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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Priest Returns To "Normal" Life

The past week has included at least three sharing sessions, which has left me pretty “shared out,” but also allowed me to frame and reflect upon some of my experience as a new priest.

I find that I’m really missing the community which I served as a priest this summer. Even though I didn’t get to know most of them as well as I’d have liked to (with German study during the week, and rushing off to another mass during Sunday’s social time), I formed an intimate bond with them through our celebration of the Sacraments. There is an intimacy which comes with the regular celebration of Eucharist and Reconciliation with a community that is difficult to quantify or explain adequately, but that is very real. Thus, I feel a bond with the English-speaking communities of Frankfurt and Liederbach in Germany which I feel with no other community.

It was purely accidental but fortuitous that my first “parish” would be these communities in Germany. And I will be forever grateful that it worked out so. It gave me an opportunity to give myself over to my new priestly identity. Why? Because I had no choice! I arrived on a Wednesday to a place where I knew no one, to a place where they only knew me as a priest. By Saturday I was celebrating mass with the community, after only having met a few of the individuals that made it up. I had to figure the priest thing out as quickly as possible because, while that was not all I was to them, that was the part of my identity with which they were immediately most concerned. I was their “summer priest,” or transitional priest, until the new pastor arrived. There wasn’t much opportunity to ask what to do, or settle into the job. They expected that I would, more or less, know what I was doing (even if I wasn’t quite so sure). Indeed, one of the challenges of being a neophyte priest, I found, was that most of the people were only too willing to cede all of the authority to me. So, a question like “how would you like me to do this?,” would often be met with something like, “however you like” or “what ever you normally do, Father.” I would then have to remind them that since I’d only been a priest for a few weeks, “whatever you normally do” was not a category which existed for me! But we worked it out.

I got into a rhythm there. Mass in German during the week at the Jesuit community (someone else presiding, of course!), and then my English masses, one on Saturday night, two on Sunday morning. Often there were confessions to hear, before or after mass. I’d get vested, hoping that the lector, Eucharistic ministers, and altar servers would show up, and a few minutes before mass head to the back of the church for a brief prayer with the ministers, followed by the procession. Though there was sometimes some last-minute scrambling for help, most of the time the people scheduled showed up. At the start of one mass I realized we had no reader, but before I could say anything a kind parishioner took it upon himself to come up and do it! Emergency resolved! After mass I always lingered at the exit to greet the people on the way out. This helped me to get to know the people a little better, even if it was also a temporary delay of the post-mass letdown which I spoke of in a previous post. This, I learned, is one of the great challenges of priesthood. The priest moves from this intense experience of worship and intimacy with the community to being alone with himself. It both affirmed my choice to join a religious community and deepened my sadness at the lot of many of our diocesan priests who frequently have only an empty house to return to.

My summer community taught me far more than I expect they are aware. From little things like how to handle and integrate prayer intentions slipped to you only minutes before the mass begins to larger things like how to keep the community engaged during the homily. I don’t know if this community was unique, but while I know that some found some of the things I said challenging, only one time did I feel I had lost them. Preaching every week to them, I started to get a sense of what helped keep them engaged, and what didn’t. But again, like I said, that community, because of its international character and because many of them were very involved, may prove an exception to the rule of the typical Catholic community here in the States. Fingers crossed.

Indeed, that is now my greatest challenge. I was forced to dive in and be priest in my summer context. Really, once I made the commitment to being there, I had no choice. That was a great grace. But now, back to my “normal” life, back in Boston and back again in studies, my great challenge will be to figure out what it means for me to be priest in this context. I don’t yet have a regular parish community, and I certainly won’t in the way that I had this past summer, where I was their only priest for seven weeks. Being back home means that in many contexts (sitting in a classroom, for example) I am not really seen any differently than I was six months ago. In some ways that’s a relief! This means that my priestly identity, while always with me, is being exercised in a much more “occasional” way. I have the daily mass on Monday here; I have the Jesuit community mass on Thursday; I’m acting as a “supply” priest at a local parish on Sunday, etc. Then its back to class on Monday afternoon. Then there’s the mandatory Jesuit community meeting on Saturday. I have to make sure I have a ride to school next week. I must fit in some visits with family and friends. And, oh yeah, there’s that paper that’s coming due. In the midst of it all there are frequent announcements: “Priest needed here to do this or that.” I’ve seen the notices for years. Now, finally, I can respond. But, do I have the time? Shouldn’t I be careful not to get overcommitted? Things are suddenly much more complicated than they were in the summer, as I try to figure out how to be priest back in my “normal” life. Yet, as the saying goes, it’s a nice problem to have.