St. Nicholas Ordained to the Priesthood. Wikimedia Commons

An Immense Gift

50 priests from across America gathered to share their experiences, affirming He who carries their missions forward, the Creator of all, Christ. In tribute to the conclusion of the The Year of the Priest, we present the content of these inspiring days.
Phil Forlano

“Why did you say ‘yes’? Would you say ‘yes’ again, knowing what you know now?” These were the questions with which Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete began the annual Retreat for Priests in Stony Point, NY, sponsored by the CL Movement in the United States. More than 50 priests from across the United States, Canada, and one all the way from New Zealand gathered during Easter Week at the Don Bosco Retreat Center for this retreat on the theme: “The Priesthood: An ‘Immense Gift’ to Humanity.” This theme was drawn from the words of Pope Benedict XVI in his letter inaugurating the “Year for Priests” which began on the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, June 19, 2009, and will conclude on the same Solemnity this year. This letter, in which the Holy Father presents St. John Mary Vianney as a priest who “was conscious of being an immense gift to his people,” along with two other more recent addresses by Pope Benedict to priests and seminarians and the chapter “Sacrifice” from Is It Possible to Live This Way? Charity, by Msgr. Giussani, were the texts that informed the reflections for the week.

At a time when the Church, the priesthood, and celibacy are viewed in the secular media as the source of scandal–and this mentality has been absorbed by even many of the faithful that we see in the pews–Msgr. Albacete’s questions were designed to provoke in us the consciousness of the immense gift that we have received as priests. How did we recognize this Presence that moved us to say “yes” to follow this new life? What was that experience like and how can it be retrieved so I can be renewed in my vocation to the priesthood? What is the essence of the Catholic priesthood that corresponds to the desire and structure of my humanity? The renewal of the vocation only comes when one experiences this correspondence again–when I can say “yes” to Christ present, here and now. The priesthood is a sacrament. It has happened to me; I was ordained and therefore I should be able to discover this answer in my daily life. So one must ask, “What is the experience of living a sacrament?” What is the experience like that draws me into the mission of Christ?

Something That I Cannot Give
Jesus said, “The Son can do nothing of Himself” (Jn 15:19) and, “Without Me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). It is the experience of my own nothingness or incapacity that draws me into communion of mission with Christ. As a priest, I am reminded every day that I have been given a mission that I cannot fulfill. How can any human being say, and who am I to say, “I absolve you from your sins” or “This is my Body”? This experience of giving what does not come from me is the experience of living a sacrament. The consciousness of my own incapacity to produce this activity or result is the condition for recognizing Christ and for recognizing that He has given me this “immense gift”–I am the messenger and instrument of Another. What priest has not experienced this when he witnesses a person consoled in his dying hours by the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and the reception of the Eucharist? Or when a penitent leaves the confessional filled with joy and peace, and a lightness in his step? Or when a parishioner approaches after Mass and says, “Father, thank you for your homily. It was just what I needed to hear. It was as if you were speaking directly to my heart”? These exceptional facts, if we are in touch with our incapacity, lead us to proclaim with certainty, like the disciple whom Jesus loved who witnessed the miraculous catch of fish on the Sea of Tiberias after the Resurrection, “It is the Lord!” This recognition of the risen Christ gave Peter a new energy, a new strength, and reignited his desire to be with the Lord. It is the recognition of the risen Christ that flows from Peter’s awareness of his incapacity to produce this newness, fullness, or abundance before him that leads to the renewal or rehabilitation of his vocation (cf. Jn 21:1-19). Peter’s experience here is strikingly similar to that event that moved him to follow Christ in the first place (cf. Lk 5:1-11). The experience of what happened at the beginning must happen again for the vocation to be deepened and renewed. And so it is for the priest. As the Lord emphasizes in His questioning of Peter on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias with His repeated, “Do you love Me?”, our call to service is not based on or sustained by our own efforts, gifts, or talents or revoked or ruined by our own sinfulness or denials. Rather, it is formed in a relationship of love–recognizing and responding to the fact that the deepest desire of my heart is fulfilled by the gratuitousness of the vocation. This immense gift fulfills my humanity. It is here that we can begin to grasp Pope Benedict’s claim that the priesthood is an immense gift “not only for the Church, but also for humanity itself” (Letter Proclaiming a Year for Priests). The priesthood is a particular expression of the structure of humanity. The priesthood highlights the truth about reality–that our very existence is sacramental. Just being alive, one is receiving what one cannot give himself: existence. Life is a gift. I am loved into existence, and it is this love of Another that sustains me at every moment. Life is a vocation. To the extent that we embrace the sacrifice of our “I,” this self-expropriation for another, we will grow in human maturity and fulfillment because “the deepest truth of man is that only he who loses himself can find himself” (cf. J. Ratzinger, Called to Communion, pp. 115-116).

Begging for His Presence
With this understanding that the priestly life–living the sacrament–makes one more human, Msgr. Albacete made the claim, “I could not exist without being a priest. If I had not taken the risk to follow Christ, my existence would be very painful.” How often have I said to myself, “I can’t imagine not being a priest!” Why do I say that? Because of the undeniable difference or fullness that my life has because of Him. This is a fact that I did not produce. I cannot deny this “fit” when I make a judgment about my life. It is only with a judgment that I can answer that original question with certainty–“would you say ‘yes’ again?” I’ve had no experience that supports a “no.”

The witness of Peter in his call and renewal is a reminder to us not to be afraid of our failings, limitations, or incapacities as men. They are not obstacles to participation in the mission of Christ but rather the opportunity to affirm our dependence on the immense gift and to allow ourselves to be purified of the illusions and images of success that we create. Can I retrieve this experience of vocation on my own? No. As the celebration of all the sacraments gives witness, the work of the Holy Spirit is essential. We need the Holy Spirit in order to be renewed, to know Christ, to recognize Him, and to make Christ a reality here and now–an attractive Presence that we want to follow–to experience again the “newness” of that original experience. We cannot create or force this experience but can only beg with Mary that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ will be made present in our lives in a concrete way. Veni Sancte Spiritus. Veni per Mariam.

“Let it be done to me according to your word.” God takes the initiative. We need a poverty of spirit to be available, attentive, and receptive to what Christ is doing before our eyes in order to renew the wonder, beauty, and thrill of being called to this life.

The Retreat for Priests provided the opportunity, through many moments of beauty, silence, fraternity, and the incomparable witness of Msgr. Albabcete, for me to hear again that question of Christ, “What are you looking for?” (i.e., “What do you desire?”) in order to be renewed in that experience of following Him that verifies the “immense gift” that the priesthood of Jesus Christ is in my life and for humanity itself.