On June 3, 1995 I was ordained a Roman Catholic priest. These years have been and continue to be an amazing adventure! Over these years I have been confessor, teacher, parochial vicar, pastor, youth ministry director, vocation and seminarian director, university chaplain, confidant, counselor, committee chairman, pilgrim, retreat director and friend. I have experienced people automatically putting me on an unrealistic pedestal just for being a priest as well as people scorning, ridiculing, trying to convert me and automatically assuming things about me just for being a priest.
A couple of constants throughout my ministry have been building projects and working with youth and young adults. At my first assignment at All Saints Church in Knoxville I watched (and learned) as the multi-purpose building and rectory were built followed in short order by the church building itself. At Knoxville Catholic High School I assisted as the community left the old school and moved to a new property across town and I had a role in the design of the school chapel. When I arrived at St. Mary Church in Athens, TN as pastor I stepped into the design phase of the new church building project. In the course of five years we built the new church and rectory, literally picked up and moved the classroom building to the new property and sold the old property leaving the parish debt-free. In the course of my time at the Catholic Center at ETSU one focus I have had has been the renovation of the chapel and I can honestly say that I think it looks quite good and is a place of prayer and worship. But, even more than the building of structures, I have worked in the building and strengthening of Christian community.
Except for the couple of years focusing on the building needs at St. Mary Church in Athens my ministry has always had the component (if not outright focus) of working with youth and young adults. During these years I have been in the role of parish youth minister, diocesan youth ministry director (twice), high school chaplain and teacher (now twice) and college chaplain (now twice). My whole priesthood has been lived under the scandal of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and in a time when many priests express fear and worry of being too close to young people. For whatever reason I have been called back again and again to this ministry and I have chosen to say “yes” and remain with our young people. It has been a blessing.
My priesthood has been blessed, strengthened and perhaps even saved through the Community of Sant’Egidio. In a way that I can only describe as providence I met this community and now cannot even consider my life of faith apart from the community and their strange notion that yes, lifelong friendship is possible especially friendship with the poor! This community has helped me to name and clarify rumblings in my own soul and heart regarding the true work of the priest and the disciple of Christ. I have seen the danger of priest solely as CEO/administrator and I do not want that. I want to be a priest – a man whose whole life is rooted in the mystery of Christ and who lives and who acts in the ways of Christ. The community has helped me to see that there is a different way to live priesthood and discipleship and they have helped me to recognize that Christ is indeed encountered in faithful friendship with the poor.
Here are some things that I have learned in my years of priesthood:
It is not about me. This is freeing realization when all is said and done. The job of “Savior of the world” has already been taken and God is bringing about his Kingdom – end of story. I have my part to play and there is certainly work to do but the final result is not in question. This realization allows one to enjoy where one is at and also not think too highly of oneself. It also helps lead one into the grace of obedience and its wisdom that the world cannot understand.
It is the basics and it is the Gospel that truly matter. In my years as a priest I have seen and participated in a number of different programs, drives and activities … and some of them even worked! But when all is said and done – at least in my experience – it all comes back to the basics of the Christian life: serving and loving, proclaiming the Scriptures, breaking the bread and being a community in Christ.
To love Christ one must also love the Church. Warts and all, Christ loves his bride, the Church. I have a deep sorrow for those who cannot recognize this truth.
The Gospel can never be advanced by manipulation. Manipulation, in the name of Christianity does occur. I have seen it. It might get immediate results but it leaves long lasting wounds and resentment. God’s measure of success is not the world’s measure and part of growth in faith is to learn God’s measure.
The poor move us beyond politics. The poor help us to get real about a lot of things and help us to get beyond the “polarizations” that so much time and energy in our world is wasted upon – not an idea of the poor nor the poor as clients or the poor as a source of service credits but the poor as friends and as brothers and sisters.
Be human. No one will care how much you know until they know how much you care. God did not disdain becoming human in every sense but sin; why should we?
Good, Better, Best. This is a philosophy I learned from Fr. Anietie Akata. If you come to a place or situation which is not good then work to make it good. If it is good then work to make it better. If it has been made better then work to make it the best. It is a good philosophy to live by.
The love of Christ. Just recently while in prayer, sitting before an icon of the face of Christ, I was brought to a deeper awareness of God’s love. It seems that the journey of faith is a journey of coming to know in ever-deeper ways this love. God continually pours forth his love and this is truly at the heart of all creation.
I give thanks to God on this anniversary of my ordination! God is truly good in his blessings and in his love poured forth!
Congratulations on your anniversary! That's very sweet.
JBS Was Here said:
I've printed out the second part of your post and placed it on the rectory refrigerator in Townsend.
–Father J.B. Shelton