Roger was dying. He was actively dying! His arms were flailing about, actively fighting death. And his wife was next to him on the hospital bed, trying to control him.
I was greeted by this scene when I stepped into the hospital room at District One Hospital in Faribault, Minnesota. I had already anointed him and given him the apostolic pardon earlier, and there was not much I (nor anyone else) could do but wait. So I pulled out my Rosary and prayed. I felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to offer my first decade on the meditation of Christ carrying His Cross as Roger was actively dying. Then I began the second decade, meditating on Christ dying on the Cross.
And Roger’s wife grabs his head, looks at him in the eyes, and boldly yells, “Roger, you can go now! I give you my permission!” And Roger accepts the inevitable, stops flailing about, and simply dies.
A priest’s life is filled with many stories of humanity: birth, death, weddings—sometimes these events happening a few hours or even a few minutes apart from each other—conflicts, joys, crosses, leaking toilets, toxic gas spills, tornadoes, legal matters, sins, … all the many things that fill the drama of life. How should a priest pray through all this? For all this is enough for one lifetime, yet a priest experiences or encounters them many times over.
In John's Gospel, we learn the first part of the High Priestly prayer of Jesus right before His passion, death, and Resurrection. How He prays as He approaches Mount Calvary should be the way we priests should pray as we face the daily crosses of life.
John 17 is broken up into three parts. First, Jesus prays for Himself. Second, Jesus prays for His disciples. And third, Jesus prays for all future believers. Therefore, first, the priest should pray for himself.
His relationship with God takes center stage, especially a personal relationship with Our Lord, centered on the Eucharist. If the sacred liturgy is truly the source and summit of the Christian life, the man who is chosen by God to become a priest must bring all things—ALL—to the Cross of Christ, where Our Savior offers Himself to the Father. First and foremost, the priest brings himself to Christ. It begins here (pointing to the altar) where the priest brings his wounded self, offering his own brokenness on the paten and in the chalice. And he is not alone here—the Blessed Mother is here to help him, to unite his imperfect fiat to her perfect fiat and to surrender himself to the Providential will of the Father, through Christ’s sacrifice, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Just before I was ordained a priest 15 years ago, a dear friend, Bishop Paul Dudley said some wise words to my classmates and me. Bishop Dudley was the happiest priest I have ever met, and he has since gone to God. He said: “People think you have to be strong to become a priest. But rather, are you weak enough to become a priest?” We priests approach this altar in our weakness so that we may magnify the strength of God to the world.
I am a shy introvert who struggled with public speaking. Yet it is by the grace of God to whom I have surrendered this weakness that I echo the words of St. Paul in my preaching: “I did not shrink from proclaiming the entire plan of God.” In my 15 years of priesthood, that’s what always got me in trouble, not my weakness! I bet many of my brother priests could say the same thing.
In this God is glorified, when a priest can surrender himself to the Lord in his weakness and let the Lord use him (or not use him) as His instrument. This is Christ in His mission and in His prayer: that the love of God may be manifested through Him for the salvation of the world. And the priest does this in imitation of Christ—or rather, allows Christ to do this through him. “It is not I who live but Christ who lives in me.” This is where the priest lives out his fatherhood. All of our priestly stories come from here, in the places where we have lived out our fatherhood. The times I’ve put up with crazy-making brides and mothers of brides at weddings, the wiping of tears of spiritual directees, the beer can vase at a funeral, the shriving of souls in the confessionals, the woman I baptized, confirmed, and gave first communion to a few hours before her death, and the stories go on and on. It is the life of the Rosary lived out, bringing people to the Cross and Christ to people, living at the foot of the Cross with the Blessed Mother Mary in my home.
The greatest examples of such fathers for me (besides my dad) have been priests. I honor them today: Father James Higgins who was the first priest who ever gave me the Gospel; Fr. John Harvey whom I considered a mentor; Bishop Paul Dudley, Bishop Andrew Cozzens, and all the priests of the Companions of Christ. Abbot James Albers, Fr. Gabriel Landis, Fr. Simon Baker, and all the priests of St. Benedict’s Abbey. In particular, I want to recognize my brothers for their many years of priestly service:
- Fr. Donald Redmond – 60 years
- Fr. Roderic Giller – 55 years
- Fr. Duane Roy – 50 years
- Fr. Aaron Peters – 40 years
- Fr. Joaquim Carvalho – 35 years
I encourage you to share your stories own stories, of how you brought people to Christ and to heaven. These stories inspire and compel us to follow Christ the Lord more closely, receive and share His love with others, in order to bring them to heaven.
It was a sacred moment, serene, despite the cacophony of alarms going off on machines. A nurse entered, watched Roger die, and turned off the alarms. Roger’s wife wept as I concluded my decade of the Rosary, meditating on the death of Christ. Still holding Roger’s face in her hands, she cried out, “Go towards the light!”
I began a third decade on the Resurrection of Christ and rejoiced.