful and joyful I have become for all the embarrassment it has caused me.
+ Fr. Jeremiah Shryock, CFR