Encounter with Mystery

How a priest is a window to Christ’s love

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AckermanAllegedly, Socrates once said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The examined life though provides plenty of enjoyment and amusement.

Not all that long ago, I officiated at a marriage validation for a couple in their 60s who had been married civilly. They brought their young grandchildren with them, who had no idea what to make of me when I came out dressed in an alb and a cope for the ceremony.

“Are you a wizard?” Their granddaughter asked me, which prompted me to laugh. “You dress like Gandalf from the ‘Lord of the Rings,’” their grandson informed me. I think he was disappointed when I told him that I was neither a wizard nor a comic-con presenter, but merely a Catholic priest.

Following the wedding, they had tons of questions for me as to why I dressed like that, if I had seen “The Hobbit” and even if I used our immersion baptismal font as a pool. When it came time for them to leave, they said to their grandparents: “Can we come back here? This place is awesome!” I should have signed them up for faith formation.

While I am not exactly certain what prompted their interest, I believe that an encounter with mystery and the divine did the trick. Perhaps we take mystery for granted, or perhaps due to the hectic schedule of ministry, we become desensitized to sacraments, sacramentals and liturgy, such that we overlook or miss the presence of God.

Often it is in the simple moments that we recapture a sense of wonder and awe. I experienced this when the second-grade CCD class asked me for a tour of the church. They were enthralled by seeing the vestments the priest wore, enchanted by the monstrance and reliquary in the vault, and were absolutely wild over incense.

“It smells so good,” several commented. “We should use that more.” “How can I buy one of those things that makes smoke?” It was truly remarkable.

Actually, some of the questions posed to me I had not thought about since my graduate theology courses in the seminary. Their queries were quickly turning into a game of stump the priest, and, thankfully, I endured mostly unscathed. Their questions of “why” caused me to pause and reflect though, and it led me to a deeper appreciation for the ministry I do on a daily basis.

In the last decade or so, many parishes and dioceses have been offering Theology on Tap, an opportunity for Catholics — mostly young adults with a few wannabes — thrown in to learn about faith. The obvious draw to the event is alcohol and food. Generally, these events are in a trendy — usually meaning loud and overpriced — place and they invite relaxed faith-based conversation.

I was nervous once because the priest who was presenting at the bar was older and had a reputation for being stodgy (I guess they were desperate). However, once he started telling stories of being a hospital and prison chaplain, the attendees were spellbound. He even remarked at the end how enjoyable it was, and how touched he was to see people that were so interested in faith and encountering God in their daily lives. Initially, I thought that it might have been the booze making him sentimental, but he did, in fact, experience a reinvigoration for his priesthood by the faithful’s interest in the mystery of God. His reflection on his vocation deepened his love.

A priest who taught us in the seminary told a story about a card he received once for Priesthood Sunday. He was expecting a normal thank you card, or perhaps maybe even a little gift card, but that is not what he received. Instead, the front of the card depicted Jesus on the cross in his agony. Inside, the person who sent it had written the words of St. Teresa of Ávila, “Christ has no body now but yours, / No hands, no feet on earth but yours, / Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world. / Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

He always kept that card, he said, to remind him of what a priest is. A priest is indeed not a wizard, but merely a window into the mystery of Christ’s love.

FATHER MICHAEL ACKERMAN is parochial vicar at Resurrection Parish, Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, and chaplain at Seton LaSalle Catholic High School in Pittsburgh.

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