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The Paradoxes of Priesthood

Fr. Joel Priesthood

It has been ten years since Bishop David Zubik ordained me a Catholic priest. I’ve served three assignments all with multiple parishes. I’ve been very challenged and very blest and I’ve learned a thing or two. I want to share a little of what I’ve learned in the hope that it might benefit you. I’m certainly not done learning; nor do I always live what I have learned. But at ten years of ministry I think it’s time to look back and put a few thoughts into words.

Priesthood is a Lot of Work

As a young priest you want to change the world. And the world needs a lot of changing. So you set out to write world-class homilies, teach great classes on the Catholic faith, and say Yes to as much work as you possibly can. And just when you think your plate is full, a funeral drops in your lap. Emergency calls aren’t that common, but they do come at the worst possible times. Once I was called to the hospital just as 8 parishioners and a Bishop showed up at my house for dinner. True story. You work nights and every weekend. You always work Christmas and Easter. You get one day off a week unless someone dies and wants their funeral on Monday. Priesthood is a lot of work.

You Never Get Anything Done

The harder you work, the less of a difference you seem to be making. People keep hurting each other, leaving the Catholic Church, and finding a hundred other things to do on a Sunday morning besides coming to your church for Mass. You can spend an hour or two counseling someone. The next day it’s a new person with a worse story. You start the day with five things to get done. You tackle to 1 and 1/2 of them, and 3 more come up. You spend a lot of time in meetings, and then you spend more time in meetings. And nothing seems to get done.

You Are All Alone

You live alone. You spend a lot of time driving in the car, alone. I don’t have pets, only houseplants. And they often look wilted because I forgot to water them. When I get tired of eating in my house alone, I go out to a restaurant to eat alone. “Just you, or are more coming?” asks the hostess. “Just me,” I say. And then I start to justify it in my head: I really do have friends. They just happen to all be busy tonight. And I decided at the last minute to go out… But no, it’s OK. If I look around I realize I’m not the only one eating alone. Other people are there too, and they’re all on their phones. I try not to be on my phone the whole time. I take in the scenery and enjoy the food, even if I’m by myself. And then you discover that it’s not such a big deal after all. It’s OK to be by yourself. It’s OK to live alone. You stop hating that fact and just embrace it.

You Are Never Alone

A funny thing happens when you learn to be OK with being alone: You discover that you are not alone. Often times a group will invite me to join them for a meal, or I sit at the bar and have interesting conversations: things that never would have happened if I had brought a friend. People are always willing to help a priest, welcome him into their home, or let him borrow their cabin. I’m surrounded by family and friends wherever I go. And my best friend, Jesus, is always with me. I learn to look for him and keep up the conversation with him. We all need some key friendships to keep us rooted. My deepest friendship is with the God who loves me. And I am never alone.

Amazing Things Happen

Remember all those days when nothing seemed to get done? You look back and realize you’ve covered a lot of ground. A conversation that seemed insignificant to me changed someone’s life. A couple got married and now you get to baptize their babies. Some small initiative starts changing lives. The people who are touched by it go out and change more lives. And they come back grateful. I have a hard time accepting their gratitude because it feels like I didn’t do much. And in actual fact I didn’t do much. But the Holy Spirit was working too, and just needed me to say a few words.

You Don’t Have to Work so Hard

A few words is all that’s required; sometimes words aren’t even required. You don’t have to fix every person, solve every problem, and have every answer. You can look things up and get back to people. People will be back again. If they don’t come to you, they’ll show up elsewhere and get help elsewhere. You are just one piece of the puzzle, one point of light in a shining sky. The parish has been around long before I was born and will be here long after I’m gone. I hope they fondly remember the time I spent with them. But another priest will be along eventually to ruin all my work, or to fix all the mess I’ve made, depending on how you look at it. Every problem doesn’t have to be solved before you go to bed at night. You learn to stop looking at the piles. Instead I try to remember to ask, “God, what do you want us to do today?” And I just do those things, and I try not to worry about the rest. And amazing things happen, because you are not alone.