By Father John Jay Hughes
ST. LOUIS, Missouri, DEC. 18, 2009 (Zenit.org).- “Priests who like being priests are among the happiest men in the world.” Those words by the Chicago priest and sociologist, Father Andrew Greeley, lifted me out of my chair when I read them a few years ago. “Andy, you’re right,” I e-mailed him. “I can confirm that from my own experience.”
The son and grandson of priests in the Episcopal Church, I grew up in a world in which public worship and private prayer were as much a part of daily life as eating and sleeping. From age nine I was a choirboy at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, then a kind of American version of Canterbury Cathedral or York Minster in England. We sang the psalms at daily Evensong (Vespers), and on Sundays anthems and the musical portions of the Eucharistic liturgy. I loved it.
From age 12 I knew that I wanted to be a priest. Required when I went away to boarding school to write an essay on, “What I expect to be doing in 20 years,” I wrote about serving as a missionary priest in Africa. This idea, to which I had previously devoted not a moment’s thought, must have come from the school chaplain, a priest of the Anglican Order of the Holy Cross, which had a mission in Liberia.
Every time I served Mass I thought: “One day I’ll stand there. I’ll wear those vestments. I’ll say those words.” The idea of a missionary vocation soon faded. But priesthood never. I went straight toward that goal, like a steel needle to a magnet, until, 12 years later, I achieved it. Following my first Mass on April 4, 1954, I was so happy that I recited the whole of the “Te Deum” aloud in the sacristy.
During six happy years of parish ministry, I found priesthood all that I had hoped for, and more. My personal religion was “Catholicism without the Pope.” My studies had taught me that the modern papal claims to universal jurisdiction and infallibility were illegitimate additions to the faith of the ancient Catholic Church. Popular Catholic tracts claiming that the Pope was some kind of oracle “who gives us the answer to every question” (a caricature of authentic Catholic belief) confirmed my rejection of papal infallibility, so defined. During those years I visited countless Catholic churches on both sides of the Atlantic. I found the silent and rushed Masses, the Latin (when you could hear it) so gabbled and garbled that it might have been Chinese, an off-putting comedown from the reverent Anglican liturgy which I loved, with full congregational participation, including fervent hymn singing which I continue to miss to this day.
I always realized that Anglicanism was a theological house of cards. But it was my house. It was where the Lord had put me. You don’t leave the place God has assigned you without very serious reasons. Doing so became a possibility only when I discovered, during a lengthy European trip in 1959, that the Catholic Church had a different face from the one familiar to me in the United States. This launched me on a period of agonized study and reflection, accompanied by lengthy daily prayer. For close to a year the questions of the Church, and of my conscientious duty, were not out of my mind for two waking hours together.
My final decision, at Easter 1960, to leave the Anglican Church, which I loved (it had taken me from the font to the altar), and enter an alien world, which still had little outward appeal to me, was the hardest thing I have ever done. Looking back years later (but only then), I recognized that it was the best thing I have ever done.
I became a priest for one simple reason: so that I could celebrate Mass. Doing so was wonderful the first time I did it, almost 56 years ago. It is, if possible, even more wonderful today. Celebrating Mass and feeding God’s holy people with the bread of life is a privilege beyond any man’s deserving. To prepare, it has been my practice for years to spend a half-hour waiting in silence on the Lord who told Moses at the burning bush: “Put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).
Priesthood has other rewards as well. There is the joy of preaching the Gospel: feeding God’s people from the table of his word. An evangelical hymn defines the preacher’s task thus: “Tell me the old, old, story / Of Jesus and his love.” John’s Gospel says it more briefly, in words once posted inside pulpits for the preacher to see: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus” (John 12:21). His story, and Jesus’ words, uphold us when we are down, rebuke us when we go astray, and fill our mouths with laughter and our tongues with joy (to use the Psalmist’s words) when the sunshine of God’s love shines upon us.
There is also the joy of pastoral ministry. Like priests everywhere, I have witnessed miracles of God’s grace in the people we serve. Not 10 years ago a man came into my confessional bruised and bloodied from a failed marriage. Then one of our CEO Catholics (Christmas-and-Easter only), he is today a daily communicant, and a frequent penitent. Every priest has stories like that, many of them more dramatic.
Have every one of my almost 56 years of priesthood been happy? Of course not. That does not happen in any life. A widow spoke for married people when she told me: “Father, when you walk up to the altar on your wedding day, you don’t see the Stations of the Cross.”
Priesthood has brought me suffering as well as joy. For seven years I was without assignment and literally unemployed. Subject to a German bishop, but resident in St. Louis, I was like an army officer who has got detached from his regiment. The clerical system didn’t know what to do with me. The Church for which I had sacrificed everything seemed not to want me. I survived only by prayer. To anyone who asks, however, whether I have ever regretted my decision for priesthood, I answer honestly and at once: Never, not one single day.
Writing in April 2005 to my former teacher during my doctoral studies in Münster/Germany, Joseph Ratzinger, to express my joy at his election as Pope, and assure him of my prayers, I closed the letter, “In the joy of our common priesthood.” What more can one say than that? From age 12, priesthood has been all I ever wanted. If I were to die tonight, I would die a happy man.
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A priest of the St. Louis Archdiocese and a Church historian, Father John Jay Hughes is the author of 12 books and hundreds of articles. This article is an excerpt from his memoir, “No Ordinary Fool: a Testimony to Grace“ (Tate Publishing): the story of his difficult journey to the Catholic Church; and the story too of a man who, almost 56 years after ordination, is still in love with priesthood. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This article is part of the column God’s Men — a series of reflections on the priesthood ZENIT is offering its readers during this Year for Priests. If you or someone you know has an inspiring testimony of the priesthood to contribute, please contact our editor at email@example.com.