The Salvation of a Catholic Priest
The wiry, old Irish woman lined up all eight of us children on the first day of her new job as our home cleaning lady. She wanted to meet us; and so like toy soldiers, we all stood at attention awaiting her military inspection. Without hesitation, Mary, the housemaid, pointed her long, thin finger at me as if she knew something none of us knew.
She was hired by my mother, who was pregnant at the time, to clean our large, six-bedroom house. I think we stood at attention since we were afraid of the old woman. I know I was afraid of her. I recall one time sliding down the bannister railing to avoid stepping on her newly polished steps. She was from the old school of thought, if you will. She valued authority and order and discipline at the expense of others’ feelings and sensitivities. Her word was law.
As she pointed me out among my seven siblings that very first day, she stated to my mother, “This one is to be the priest.”
I later recalled the prophet Samuel going to the house of Jesse because the Lord had chosen one of his sons to be successor to Saul as king of Israel. The Lord made it clear to Samuel not to look at a man’s appearance, but rather to look into a man’s heart. It is God’s way to look at our heart. A clean and upright heart is our God’s desire. Samuel looked at the seven sons of Jesse before him and his spirit was not moved to choose any.
He said to Jesse “Are these all the sons you have?” Jesse answered, “There is still the youngest tending the sheep.” Samuel said, “Send for him.” So he sent for him and brought him before Samuel.
Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.” So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David (1 Samuel 16:11-13).
Years later, this word through the old Irish Christian proved to be prophetic. I did go on and become a Roman Catholic priest. In my senior year of high school, I fought off impulses to enter the seminary, but in the end I submitted to that greater voice within pulling me in a direction I did not want to go. I took the archdiocesan entrance examination with hundreds of other candidates in 1966. Secretly, I was hoping that I would be rejected. News came that they wanted me; and because I ranked first in the entrance exam, I would be sent immediately to the Vatican in Rome for ten years of study. The thought overwhelmed me.
As the summer wore on into August, I submitted again to an inner voice that pounded in my heart. The voice was calling me to be a priest. I realized no rest would come to me until I answered this unique invitation from God. No rest would come back to my soul until I turned over my will to Him. His invitation bellowed within me the sound, “Come closer.” The words of poet Francis Thompson spring to mind in his brilliant, poetic work The Hound of Heaven:
I fled Him down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him down the arches of the years;
I fled Him down the labyrinth ways of my own mind;
And in the midst of tears I hid from Him…
Francis Thompson was a tortured soul, yet in spite of his madness and alcoholism this genius puts his very finger of the essence of God’s desire to pierce our souls more deeply. True happiness is an illusion except in following hard after God and His path for us in life. Misery comes in following false illusions. Thompson’s genius likewise awakens us to how much God is hunting for our very souls. The reason for the hunt is clear. God simply wants to be with us more than anything else. This truth is something I was to learn over the following years.
I attended the seminary thinking I would serve God and His people. I thought I could do something for God. I was wrong. He wanted to do something for me.
And so, in 1966, I entered the Catholic Seminary of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The model of formation at the place was more monastic and contemplative, although there was some time for sports, television entertainment, and leisure. I immediately had to address the scholarship to study in Rome. I told the deans I had to decline the honor, which would have taken me on a different path, that of administrative leadership within the church’s hierarchy through the Vatican. I opted for a humbler path as a parish, church pastor by remaining at the local seminary. My interests were more along the lines of working with people in an appointed church in the archdiocese. I wanted to be with them at important moments in time like birth, illness, marriage, crisis, and death. Becoming a pastor seemed more becoming to me.
Those long years in the seminary taught me much about philosophy, theology, and the Scriptures. In 1974, I was ordained with the sacrament of Holy Orders with thirty-two other young men in the basilica of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. My life as a priest was about to begin. The work at my first parish was good. The church where I was appointed had 2,300 families on the records. There was too much to do and too little time to do it. Preaching on Sundays was intimidating to me. Preparing an interesting sermon each week was demanding. I found I could talk about Jesus Christ and the Gospel, but something was lacking in my repertoire. The work I did in my ministry was somewhat fruitful. I worked with our school, which had more than 1,000 children enrolled.
I worked with the young, the elderly, nursing homes, hospital visitations, shut-ins, our sports programs, catechism program, and newcomers. I said Mass every day as well as officiated over baptisms, marriages, and funerals weekly. The people seemed to love me. Popularity was not a problem. Everyone loves a young, energetic priest. I should have been satisfied, but I wasn’t. Things were not happening around me like in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles.
There were no miracles, signs and wonders occurring! And I realized I had a problem with leading people in prayer when I didn’t seem to know God in an intimate manner.
Real, Intimate Love
I only knew about Jesus—I didn’t know Him personally. What I mean by this statement is that I knew I loved God and believed in a God who loved me, but I never experienced His love in the same way a person loves another. How could I know of His love for me except indirectly: through the loving parents I believed He provided; through my wonderful brothers and sisters and friends; and through all the material provisions I believed He gave me. This is how I knew He loved me indirectly.
But when someone encounters a person directly, they realize the truth about love in a different way. It becomes a whole different kind of reality. To fall in love with a person is a reaction to an emotional experience, not a case of intellectual idealism. It is no longer a matter that originates in the head or intellect. Our rationale and reason become subordinated to a chemistry dominated by feeling and irrational exuberance.
To know unconditional, consuming love is something that burns in a person’s heart and is engraved upon the person’s soul. It is an undeniable experience and an unforgettable memory indelibly marked in one’s consciousness. This is what it means to be in love. The moment of personal encounter is what a relationship with Jesus is all about. To really know Jesus is not to fall in love with the ideal about Him, but to actually fall in love with Him as a real person I have met. To fall in love with Jesus is not to fall in love with His teachings and then to follow them as a blueprint. It is to fall in love with Him personally, and then out of that love to follow His teachings.
This is a huge distinction that many fail to make. For example, there are those who go to church religiously on a Sunday morning because it is their routine, or it is expected of them, or it makes them feel good in serving God. Some feel by going to church they are appeasing a requirement of the commandments, which they are, but this is their sole motivation for going out of fear of not going.
The more quintessential question they need to be asking themselves should result in the fact that they want to be with the person they love most in life— namely, the Lord. Out of the relationship then comes the practice of prayer, church, and good works—the result of the love affair with the God they have personally encountered. This encounter cannot be replaced or substituted by any other person or thing this life has to offer. Jesus becomes the highest high. He is the only passion. False illusions like drugs and drink and any other kind of rush pale to the high God can provide. With David we can say:
Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked (Psalm 84:10).
In the Song of Songs, the Shulammite woman is longing for her lover. She has a passionate love for the lover of her soul. Her focus is solely upon Him. Her sensitivities are totally awakened to Him. With this reality in her life now clearly defined, all else in life is vain pursuit and vanity of vanities. Once He has captured her heart, there is no turning back for her. Her only true passion is for Him. Her pursuit after Him is set in motion by His touch and presence with her. It is not set off by anything she read about Him. It is not set off by anything anyone else has told her about Him.
It all occurs when they come face to face with each other. Boundless, endless love come crashing in through the mere presence of their chemistry together. She goes on to say to Him:
…Your love is more delightful than wine. Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out. No wonder the young women love you! Take me away with you—let us hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers (Song of Songs 1:2-4).
God desires an intimacy with Him irrespective of our gender. Passionate love for Him is therefore born out of a deep personal encounter. It is the encounter that makes it all real.
The Need and Hunger for More
The discrepancy between the reality and the ideal created a nagging tension within me. There had to be more to knowing God. There had to be more to ministry. As much as I tried to fit in with the normal duties of the priesthood like other clergy did, the more awkward and out of place I felt. I could not make this desire for more go away. Once again, that nagging feeling for more tugged at my soul. I had to have the real thing like in the days of the apostles. I had to see miracles in my life. Nothing else would bring contentment. My dissatisfaction could only be filled with more of Jesus.
When we come to a place of great need and hunger for more, this is where God comes through. One night while in prayer in my room, I wept and wept for more of God. I think I just didn’t know how to get there. I didn’t know how I could see miracles in my ministry. I was tired and worn out from performance. My personal performance was a type of perfectionism, especially in academics. It is not easy to be first in your class all through school. It is not easy to be valedictorian of a college and then valedictorian of a major university. But this is what I did. It won me accolades and hon ors in the short run, but created a problem of striving, achievement, and a false sense of self-worth.
Somehow, this plague leads ultimately to burn out. Anyone beset like this has high expectations of self. The pressure is unbearable. In my case, each Sunday I had to top my sermon with a better and more, clever sermon every week. Thank God deliverance from this curse was not far away. God loved me not because I was so smart and clever but simply because I was His son. I knew this with my head. I was about to know it in my heart.
As the dissatisfaction with my life grew more intense, I found myself in my prayers of desperation with God. “You have to do something” I would pray over and over again. At the point of desperation and great need, we can no longer continue with the status quo. The pain of remaining the same becomes so much greater than the pain of change—even if we don’t know what to expect in the change. When we have exhausted every avenue to find a better way, turned over every rock and stone, run out of options, choices, and paths to follow and pursue—it is a most uncomfortable place to be.
Our flesh, our works, and our talent that we are used to relying upon cannot create the “something new.” It is beyond our grasp and beyond our resources. We want it and we want to get there, but we don’t know how to do it. I wanted to see God perform miracles like in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles to help people in their lives and to show people how much God loves them. Yet I didn’t know how this was possible.
I was taught in seminary that the supernatural events of signs and wonders in the Book of Acts was for that period and time alone. It was not for today. The apostles were empowered by the Holy Spirit with supernatural gifts to help the early church develop and grow. With the death of the last apostle, they taught us that all signs and wonders ceased to exist. This is the common and time-honored teaching in the Roman Catholic church except for occasional miracles here and there.
In many Evangelical churches, the teaching is even more restrictive and absolute. Signs and wonders ceased with the death of the last apostle, they say. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are no longer manifested in the church of Jesus Christ today, they teach. We don’t need healing, they teach, since all emphasis is placed on the forgiveness of our sin Christ bought for us by His precious death.
With an inquisitive mind, I could not accept such rationale. Just because the twelve apostles died as men did not mean that the Holy Spirit died and left the church. Historical research is clear that miracles continued well into the third century c.e. and Christian communities thrived by faith in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit promised to be with believers as a Comforter, Counselor, Teacher, and Guide. The same Holy Spirit who descended upon the 120 gathered in the upper room in fear and trembling caused them all to be brave witnesses of the Gospel on Pentecost Sunday.
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them (Acts 2:4).
So it was not just the twelve filled, but all 120 gathered were filled with the power of the same Holy Spirit to preach, teach, heal, and deliver in Jesus’ precious name.
What this teaches us is that we must rely upon God’s Word as our standard of truth. We must pattern our Christian walk around the Word of God. Many believers healed in the New Testament beyond the apostles, like Ananias healing Saul’s blindness—Saul who became the apostle Paul and shared the Good News of the Gospel with the Gentiles (Acts 9:17). What all of these believers had in common was being filled with the Holy Spirit.
More than Hope and Encouragement
Up until now when I visited people in the hospital, all I could offer was hope and encouragement for them to get better. There is nothing wrong with hope and encouragement. The way I saw it, Jesus would walk into those rooms in the hospital and heal the sick. They would recover. My blessing and smile seemed inept and insufficient. There had to be a way to get Jesus into the hospital room for a complete recovery. Everything I read about Him in the Gospel pointed to a will to heal.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them (Matthew 4:23-24).
The night I was in prayer weeping for God to help me was not in vain. That night a peace and blessed assurance came over me like I had never known before. It was as if God was comforting me in my own room, personally telling me things were about to change. I could hear the words repeat inside me, “Do not let your heart be troubled. Have faith in God and have faith in me.” My faith was about to change. It would be a faith in which I knew He lived in me and He gave me great confidence.
I prayed to God to make Himself real to me. I surrendered my life to Him that night. I ran out of gas, as I like to put it, and knew I could not go on if things didn’t change. My way of living didn’t work anymore. Something new had to be born inside me. My works, my strivings, my sinful habits had to be washed away. God was permitted to make me a new, clean vessel and to start over again with me. That night I was born again! I later reflected on what Jesus said in John 3:3:
“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”