In this season of sending graduates off with a pat on the back and a few inspiring words, we may forget about a very special group that needs its own brand of encouragement: newly ordained priests. Word On Fire contributor Fr. Damian Ference, after 10 years "on the job," has some sound words for his brethren, and with a few semantic adjustments, are applicable to all of us.
I was humbled when the folks at Word on Fire asked me to write this piece. I just celebrated my 10th anniversary of ordination two weeks ago, and although I do teach at the seminary, there’s always something in me that thinks, “I am not qualified for such an important mission of forming young men to be priests.” But then I remember the words of Saint Paul: “God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies those he calls.” So with that in mind, I offer my newly ordained brothers 10 things to keep in mind as they begin their priestly ministry. (Admittedly, this list is far from exhaustive, but hopefully it’s helpful.)
Be Human: Why start here? Why not start with prayer or spirituality? Well, I start here because this was the starting point of Christianity – The Incarnation. God didn’t come to us as an angel, he came to us as a man, as a human being like ourselves in all things but sin. God became man in the person of Jesus in order to make God accessible and approachable. Jesus brings us salvation in his very flesh. He brings us divinity in his humanity. So, as human beings, we find our divinity in our humanity. A priest must never forget that the same is true of his vocation. Running from our humanity is no way to find holiness or redemption, and it’s no way to minister to the people of God. It’s only when we run to the One who reveals man to himself that we find ourselves and we find our mission. So, never forget you are a priest, but don’t forget that first you are a human being.
Pray: In Gift and Mystery, John Paul II’s reflection on his fifty years of priestly service, he writes: “If we take a close look at what contemporary men and women expect from priests, we will see that, in the end, they have but one great expectation: they are thirsting for Christ. Everything else – their economic, social, political needs – can be met by any number of people. From the priest they ask for Christ!” A priest’s primary mission is to bring Jesus to others, but you can only give what you have first received. If a priest is not a man of prayer, he will not be able to teach his people to pray. If a priest doesn’t know Jesus, he will not be able to lead others to Him. If a priest doesn’t know the voice of the Shepherd, how can he teach others to listen to Him? Prayer is the foundation of the priesthood. Praying the Office, praying with scripture, contemplative prayer, Eucharistic Adoration, and continuous communication throughout the day with the Triune God keeps the priest healthy and holy. Priesthood is busy; make time for prayer every day.
Honor Your Pastor: Just as you don’t get to choose your parents, newly ordained priests don’t get to choose their first pastor. Trust that your bishop and his advisors prayerfully discerned your assignment and then make the deliberate choice to honor and respect your pastor. I remember being very disappointed upon receiving my first assignment and meeting my pastor for the first time. He was a baby-boomer, ordained in 1968, and he was the only pastor who didn’t wear his clerics to the meeting. Being a newly ordained priest of the John Paul II Generation, I thought the assignment spelled disaster, as on paper the two of us couldn’t be more different. But my priest mentors encouraged me to bring an open mind and an open heart to the assignment, and so I did. Four years later when I left the parish, I couldn’t have asked for a better first pastor. So my brothers, love your first pastor – will his good. Don’t try to run the parish or make any radical changes in your first year. Do what he asks of you. Ask his permission, and keep him informed on what you are doing and where you are going. Pray for him and tell him the truth. Don’t talk about him behind his back, and keep his confidence. Most bishops take first assignments for priests very seriously, so trust that you are in the right place and with the right pastor. Show your pastor honor and respect – it’ll make for a good first assignment.
Love Your People: No matter where Jesus met a person, he loved them right where they were. Your love for your parishioners must imitate the love of Jesus – it must be the love of Jesus. It is important to challenge your parishioners, and to address the lies of the culture, and to preach and teach boldly and courageously. But in the words of Saint Paul, if these acts are not done in love, they are nothing but a noisy gong or a clashing cymbal. If you are like most priests, you probably have a family member or two that are not the most active in their faith – my priest friends and I affectionately call these folks our “pagan siblings.” Keep your pagan siblings in mind often, and love your people with the love and compassion with which you would want a brother priest to show to your own family members. Meet your people where they are and love them. When they are convinced that you love them, then they’ll be willing to move to a better place, namely, into the arms of the Father.
Be A Friend to the Young: Let me tell you a secret: young people love being around their priest. It doesn’t matter if you a 26 or 56, your young parishioners already look up to you and want to spend time with you. More than any other group in the parish, your young brothers and sisters see you as Jesus and want to be near you. Visit them in the school, teach them in the classroom, walk through the cafeteria and ask what they are eating for lunch, throw a football on the playground, spend a minute trying to jump rope, join the youth group on the Right to Life March, go on the ski trip, participate in service projects, get involved in youth ministry, go see your high school students act and sing and play sports, and pray with them whenever you can. But, you may ask, “What about the abuse scandal?” Let me tell you something: neglect of our young people is also an abuse. Keep your proper boundaries for sure, but be a good, chaste, and charitable priest, and know that your presence means the world to your young people. John Paul II said it best: “The young need guides, and they want them close at hand.” Don’t be afraid to be a Christian witness to your young parishioners.
Take Time Away: God made the world in six days and then he rested. You too need your rest. Unlike most folks, we work on weekends, and we work a lot. Take your day off. You need it. And quite honestly, your parish needs it too. Visit family, hang out with priest friends, go to a museum, read, nap, have a good meal, see a movie, play music, or go on a hike. And take your vacation as well. Plan it in advance because your calendar will fill up very quickly. The same goes for your annual retreat. You are expected to take your time away so that you can be refreshed in order to give yourself fully to Jesus and to your brothers and sisters in priestly service. A burnt-out priest has nothing to give because he’s completely spent. You are a priest forever, but in order to be a good one, you need to make time for rest, retreat and recreation.
Be Healthy: And the Word became flesh… God became man to show us who he is. Jesus had (has) a body, and it was with his body that he offered us salvation. It is with your body that you bring his salvation to your parishioners in Word and Sacrament. Take care of it. It’s no secret that there aren’t as many of us priests as there used to be. Your ministry is vital to the Church and her mission, so don’t do anything that would shorten your years of service or somehow inhibit or lessen your ability to serve the people of God. Exercise – walk, bike, swim, run or kayak. Eat healthy. (This is tough, because the people of God are always offering choice foods to their priest!) If you are going to drink, drink in moderation, and never alone. And although the Catechism says tobacco use is morally acceptable in moderation, be very honest with yourself about your use of tobacco. A cigar or pipe every now and then can be enjoyable, but an addiction to cigarettes will keep you from being your best. Your body is a temple; treat it as one.
Read: Yes, you just completed a very rigorous formation program and you ought to be excited to be done with your reading assignments, papers and exams so that you can finally put that education to work as you shepherd your new flock. But know that good priests always stay active in the intellectual life, and the Church needs you to be a good priest. We need you to keep studying the faith so that you can be an excellent teacher and preacher. We need you to be knowledgeable, confident, articulate, enthusiastic, and credible. I’m sure that your seminary did a good job preparing you for your first assignment, but it’s your responsibility to continue to read and study and keep yourself current in theology and theological issues. Subscribe to good journals; reread your favorite texts from the seminary and buy new ones; consult quality biblical commentaries; know the Catechism and the documents of the Second Vatican Council well, especially since you’ve been ordained in the Year of Faith. And don’t limit your reading to theology. Read good novels and excellent poetry. Become a fan of history and make new friends in biographies. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t also encourage you to study the perennial philosophy. After all, the greatest problems that the Church has to deal with in the twenty-first century are philosophical, not theological, in nature.
Be Honest and Accountable: Now that you are ordained, your time of formal evaluation at the seminary has come to an end. You will not have to write an annual self-reflection and listen to faculty feedback again. But, now your entire parish and the diocese will evaluate you. I don’t mean formally, as your formation faculty evaluated you. I mean that because you are their priest, they will watch you closely to see what kind of man you are. And they have good vision. Look, no priest is perfect and we’ve all had our moments of weakness. But the difference between a good priest and one who isn’t so good is that when a good priest struggles, he doesn’t keep it a secret – a good priest has someone to hold him accountable and to help him get better. A good priest sees his spiritual director and confessor regularly, and he doesn’t hide anything. A good priest is honest about his joys, but also about his sorrows. Let your spiritual director or a trusted (priest) friend know when you are hurting, when you are sad, when you are angry, when you are lonely, and when you desire the arms of another. Like any vocation, priesthood isn’t always easy, but there are folks to help you when you get weak or if you fall. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. And keep an eye out on your brother priests too. We need to take care of each other and hold each other accountable.
Jesus Saves: It’s easy for priests to fall into the Messiah complex. After all, we do stand In Persona Christi when we celebrate the Sacraments. But at the end of the day, Jesus is the one who does all the saving. He simply humbles himself to work through you. Let him save you. Let him love you. Let him live in you. If you find yourself overworked, irritated, upset, angry, envious, frustrated, or underappreciated as a priest, it’s probably because you’ve forgotten that Jesus saves, not you. The best gift you can ever give your parishioners is to let him love you so that you can, in turn, share what you have received with them.
Rev. Damian J. Ference is a priest of the diocese of Cleveland. He is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and a member of the formation faculty at Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio.