From Altar Server to Bishop

Priesthood Is a Pilgrimage and Privilege

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By Bishop Frederick Henry

CALGARY, Alberta, JUNE 26, 2009 (Zenit.org).- One of the great joys of my youth was to be an altar server. I was so taken by the Eucharist that I used to pretend to say Mass in my bedroom with my younger brothers acting as my altar servers.

It was always a challenge to teach them their Latin responses and, while I was not always the soul of patience, our mutual perseverance seemed to win the day and we didn’t do too badly.

Being an altar server allowed me to see what the priest did up close. I can remember thinking what a privilege it was to be a priest and bring the Body and Blood of the Lord to people.

As I observed my pastor’s activity, I noted that the people would bring their newborn children to him and say, “give them the faith, baptize them.”

He always seemed to be there at the critical moments in their lives: weddings, sicknesses, funerals, and parties. I thought, “What a neat job!”

The possibility began to emerge in my consciousness that maybe God wanted me to be a priest.

Several years later, upon being appointed bishop of Calgary, I was being interviewed about my vocation on radio and I shared these early memories. It just so happened that my mother heard the interview and told me that I didn’t quite get it right.

She explained that one day during Mass at the cathedral, while still a preschooler, I pointed to the priest and blurted out: “I’m going to be one of those guys.”

Mysterious

I have no recollection of this event, but it taught me something of the mysterious nature of the working of God grace.

God’s presence is not always obvious and God’s actions are sometimes subtle and hidden. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you came to birth, I consecrated you; I have appointed you as prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:4-5).

Building on the internal drawing of God’s grace, the identification with my pastor, the tapping on the shoulder by a religious sister who asked, “have you thought about becoming a priest?,” the example and faith of my mother and father, and with the encouragement of my peers and people — both those with faith and those without — with whom I worked over the years, and the seminary formation personnel, together enabled God’s call to be both clarified and confirmed.

One of my father’s comments proved to be of particular importance in my formation.

We used to have many animated discussions around the kitchen table about religion and our parish activities. Sometimes, we would move into the realm of critical comments.

My father was always uncomfortable about criticism of any of our priests and he would repeatedly say: “Yes, but he is a holy man.” I wasn’t always convinced, but I began to understand the distinction between the office and the man.

God makes use of human instruments, imperfect men, whom he calls to continue the role and mission of the Apostles, to do what he did.

It is much like the Apostle Paul who could write: “I who am less than the least of all God’s holy people, have been entrusted with this special grace, of proclaiming to the gentiles the unfathomable treasures of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8).

I was ordained a priest in 1968 and a bishop in 1986. It’s been a wonderful journey, perhaps more aptly, a pilgrimage.

I remember, with considerable embarrassment, praying at the end of first theology before applying for tonsure: “Alright, God, I will be your priest, but I hope you realize all that I am giving up for you.”

At the time I didn’t understand: “In truth I tell you, there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children or land for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel who will not receive a hundred times as much, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land — and persecutions too — now in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:29-31).

God has certainly not been stingy with his blessings.

Most of my experience of priesthood and the episcopacy has been lived under the motif of John 21.

I can readily identify with Peter as he was repeatedly questioned by Jesus, “Do you love me?” Peter’s response is much like my own — a measured, tested, but feeble and humble, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”

Chosen

However, the really critical words are Jesus’ rejoinder: “In all truth I tell you, when you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch your hands, and someone else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go” (John 21:18).

I have never had one appointment that I would have chosen for myself.

As a result of my discernment in the seminary, I concluded that God wanted me to be a parish priest, not a member of a religious community and certainly not a teacher.

My first assignment as an associate pastor was to follow a very successful extroverted priest who had a special gift for working with young people. As an introvert, I did not want to follow him and thought that I had no gifts for working with young people.

I did not want to do postgraduate studies but was asked to do so by my bishop and so I consented. I would also teach for a number of years at the seminary.

I didn’t want to become rector of the seminary, but rather to return to parish life and I told my bishop so. I added that I could only tell him where I was at, and that he, as bishop, would have to make the decision as to where I would serve based on the needs of the diocese. For my part, I would have to respond with faith and obedience. I thoroughly enjoyed being a seminary rector.

I didn’t want to become an auxiliary bishop, but God’s will be done. I didn’t want to be an ordinary in either diocese where I was assigned.

However, by surrendering and letting myself be led by the Holy Spirit, each successive move became more satisfying and fulfilling than the previous one. So much so that, jokingly, I have said that I can’t wait for the next move!

Nevertheless, I am really happy where I am and it goes without saying: I don’t want to move.

* * *

Frederick Henry was ordained a priest for the Diocese of London, Ontario, on May 25, 1968. He was ordained an auxiliary bishop of the diocese on June 24, 1986. He has been the bishop of Calgary since 1998. Bishop Henry served as a Canadian delegate to the 1990 synod of bishops on the formation of priests, and was appointed as representative of the Holy See for the Apostolic Visitation of Canadian seminaries.

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