The To-Do List

We need to place God at the top of the list

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Different phrases and images come to mind that describe what happens to us in the normal unfolding of priestly ministry. An acclamation often spoken by the late Cardinal William H. Keeler, for whom I had the pleasure of working, was, “All the trains are coming into the station at the same time.” These are the moments when too much is heading your way and there is not enough time or space to give attention to each. A bygone-day image that comes to mind is of a phone operator sitting at the console with countless wire plugs, just answering call after call and plugging wires into this socket or maybe it is supposed to be that socket. Constant diversity demands our attention, often in rapid fire.

The pastor is the lightning rod that attracts all those bolts swirling around, diverting them from hitting something else. It is both fascinating and exhausting to step back and watch amid the chaos how fast life comes at us in parish ministry, to view what is occurring from a bird’s eye. That experience is not unlike that of many people, as they manage (or at least try to) what routinely comes at them fast and needs a response immediately, but not necessarily a solution immediately.

We are that station manager deciding which train docks first. We are that phone operator responding with muscle memory where to plug the next demand. We are that triage nurse deciding where each new incoming situation goes for the time being. Is it a Category 1, 2 or 3 moment? The triage worker decides in a split second what needs attention now or can wait. While not everything needs immediate attention, attention is demanded immediately by the person standing there or on hold on the phone. Our triage responses are learned behavior from experience — knowing, at that moment, the consequences, if ministry is delayed. Will the delay make it worse down the line, or have little or no impact; or, even better, could the delay allow the situation to resolve itself?

We wake up each day knowing what is on our to-do list that needs attention, and we go to bed that night and often see all those same things still there because new situations were thrown at us. The Gospels paint a picture of Jesus starting his day and soon being overwhelmed by the throngs wanting to be healed, needing to be fed, everybody saying, “I need this, I need that.” In just a few verses there is a synagogue leader who wants his daughter to be raised from the dead, a hemorrhaging woman who needs healing, two blind men calling out, and a man possessed by demons brought to him (cf. Mt 9:18-34). All these people coming at him, and none of them made an appointment or called ahead of time, none were on the to-do list. It all just shows up. The day, which started as any routine day, takes a life of its own and pulls you into it. I wonder what Jesus had planned for that day when person after person bombarded him.

Hopefully, instead of despairing that you did not do what you had planned, you find consolation in that you did what God had on his to-do list for you — that today was another day that the Lord has made, that the day was his day, and that he allowed you to participate in it.

Though this idea sounds great, and even a bit too idyllic, it might help in delaying our anxiety. Before we let the untouched list wear us down, think back. Most likely. having an untouched to-do list is not happening for the first time, causing anxiety, and it won’t be the last. Apparently, you survived the detour from your list. Maybe God saw your list as a Category 2 or 3, that the delay would cause no harm, or, even better, some of the things on your list might resolve themselves. Do not allow the list to have too much influence over you. Lists are great for the grocery store, or for the must-see on your vacation itinerary. Lists keep us organized and help us to keep going; they might even help put order (holy order) into your day, but that is only going to happen when God is at the top of the to-do list.

FATHER PATRICK M. CARRION is the pastor of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Ijamsville, Maryland, and the director of Cemetery Management for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

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