[My last repost in this series and last post till next weekend — always a joy to share faith here and receive the depth of comments that stream in. Godspeed!]
Any religion concerned about the souls of people and not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economics that strangle them and the social conditions that imprison them is a molly coddle religion awaiting burial. — Martin Luther King
Between the years 2000 and 2001, I came to know a priest who was one of the most human people I have ever known. If I had to use one word to describe what stood out most in him, it would be “accessible.” Which is really another way of describing the quality of his fatherly heart. He was the kind of person everyone felt comfortable around. I grew quite close to him the time I was there and came to deeply appreciate his model of servant-leadership. He would always say that managing the administrative side of parish life was not his strong suit, but that he knew the best way to compensate for this deficit was to gather around him people who were good at it. Which, I said to him, was a sign to me that he was good at administration!
I was especially moved by his extreme generosity. Whenever people would give him money, gift cards to restaurants, food, he would almost always find a way to give it away to someone he knew would benefit from it. And very often he would find a way to do it anonymously, almost making a game out of it (which delighted him). His business manager shared with me confidentially that this priest would have him identify needy families in the parish and then anonymously pay for their utility bill out of the priest’s own private income.
He walked the streets of his parish territory daily for exercise, praying a rosary and stopping to chat with beggars and vagrants to see what their needs were. He was always in communication with Catholic Charities to see what could be done to give them a hand up, “and not just a hand out,” as he would say.
During that time, Patti and I were going through a very tense period regarding my decision to leave my job, as she and I did not see eye to eye. It was one of the most difficult times in our marriage. He took a long walk with me one day to help me process the situation, pray with me and give me wisdom. At the end of the walk, he prayed over me and then handed me a $100 bill, saying, “take her out to dinner and please don’t say it came from me.” I was overcome with emotion. He said, “This is why God called me to celibacy, so I can be freed up to do things like this; to be free for you and Patti. I’m alone so that I can be with you. And with them [pointing to the people on the streets].”
That dinner conversation Patti and I had was a breakthrough for us, and I am convinced that his act of sacrificial love had entered our marriage that day and opened between us a space of grace and freedom. That is the paternal genius of ministerial priesthood when it’s placed in service to marriage and family life. To the lonely and alone.
He made, makes me want to be great.
Thank you God for those men you call to be priests, giving their lives for us as fathers walking with us.