One of the first items I purchased for my first parish office as a priest was a respectable piece of artwork. Truthfully, after living on a college budget for most of my years of seminary, receiving my first real paycheck was quite exhilarating. After doing a bit of “artio divina” on a few online art venues, one piece stood out: “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Rembrandt. This, I thought, would make for a good image to have in my office for a person coming in to talk about any variety of issues.
Admittedly, Rembrandt’s Christological window into the chaos of the storm also provided me a touch of humorous relief considering how often parish life can be a swirl of chaos. I, however, had no idea how profoundly the message—that Jesus truly is with you amidst any storm or trial—would resonate with my first year of priesthood.
Within my first year of priesthood the Church experienced scandal in the US and worldwide Church with particular regard to Theodore McCarrick and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, both of which I had to address my first weekend at my new parish. In my own diocese, a young priest, whom I attended seminary with and knew well, was caught in a horrific scandal that brought immeasurable levels of shock, hurt, and betrayal to many in the diocese. Now, the world is experiencing the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, which will provide—for many priests, but certainly for myself—a rather awkward first celebration of the Sacred Triduum as a priest. The waters have been a bit choppy.
Knowing in hindsight all that has come to pass this year, someone could reasonably ask whether or not I would still have laid my body down on the marble of St. John’s Cathedral last May, surrendering my life to all in priestly service. My answer: Being in the boat with Jesus, even if the waters are terrifyingly tempestuous, is better than jumping ship. God is in the boat and I am not a good swimmer.
Yes, this first year of priesthood has been a rough go in some senses; but it has also been incredibly grace-filled. Certainly, there have been moments of questioning and doubt, but more overpowering have been the feelings of courage, hope, and even excitement that—by the hand of the Holy Spirit—have helped reinforce a positive perspective of the Church’s future of transformation and revival.
The Holy Spirit, as our faith professes, is the reality of God who is not distant from us, but is intimately weaved into our everyday lived experience. Our challenge as Christians is to more clearly perceive the work of God in every moment—whether that moment is desirable or not. Many times, however, our great struggle lies in the temptation to interact with a God who is two-dimensional, rather than three.
Without the Holy Spirit, God can easily become an idea, a thing our mind aspires to grasp, rather than a person with whom we have a relationship and practice an active trust. Often, we can either forget about the presence and power of the Holy Spirit truly at work, or we try to substitute ourselves into the “third person place” of the Trinity, seeking to rely on our own perceived power to direct and control our lives. True Christianity, however, is much more about abandonment than self-reliance.
So what does the Holy Spirit’s work of transformation and revival look like in some of this year’s trials? After the McCarrick scandal and Grand Jury Report, some priests and myself entered a period of prayer and fasting for the victims, for the clergy who had abused children, and for those who allowed the abuse to persist. Entering into a period of bodily deprivation (Food on Wednesdays and Fridays and alcohol for three months) and extra prayer (a daily Divine Mercy Chaplet) helped to bring hope and peace to a scandal about which I was disgusted and about which I felt helpless to bring any actual healing. Further, the transparency we shared during those months, including the graces and struggles of our interior lives, brought its own strengthening consolation.
After news broke of my own priest friend who was caught in a horrific scandal, I immediately called his classmates and other priests who were close to him. Since there were no real words that could be shared in explanation about what had happened, our only response was to gather—from different corners of the diocese, late on a Thursday evening—in prayer before our Eucharistic Lord. Our time of intimate prayer together, I knew, had been brought about by the Spirit. As we laid all of our raw emotions and wounds before Jesus, I have no doubt that the grace we received from the Father that night poured directly into our preaching and ministry the following weekend.
In the days to follow, it was extraordinarily affirming to receive so much support from many people in the diocese—clergy and lay—who I had come to know over my years in seminary. As I had also been a seminarian intern at the parish my priest friend had served, I watched the Spirit’s power unfold as he moved me to help support—beyond my own knowledge or competence—some of the parish staff whom I had come to know and love.
Lastly, the Holy Spirit, for me, has clearly been working through the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the quarantine, families—without overbearing schedules due to school and sports—are forced to be families again. We know just how much we need families who live, laugh, love, play, and pray together and, further, for more than just a brief moment once a week. It has been amazing to see families outside together when I am out for my run around the neighborhood. It’s like God wants us to use this time to relearn how to be human again.
On my end of things, I am certainly thankful that I do not yet have the responsibilities of being pastor, but I am excited to see where Jesus wants to lead me during this time. Right as the situation was beginning to evolve and before public Masses were banned, I had already begun to pray, “Alright Lord, everything is changing. Show me the priest you want me to be.” Due to the circumstances—a priest who is cut off from his people—I have ventured onto the digital plane in a way that I had not previously anticipated and am already seeing fruit from his guidance. I have also taken up a daily holy hour, which I had intended to practice from the beginning of priesthood, but had not yet made it important.
Looking back, it really has been one heck of a first year of priesthood. Yet, ultimately, God does not desire the suffering of humanity. He allows for trials—just as he allowed the disciples to venture into the tumultuous storm at sea—to help bring about conversion, the turning of our hearts back toward him. Nearing the end of this first year of priesthood, I turn to Almighty God, not in frustration and despair, but in faith. In faith, I know that God’s Spirit will continue the journey with me, just as he has this whole year: loving, supporting, and guiding, no matter what kind of waters are ahead.