A Rocking-Chair Reflection
Looking back at 50 years of priesthood with gratitude
Father Richard M. Gula Comments Off on A Rocking-Chair Reflection
In May 2023, I will celebrate 50 years of priestly ordination. My entire priestly ministry has been as a Sulpician involved in ministerial formation and provincial administration. I am now fully retired.
At my retirement hermitage, I have a rocking chair on my balcony where I pray, reminisce and remember. I have been praying with St. Paul by reading each of the introductions to his letters. Did you know that six of his undisputed letters begin with the same sentiment? Gratitude, giving thanks, runs through each of these introductions. The Second Letter to Corinthians captures the sentiment well: “Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merciful Father, the God from whom all help comes!” (1:2, Good News Bible).
In our senior community, reminiscing and remembering are everyday occurrences. God knows, though, there are some things we might prefer remain in the shadows of our past. But if we divide our lives between those times of joy and success we would like to remember, and those of sorrow and failure that we would rather forget, then we will not be able to hold all of it as a gift to be thankful for.
Fifty years have gone by but are not forgotten. I remember the environment in society and in the Church when the seed of my priestly vocation was planted. It was the decade of the ’50s, when a sense of uniformity pervaded society. Family life was prized, religious faith was reinforced. Conformity to social norms, like following strict gender roles, was the rule of life — everyone stayed in their lane. Patriarchy reigned.
The Church at that time was stable, like a fortress, under the lengthy pontificate of Pius XII. Priests were in abundance. Confession lines were long. The image and role of the priest were highly cultic in form and in appearance. The stress on priesthood then was on his sacramental role and his legalistic authority. Father’s word ruled and was sometimes feared. He dressed to fit the role — the tailored Toomey cassock, white cuffs, black Stetson hat, embroidered fiddle-back vestments.
The dominance of the cultic model of Pius XII, with its odor of sanctity that set the priest apart, created a clerical world with its culture of power and privilege. So convinced were we that we had God right, it never occurred to us that we might somehow be wrong.
We now live under Pope Francis’ pastoral/prophetic model of bearing the smell of the sheep. His call to holiness challenges us to exchange our legalistic authority with its power and privilege, the tailored cassocks and the embroidered vestments for the blue apron of the field-hospital medic or of the soup-kitchen waiter serving the Church of the poor a lavish banquet of tender mercy in biblical proportions.
From the fortress ecclesiology of Pius XII to the pastoral model of Pope Francis, it’s been quite a ride!
The Seminary Years
My seminary years began in the 1960s, the decade of revolutions — civil rights, the Vietnam War and the thrilling ecclesial vision of Pope John XXIII. The Second Vatican Council opened the windows of the Church to the world, forecast a change in our way of being Church and, inevitably, unleashed an unfamiliar confusion for so many.
Mine was the generation of the “both-and” hyphenated priest: priests of the cultic model and priests of a developing pastoral model. In the seminary of the late ’60s and early ’70s, we rode the hyphen trying to connect to an ecclesiology that held out new expectations for priestly ministry.
We were exposed to models of the hyphenated priest in the books of priests we were reading (Andrew Greeley and Eugene Kennedy), in the priests we read about (George Higgins, Robert Drinan, Dan Berrigan) and in the priests the seminary brought in to talk about a new style of being a priest. They gave us a glimpse of the expansive shape ministry can take when it harmonizes with the major chords struck by Gaudium et Spes, that revolutionary pastoral constitution of Vatican II.
The theological vision of my generation was shaped largely by Karl Rahner. He taught us that the world is the theater of grace. The whole of creation is porous to the presence and power of God. Studying his theology trained us to develop a detective nose that traces physical clues to their spiritual source — the sacramental sensitivity that every spiritual disciple is to nurture. Seeing with the eyes of faith discloses that, even against all evidence to the contrary, beneath what we see there is more. Every experience, even the so-called accidents in life, if given a chance, can be an epiphany of divine providence. Rahner taught us that the particulars of life — the people, the opportunities, even the unexpected — are the vessels of actual grace. With gratitude to Rahner, when I remember what I have received and see where others have extended themselves to me, I see the work of God’s grace.
The Governing Perspective
Reminiscing uncovered a powerful part of me operating at a deep level — that governing consciousness shapes the perspective through which I see everything. Perhaps I can explain it best by drawing on my familiarity with a concept in moral theology. As moral theology took the personalist turn away from its preoccupation with action governed by law to avoid sin and began to focus on the importance of developing character with a discerning heart for what is fitting, it drew from Rahner’s anthropology to develop a concept that is the bridge between character and action.
Moral theologians call it our fundamental stance. It is fundamental because it is the governing consciousness that shapes our perspective. It is our stance for it is how we interpret what is going on and so respond to it. The moral theology of responsibility used it in developing its key insight: We respond to what we see.
In dealing with those discerning a vocation to ministry, I found some, unfortunately, whose perspective was, by and large, egocentric. They saw with the eyes of entitlement — everything was owed them by right or by privilege. They hoarded what they had as possessions that never became gifts. Such a stance is the foundation of clericalism which, as Pope Francis has often reminded us, has no place among Christian ministers.
But there were also those fit for ministry. Their governing consciousness enabled them to see themselves as receivers of gifts and goodness. They did not hoard possessions but would give as gift the gifts they had been given (cf. Mt 10:8). In this way, they caught the spirit of Jesus and were on their way to fulfilling the commission he gave to his disciples when sending them out on mission.
Back to the discerners of a vocation, Gratitude is the consciousness I tried to nurture in them as I was nurturing it in myself. As I reminisce today, I appreciate the wisdom enshrined in the French proverb of Jean-Baptiste Massieu, “Gratitude is the memory of the heart.” Remembering is what gratitude does best.
To remember in thanksgiving is to notice how much of who we are is not of our own doing. As our spiritual theology taught us, we are more gift than achievement. We have all drunk from wells we did not dig and warmed ourselves by fires we did not build. We are all in debt to the people and opportunities that have shaped us. These are actual graces all.
Rummaging through my past 50 years revealed that there has never been a time when God wasn’t with me as a power beyond my own effort that pulled me through, as the wisdom greater than my meager mind opened a way forward, and as the love beyond what my feeble heart could supply. When I see where I am now, in contrast to where I was 50 years ago, I remember that I could not have made it to today if I had only myself to depend on, or even only my family, colleagues, friends and students. Who was with me all those years? Who do I have to thank for my perseverance?
As a man of faith, I know whom to thank: “LORD, my allotted portion and my cup” (Ps 16:5), which I recited at tonsure (a rite abolished in 1972). The Lord’s power was at work in me, doing more than I could ever ask or imagine.
By holding up gratitude as my fundamental stance, I don’t want to give the impression that gratitude is a technique for glossing over the horror of evil, or one that frees us to push past those hard experiences in life to an easy Deo gratias.
Remembering is revealing. Sometimes, when looking inward by making a life review, we remember with regret when we rehearse the “if onlys” that would have made life different. We feel resentment for missed opportunities and disappointed in the ways we were jaundiced and judgmental rather than appreciative, affirming and affective in our relationships.
When looking outward, we see the world tearing itself apart and the environment on a fast track to destruction. In the Church, we have been racked with scandal and are under constant criticism, and it seems that we may forever be looked upon with suspicion, even if innocent. Granted, it is difficult to be grateful to God when we are steeped in hurt from such negative experiences.
The choice to be grateful rarely comes without effort, especially when good experiences come in smaller sizes and less frequently than desired. Gratitude balances these negative experiences so that we don’t see our life in only one dimension. Gratitude doesn’t expect life to come made to order, where everything is just the way we want it.
Friends and mentors have taught me that it is not the amount of darkness surrounding us that matters. What makes a difference is how we stand in the darkness. Gratitude opens our eyes to the goodness and strengths that are all around us that can offset negative experiences. I am grateful for gratitude as the consciousness that gives me a perspective that doesn’t make darkness the only way to look at life. Gratitude sees what is present instead of what is missing.
Gratitude as a fundamental stance is lived as a discipline. Each time we choose to be grateful rather than resentful, the next choice is a little easier, a little less self-conscious. The choice to be grateful amid darkness, nature-made or handmade, requires some hard spiritual work, soul deep. For this, the discipline of reflecting on Scripture, liturgical and personal prayer, and finding the time and place for solitude and quiet have been crucial. With spiritual practices like these, I have been able to meet the Giver of all gifts. I am grateful for that.
Thanks Be to God
I continue to nurture gratitude as the governing consciousness of my life. I thank God, and not a lucky star, for a life filled with inexhaustible grace disguised in the people who, one way or another, inspired me, encouraged me and freed me to follow the Spirit alive within me.
At the same time, I realize that adopting the consciousness of life as a gracious gift is risky business. It makes me accountable to continue playing out the spiritual process of receiving and giving that the Source of all gifts initiated. Life in God, after all, is received, not achieved. To fulfill the commission Jesus gave his disciples, I must give freely what I have received freely.
Remembering with a grateful heart the actual graces that have filled my life makes me mindful of the enduring presence of God. My life has been full of grace. With a grateful heart, and in all humility, I close this reflection knowing that in the presence of God, a single word is too many and a thousand words are too few. I pray that God will accept at least two: Thank you.
FATHER RICHARD M. GULA, PSS, is a Sulpician priest who has served in provincial administration and in the education and formation of priests and candidates for ministry, lay and ordained. He is now retired.
Pope Francis on Retirement
On a flight from his trip from Canada back to Rome on July 29, 2022, reporter Carolina Pigozzi asked Pope Francis his thoughts about retirement. Francis responded: “Whatever the Lord says. The Lord might say, ‘Resign.’ The Lord is in charge. One thing that is important about St. Ignatius. When someone was sick, St. Ignatius would dispense him from prayer, but would never dispense anyone from the examination of conscience. Twice a day, to look at what has happened. … It’s not a matter of sins or non-sins, no, but of which spirit moved me today. Our vocation, he would say: Search for what happened today. If I — this is a hypothesis — see that the Lord is telling me something, that I have an inspiration about this or that, then I have to discern to see what the Lord is asking. It may also be that the Lord wants to send me to the corner. That’s up to him. He is in charge. This, I think, is the religious way of life of a Jesuit, to be in spiritual discernment to make decisions, to choose paths of work, and also to choose commitments. Discernment is key in the Jesuit’s vocation. This is important. In this area, St. Ignatius was really firm, because it was his own experience of spiritual discernment that led him to conversion.