On this day, October 23, in 1849, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, Paulist Founder, was ordained a Redemptorist priest at St. Mary's Church, Clapton (London), by Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman. Years later, in his notes on Personal Sanctification of the Paulist and His Standard of Perfection,” Hecker wrote: "By virtue of ordination the priest becomes a conductor of God’s grace to the people, ex opere operato, through the means of the sacraments, and aids them by such other rites and ceremonies as the Church ordains. But besides this, as an individual the priest, the same as any other person in the state of grace, is personally, through baptism and his other graces, in communion with God, and thereby, according to his perfection, ex opere operantis, becomes a channel of grace to others."
Becoming a channel of grace to others is part of that distinctly priestly charism of pastoral charity, which we have been hearing about daily during this year's Knoxville priests' retreat. The theme this morning was The Priest as Good Shepherd. We were reminded today that the chief act of our pastoral charity as shepherds is the Eucharist and that we must never think of the time and energy spent in preparing for Mass and celebrating it devoutly as time and energy taken from our ministry. Personally, I have experienced how hard it is, especially when Mass is said not in the morning but at noon or later in the day, when I am already immersed in the busy-ness of the day, how hard it then is to take time and devote energy to prepare properly. Mass may easily, if I don't consciously take contrary precautions, seem like one more mid-day activity!
Today's conference stressed two aspects of our shepherding - the shepherd as head and the shepherd's voice. As a pastor of a parish, I am acutely conscious of the shepherd's standing at the head of the flock. It is, as we were reminded this morning, a call to administration, authority, and leadership. As someone who came to his pastorate little administrative experience, I have been very sensitive to the challenge of that essential, but somewhat unattractive aspect of ministry. It is often lamented that we learn so little about administration in seminary. Certainly, that defect could be remedied somewhat. Still, a lot must be learned on site. That, I suspect, was part of the wisdom of the old days when a priest remained a curate for years - even decades - learning by observing older, experienced pastors. Now so many diocesan priests are pastors in a year or two, and it must be hard for them to learn it all on their own. In that sense, I suppose I was lucky. My prolonged diaconate was followed by a prolonged apprenticeship - a full 13 years between the date when i should have been ordained and the day I became a pastor. I had lots of time to observe and internalize lessons about what to do - and not to do. Still, I remember my first day on the job, arriving at my office, sitting down at my desk, and saying to myself: now what do I do?
Perhaps, one benefit for me in having watched what so many others have done and having being made well aware over the years of my many deficiencies is that I came to the task well disposed to depend on others, to listen to co-workers and parishioners, and to benefit from that. I may still have made mistakes, but at least not for want of collaboration.
The retreat's theme of the shepherd's voice (based on John 10) reminded me of the time I was waiting for a bus on the Jerusalem-Bethlehem road and was watching a shepherd gathering his sheep - and calling them, as if by name. I remember my sudden insight: "so that's what Jesus was talking about!"
Finally, the retreat master stressed the great dignity of ordinary priestly ministry involved in the concerns of everyday people, bringing the mercy of God into the ordinary experiences of people's lives. He quoted from the Pope's now so often cited Chrism Mass homily: "A priest who seldom foes out of himself ... misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his priestly heart. Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers. ... It is not a bad thing that reality forces us ... out into the deep of the contemporary world, where the only thing that counts is 'unction' - not function."
When it comes to what kind of priest I am, am able to be, and should want to be, there is so much matter for self-examination in the Pope's words!