Friday, July 10, 2009

God Has Filled My Life with Priests

As promised yesterday, here is the post about priests. It seems to be an appropriate topic, given that this is the Year of the Priest.

This week I received (1) an enote from Fr. E, our parish priest, who is currently on the East Coast, substituting for a parish priest there who is out of town, (2) a Skype message from Padre (Fr.) Julio, a priest in Colombia who substituted at one point in our parish (followed by a voice conversation with him in English and then his mother in Spanish), and (3) a phone call from Fr. B, the director of our local Franciscan retreat center (and monastery). That concatenation of interactions reminded me that it is indeed the Year of the Priest. Thank God for priests! God has filled my life with them, and they in turn have filled my life with blessings.

I realize what a special gift God has given me when I look around and see that many parishes have no priest or borrowed priests and when I see that many of my friends' interactions with priests are only for significant life events (weddings, funerals, emergencies), during confession, and after mass. The extreme irony of this gift is that until three years ago, I had only ever met three priests (all of them Orthodox) and then only once each for a solitary greeting and mass, as a result of catering to the spiritual needs of Shura, the Russian Orthodox Siberian child artist dying from spina bifida whom I took into my home years ago.

I often wonder why God feels that I deserve this amount of interaction. Perhaps it is more that I need a greater depth of instruction, being a person that He pulled from the wayside and plunked down, totally bewildered, in the middle of His flock. Maybe, too, He was worried that I would stray away from the flock and begin happily cavorting in the bramble bushes again. No fear of that! He has filled my life with priests!

First and foremost there is 80-year-old Fr. B, whom I dearly love. He seems to have seen everything there is to see. He has traveled the world, studied a variety of religions, spent time in the Holy Land (where I lived for an awesome two years), holds several degrees, including one in psychology, and made a film on the significance of each part of the liturgy. A Franciscan and a deeply spiritual and knowledgeable mystic, he was the perfect RCIA instructor for me. He has since left our parish--he was an interim priest here--but has remained in our town as director of our local retreat center & monastery. Since leaving our parish, he has become my de facto spiritual advisor. When I have received "messages" that have totally startled me and point me in directions where I am certain I am not capable of going, I have run to Fr. B for guidance. He accepts these spiritual experiences and helps me sort through what seems to be authentic and what may not be authentic -- and he convinces me that if I am pointed in a direction, I should go where it leads, trusting God to provide me with the wherewithall to follow (and, of course, God always does -- which, on a very deep level, I do fully trust will happen).

The second priest in my life is Fr. E. An Irishman by birth and rearing, he is a down-to-earth 50-year-old with an immense sense of humor and adventure. He has held mass on a local mountain top, serves as chaplain for the fire department (and rides along), and can be found jogging around town mornings, often underdressed for the weather, or participating in marathons to raise money for a good cause. Being a catechist, I have come to know him pretty well, and he has been very supportive in the matter of our granddaughter's health. A very important thing for our parish (and me) is that Fr. E is a wonderful confessor. He sees very clearly to the heart of nearly any matter. And, if he is jovial in his homilies, he is engaged and spiritual in the confessional.

And finally, there is 30-something Padre Julio from Colombia. Padre (Father) Julio used to substitute at our parish's Spanish-language masses. Over time, he became an integral part of our family. It started with my family volunteering to create a website for his project to bring hope to seven rural towns in Colombia through building a school and self-supporting farm, for which he had formed an organization, Por Amor a Los Ninos de Colombia (For the Love of the Children of Colombia). I translated the original documents from Spanish into English for the website text. My husband, Donnie, designed the graphics. Our son, Shane, did the basic programming, and when we ran into difficulties with more complex programming, our son, Blaine, a professional web designer, flew home from Illinois, to put on the difficult finishes. During that time, our younger daughter, Noelle, who has spina bifida, experienced failure of the shunt that controls her hydrocephalus and ended up emergencied to Stanford University Hospital quite some distance away. Padre Julio drove the distance (even more since he got lost for over an hour, trying to navigate strange terrain in a strange country in a strange language) to visit her and pray for her with all of us together right before her surgery, which did, indeed, turn out fine. At that point, it became clear that Padre needed to learn some English if he were going to be living in this country, and I began to teach him since foreign languages are one of my specialties. The timing was fortuitous because the bishop about then decided that Padre had been here long enough to start offering the English masses. Immediately, our "textbooks" for English classes became the English-language Bible and online audio homilies (for developing listening skills). Padre learned to speak English, and eventually I met his mother who claims I am the daughter she never had (she had 7 sons, three of whom became priests). Indeed, we became family. Moreover, all those English classes? I believe that they benefited me more than Padre for I had a private 3-hour tutorial on Catholicism three nights a week as I helped Padre put into English the various thoughts he wanted to express in his homilies. In practicing English, we would get into extended discussions of concepts, and because Padre Julio is as spiritually oriented as Fr. B, I was able to share my spiritual experiences very deeply with him, especially those that contained the grammar and vocabulary components of the topic if the day. While others worried about our granddaughter's disassembled condition and expressed sympathy, Padre Julio's immediate response was very different: "You are blessed!" He definitely understands our family and God's role in our lives!

There have been other priests, of course, along my so-far rather short journey of faith. I assume those relationships are more typical although, not being a cradle Catholic, I have no idea what a typical relationship with a priest is supposed to be. I just know that I deeply love Fr. B, Fr. E, and Padre Julio, and I cannot imagine my life without them. They have so thoroughly enriched my life that I don't know what to say other than "Thank you, God, for spoiling me!"

Please tell me, especially those of you who are long-term Catholics, what role priests have played in your life. How important have they been to you in decision-making, spiritual development, and maintaining sanity in a crazy world? How often do you end up thanking God that they are in your life?

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