The joys and hidden graces
of being a Catholic priest
Michael C. Barber, SJ
Last week I was traveling through the Houston airport, changing planes, when a young woman, about 25 years old, came up to me in the terminal. Seeing my collar she said "Are you a Catholic priest?" "Yes," I said.
She said she was going on a long flight and really wanted to go to confession before her trip. We went over to a quiet corner of the terminal, and she received the sacrament — holy absolution — which is the ultimate expression of Our Lord's love and mercy. "This is the chalice of my blood ... which will be shed for you and for many ... for the forgiveness of sins." The forgiveness of sins was the whole purpose of Our Lord's passion and death.
In 1997 I was stationed at the Jesuits' main church in London, England: "Farm Street Church of the Immaculate Conception." In December the superior called me in and asked if I had any commitments for Christmas or New Year's. I said "No" — only the Masses and confessions I would normally be assigned at the parish. He asked me if I would take a "supply call" to help the Apostleship of the Sea: saying Mass for Merchant Marine seamen. "Fine," I said.
He sent me to the head chaplain at Portsmouth, England — the main base for English merchant (container) ships. The priest gave me dinner, a briefing on my duties, then drove me to the docks. He told me that instead of a merchant ship, I would be going on a cruise. Really?
I boarded the ocean liner "QE2" and we set sail for a three-week voyage from England to New York to Florida to Venezuela, and then back again to New York. What a surprise. My duties were to say Mass for the passengers and crew each day. I was instructed to wear my Roman collar and be available for the passengers at other times. No problem. Every night after a gourmet dinner I would take a seat at the "Crystal Bar," and watch the waves and sea go by as we sailed from England to America.
Within a few minutes of my sitting on the bar stool, accompanied by the sound of an elegantly attired female harpist, a string of men would sit next to me, one after the other. "Father, can I buy you a drink?" they'd say. I heard more confessions at that bar than in a typical Saturday afternoon in a church confessional.
Even the two young bartenders, both Italians, went to confession (in Italian) across the bar — so they could serve my Midnight Mass at Christmas. On the day before Christmas, the harpist herself came to me and said she was Catholic, had been away from the Church for a long time ... but could she possibly play the harp at Christmas Mass?
To my great joy she played "Silent Night" for our Communion meditation to a packed congregation in the ship's theater for Christmas Mass at sea.
There are so many joys, and hidden graces, in being a priest. Perhaps the greatest is forgiving sins in His name. Jesus allows us priests to share in the intimate relationship He has with his faithful people on earth — to absolve His beloved of their sins. There is no earthly equivalent to these joys and spiritual consolations. Priests impart a peace that the world cannot give.
When he visited Montreal, Canada, in 1984, St. Pope John Paul II gave a talk to priests in which he said "Nothing can substitute for the ministry of those who are ordained." I believe that there are young people out there in our Diocese of Oakland who may be reading this column. If you are considering the "cost" of following Christ as His priest, or religious sister or brother, please also consider the reward. Jesus promised those who give up spouse and family for His sake "A hundredfold in this life, and eternal life in the next." I've already received my hundredfold. Can't wait for the rest.
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