Mercy Father John Broussard, rector of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wis., joins students at St. John Paul II Classical School for lunch. (CNS photo/Sam Lucero, The Compass)

The Misconceptions of Ministry

In a ministry often misunderstood, reflect upon our true identity

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Father Michael AckermanAs a vocation director, I often find myself visiting schools to promote the priesthood and invite students to reflect on God’s plan for their life. A few years ago, the first-grade teacher at my parochial school invited me to speak with her students. I talked with them about what a priest does, and I spoke about sacraments, staying close to Jesus and the importance of prayer. I ended by saying, “Perhaps one day God may call one of you boys to be a priest or one of you young ladies to be a sister.”

“Oh, I am definitely going to be a priest,” shouted one boy from the back of the room. “Really?!” I responded half excited and half stunned. “Did something interest you in what I said?” “No!” he answered. “Well, do you like going to Church?” I asked him. “No!” he replied again. “I am going to be a priest because I don’t want to get married, and you don’t have any woman telling you what to do!”

I probably would not have accepted that young man as an applicant for the seminary, but I certainly did get an education from his thoughts on the priesthood. Misconceptions around priestly ministry certainly exist.

Perhaps on occasion it is our own fault. My grandmother used to call a parochial vicar at our home parish who often was away on vacation “our Sunday visitor.” (No offense intended to this wonderful publication!)

However, there also is a belief that ministry is lonely and dull. It is in these moments when we all need to remember that fidelity and friendship with Christ marks our ministry.

A priest friend of mine who had a dog related this feeling in a funny Father’s Day card that he received from his young niece. She wrote in the card, “Happy Father’s Day! Thank God for your dog; or who else would love you?” Although at times it may seem as though only pets love us — especially after a parish council meeting — our best relationship is with Our Lord, who continually sustains us and gives us our identity as beloved sons.

I am reminded of a story that I read once in Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s book “Priests for the Third Millennium” (OSV, $19.95) about a group of priests who had an audience with Pope St. John XXIII at the Vatican. The dozen or so priests gathered in the room all had impressive titles and credentials and noted such as they introduced themselves. However, one embarrassed priest received the greatest reception of all when he admitted to the Holy Father that he was merely a simple parish priest. Yes, a hardworking, simple parish priest often is the one who endears himself to others and inspires faith and action.

A classmate of mine once told me that he was inspired to serve others when he saw his 80-year-old pastor helping to shovel snow for parishioners in the neighborhood during a blizzard. He must be a saint, he told me. He probably was, and it did not hurt that he was probably the fittest octogenarian since Jack LaLanne.

I offer a reflection from St. Norbert I used once on a retreat:

“O Priest, who are you?

“You are not yourself because you are of God.

“You are not of yourself because you are the servant and minister of Christ.

“You are not your own because you are the spouse of the Church.

“You are not yourself because you are the mediator between God and man.

“You are not from yourself because you are nothing.

“What then are you?

“Nothing and everything.”

Our ministry may not always be understood, and we are bound to encounter misconceptions that both amuse and annoy. However, if we can reflect upon our true identity in Christ, then we can endure the unexpected twists of ministry with a hearty laugh. Yogi Berra said it best, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it!” May your day be filled with the joys of ministry!

FATHER MICHAEL ACKERMAN is the director of vocations for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

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