Sunday, November 26, 2006

my old... er... previous spiritual director's vocation story

I was thinking about the upcoming Christmas Break and about maybe helping out my old... er... previous spiritual director at his two parishes for the Christmas Masses. Then I remembered that I hadn't read his homily online in a while. I checked the website and found his homily for Sun Oct 29 which was Priesthood Sunday. In it he shared his vocation story which is always good to hear. I thought it would make a good post:

I was the most anxious altar server that St. Stephen Martyr Grade School had ever produced. I loved to serve Mass, especially on the weekdays during the school year. In the cafeteria every morning I would go around to the other boys who were assigned to serve the 8:00 AM daily Mass and ask if I could take their place. After a couple months of this, one of my classmates asked me: "what’s wrong with you, do you want to be a priest or something?" "No, you schmuck," I told him, "you guys just haven’t figured this thing out yet." If you serve the morning Mass, you get out of your first class of the day. And if you did a good job, whenever there was a funeral, father would remember your name and ask for you to serve. And if you did a good job at the funeral, then you got to go with father to the cemetery, and on the way home he’d stop at McDonald’s. If you worked it right, you wouldn’t have to go to any class and you’d get a happy meal out of the deal. Young Paul Beach, in fifth grade, had stumbled upon a gold mine!

Such is the beginning of my vocation to the priesthood…not with the most pure of intentions. Today, the weekend of October 29th, is "priesthood Sunday." I want to take the opportunity to talk about something that we stand in great need of in our local Church: vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and also to reflect a little bit about my own priesthood and what it means to me. Kind of like a "state of the priesthood address" for your pastor. Because, while I joke around about the discovery of my vocation as an altar boy at St. Stephen’s, there is a tremendously serious side to it as well.

You see, when I was growing up I wanted to be a doctor. Or at least to do something in medicine. The main reason for this, I believe, was due to some desire on my part to be of help to people. It was because of this interest on my part that I spent several summers volunteering at Audubon Hospital, not far from my home where I grew up. That first summer I was not at all happy with the place they put me in the hospital: on the fifth floor refilling patient’s water pitchers. No, I wanted to see "some of the action." Well, I got my wish. There must have been something either about me, or something crazy about the hospital, that they allowed me to work in the emergency room the next summer. I distinctly remember one afternoon. EMS had brought in a patient, a guy of only about 45 or so, who had had a massive heart attack. I stood there in disbelief, watching on as doctors and nurses and technicians of all sorts ran in and out of that room, shouting all sorts of unintelligible orders. After 40 minutes or so the medical team had done all that they could, and one by one they left the room. One by one, each medical appliance was shut off and the lights were dimmed in the room. A few minutes went by, and eventually this man’s family were brought down the hallway, led by a priest. It was then that something struck a chord in my fifteen year old’s brain. That, in spite of the tremendous work that doctors and nurses do, there comes a point in time when medicine can no longer be of help to a man. Who is it then, at that point, who steps in? A priest! I thought to myself. If I want to do something with my life to be of help to people, then I must give some thought to being a priest.

Well, after thinking a lot about this, after getting more involved at my parish, and after the influence of several wise people God put in my life, I decided to enter seminary after High School. An eight year journey began that would lead me to Ordination. Now there were several bumps along the road during those eight years. There was the rigor of classes, and the overall routine of seminary life. There was the matter of simply putting up with a hundred other 18-20 year olds, who themselves were experiencing difficulties. Leaving seminary myself at one point, only to return a year later. All along the road those eight years, that desire to spend my life serving in some way motivated me to get up each morning and deal with whatever it was I had to deal with that day. I still remember the admonition of one of our priest professors about a week or so before Ordination: "remember boys," he said, "when you lie face down on that cathedral floor, you get up as personal property of the Church." The point being that this only makes sense if you do this to serve. Give up any picture of glorification. The world that we were being sent into was not all that anxious to hear the gospel any more. It really never has been.

In the five and a half years now since that day, I have had some incredible experiences. Both high moments and low. I was assigned as an assistant for three years at two large suburban parishes in Louisville. And at the tender age of twenty eight I was made a pastor of our two parishes here in Meade county. At each of the places I have served I have been blessed to know people of tremendous faith. People who live heroically, living out the faith in spite of their own personal struggles. At those times when I have experienced my own personal struggles: when I sit at my computer to prepare a homily and nothing comes out, when I feel that my prayer is dry and God seems very distant, when I struggle, it is those times especially when the faith you have serves as a shot in the arm.

After five years now as a priest I sometimes think of would I do it all over again? Knowing what the last five years have been like, would I go back to that cathedral, lie face down on the floor, place my hands in the hands of the bishop, and do it all over again? This is the million-dollar question. To be honest, sometimes I don’t know. Like a lot of you who are married know all too well, sometimes you lie in bed at night and think: "what have I gotten myself into?" In all honesty, if I could go back five years and do it all over again, would I? I think I probably would. But perhaps that’s not really the best question though. Perhaps the best question is this: "will I do it today?" Yes. Yes, I will do it today. Today, and with God’s help, tomorrow.

You know, no matter who we are, whether a priest or a married person, sometimes we get far too caught up in the sacrifices of this life. We’re all too familiar with the things that priests are called to give up. A wife, a family, a stable home, your weekends. Take two, three, four or five parishes. When the Bishop calls and asks you to up and move, the correct answer is always "yes." We get so caught up in what we sacrifice that we lose sight of what we gain.

Being called to serve as a priest is one of the most humbling, awesome experiences that I could ever imagine having. To be able to represent in a special way the presence of Christ, as a priest is called upon so many times to do, is truly a humbling and awe-inspiring experience. I can’t tell you how many times - sitting in a confessional, holding a sick person’s hand at the hospital - that words came out of my mouth that I have no idea where they came from. Words of consolation, words of insight and compassion. The summer I spent as a chaplain at University Hospital in Louisville, faced with some of the most tremendous of human tragedies and loss, and I was given the strength not to turn around and run the other way. If I haven’t been a miserable failure as a priest then it’s certainly no credit to me, but credit only to God, who in spite of my numerous failures and shortcomings, has seen fit to produce something out of me. This, in itself, is a miracle.

So why aren’t young men clamoring to the priesthood nowadays? Is it because God isn’t calling them? Is it because of celibacy? The late nights when the phone rings and you end up at the hospital? Is it because of the promise of obedience? In my heart of hearts, I don’t believe so. What I believe is this: we live in a world that tells us, that to live a happy and fulfilled life you have to have the nicest things, the best things, and the most things. That fulfillment and happiness come from material possessions and immediate personal gratification. While it can be debated how well we may live it, a priest’s life is called to be something radically different from that. We are meant to give things up, not because it’s a bad thing to have a family and wife and successful careers, but to serve as a reminder to our world that there is something more important than material possessions. To live lives that are as closely related to Christ’s life as possible, who dedicated His very being to the Will of His Father. This, I think, is why we are so short on vocations right now, because what we are called to preach by the living of our lives is so radically different than what you hear anywhere else in our world today.

I know – I’m convinced – that there are young people in our two parishes, who are called in a special way to serve God as a priest or religious. To offer their lives as radical witnesses to God’s love at work in our world. These people might think to themselves: I’m not good enough, I’m not holy enough, not a good public speaker, I don’t think I could sacrifice what needs to be sacrificed. These are the very same excuses that I have tried to give to God myself. And they are all, each and every one of them, true. Left to my own devices, I’m not good enough, holy enough, and God knows, I’m not the greatest public speaker. God’s heard all of these excuses before. And together, they amount to very little. What amounts to a great deal is only this: "will I do it today?" Yes. Yes today, and with God’s help, tomorrow as well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

excellent conversion story :D when do we get to hang out with him again?