Priesthood Is Who I Am, Not What I Do

By Father William G. Smith

This is a reprint of part of an ongoing series in The Tablet by priests of the diocese marking the Year for Priests [2009] and reflecting on what the priesthood has meant to them.

Thirty years ago, I was sent as a newly ordained priest to St. Saviour’s Church in Park Slope. I was given a list of homebound parishioners to visit each month with Holy Communion and as much comfort and support as I could muster. It was then, as now, one of the usual tasks of a priest and I did not give it any special thought. I hope I brought them some comfort. I know I brought little wisdom but I received from them the most basic lessons of priesthood.

Through the visitation of the sick, especially the dying, I had the privilege of meeting many wonderful people whose courage and faith were deeply inspiring but I will limit myself to one lady and two experiences.  We will call her Ruth.  She was in her 70s and had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  She knew her time was limited and as palliative care was not as developed as now so she would often be racked with pain. I brought Communion to her every week and, as she was approaching the end, suggested that we celebrate Mass in her home with her family and friends.

This was my first experience with “Last Rites” in the strict sense of the term: Confession, anointing and Communion.  The entire Mass was moving and memorable but Communion was unforgettable.  When I placed the host on her tongue, she said, “I cannot wait to die.” My immediate reaction was, given the pain she was in, neither would I. In the next breath, she said, “So I can thank Jesus for everything He gave me.”  There was joy in her eyes.

Within a few days, she was confined to bed. When I next visited her, she kept repeating, “She shouldn’t have done it, she shouldn’t have done it.” Her aide, it seems, had picked her up by herself to bathe her. I assured her that the young woman was very strong and she was in no danger. Ruth, with some exasperation in her voice, told me that she knew that, but the aide could have hurt her back and she (Ruth) would be dead in a week.  Her prophecy was correct. She died a week later.

I certainly knew at that time the Eucharist means to give thanks and could have given a creditable explanation of why this was important. I also knew that the Second Vatican Council called the liturgy “the source and summit of the Christian life” but that a relationship with Jesus could be more real than desperate pain was beyond my experience.

Her understanding of the Eucharist was far deeper.  Her faith had taught her that any contact with God was a source of rejoicing and ‘in everything give thanks’ was more than something to put on a banner. It was engraved on her heart.  I knew then that this insight would require a long journey from my head to my heart. Thirty years later, it is still travelling.

Several months before, I had requested that Romans 12:1-2 be read at my Ordination Mass. St. Paul tells the Romans to worship God as thinking beings “by offering your living bodies as a holy sacrifice.”

I had chosen this mostly because my favorite theologians had written concerning it and I liked the idea that it connected prayer and action. This rather bloodless understanding was given flesh for me when I saw Ruth more interested in another person’s back than her own bones. It was not something she thought about; it was who she was. Her life had taught her that it was better to give than to receive and if Jesus puts the needs of others first, shouldn’t she?  As we are reminded in the Letter to the Philippians: “In your minds you must be the same as Jesus Christ.”

Every day at Mass when consecrating the wine, I say, “Do this in memory of me.” Saying the words of Jesus never loses its shock value.  I have discovered, however, that the observation that the “this” of which Jesus speaks begins with the offering of the Mass but includes His entire life is far more shocking and must be reflected in what I did after Mass.

Because Jesus freely accepted His death, He became our savior.  Many of those I visited accepted their pain and suffering and became His disciples. Without the same dedication and sacrifice, a priest would be something I did, not someone I am.

This needs constant nourishing not only from prayer and ministry but also from example, and so I do not wish to suggest that I had nothing to learn after I left St Saviour’s in 1984. In 1996, I was appointed pastor of Holy Rosary in Bedford-Stuyvesant, now a church in St. Martin de Porres parish.

Msgr. James Cooney, the outgoing pastor, reviewed the finances and the state of the building with me. When he finished with the practicalities, he said that we would discuss the most important thing.  He then listed the saints he had found in the parish.  They were not necessarily the best contributors, nor the most talented or prestigious members of the parish but they were the most holy ones. He assumed that I would realize that these were the people I most needed to know.  He may have assumed more maturity on my part than I had at the time but he was correct that I did need them and became a better priest because of their inspiration and guidance.

It is one of the great joys of the priesthood that we meet people in such intimate ways at the most difficult times of their lives. We often find many holy people hidden in plain sight. It is from them that I have been guided and nurtured.  Priests are works in progress and I have found that I have traveled farthest because of the parishioners who truly lived what I attempted to proclaim.