Growing up a non-Catholic in a very anti-Catholic South made for some strange opinions about Catholicism. I remember writing a poem once in junior high that was ostensibly about how all the trappings and “works” of Catholicism don’t hide the spiritual desperation of a life lived without being saved. The poem was actually about how I felt toward religion in general. I don’t even think I knew it at the time, at least consciously, but the idea of “being saved” brought me to the brink of despair time and again. If I was saved, why was I still sinning? Why was I such a bad person? And if I wasn’t saved, it wasn’t for lack of begging God. Was I pre-destined to hell? Did He just not want me? Not love me?
It was a confusing and difficult time, and I dealt with it the way most junior high school students who grew up in the anti-Catholic Bible Belt would-by pointing out how much better I was than those foolish Catholics who thought they could work and pray their way into heaven.
The thing was, though, I knew absolutely nothing about the Catholic religion. It was the stuff of myth and rumor to me. In my poem, rosaries were worn around the necks of the young Catholic girls. I believe I was under the impression that rosaries were some sort of supernatural good-luck charm that Catholics wore to ward off evil. Or something.
Equally absurd were my opinions about priests. My overall opinion about priests, I’m ashamed to admit now, was that they were “creepy”. They were creepy for not getting married, for wearing dresses, for telling stupid people that they could forgive sins…all in all, the priesthood was like a cult of weirdness in my young mind. I had no respect for priests, only disdain.
This mistaken belief continued well into high school and right up until the day I set foot on the campus at University of Dallas. I remember doing a double take when, on my first day of registration, a priest (whom I now know as Fr. Lehrberger) walked past me in the full Cistercian garb.
I quickly got used to seeing priests and nuns around campus. What I did not get used to is the…the power they exuded. All my pre-concieved notions about priests crumbled in the face of actual priests. There was something other about the priests at the University of Dallas. It wasn’t just their cassocks, either. I felt the same thing emanating from the two Opus Dei numeraries on campus. It’s almost as if you can feel the sacrifice they’ve made to be with God and to do His work. There is a certain peace and gravity about them, even when they’re dragged, screaming and kicking, to the makeshift jail during Charity Week. Even when they’re contorting themselves into impossible corners to try and escape said jail, you get the sense that, somehow, they’re doing it for God, and for us.
I know there have been bad priests, priests who have disgraced the office of the priesthood, and priests who have hurt people who trusted them. I don’t know any priests like that, though. The priests I have met have radiated God’s love for us, and they do that by giving their lives over to God. For us. Every day they wake up and serve God by serving His Church, and His people. They remember details about my children and my marriage when it’s been years since we’ve seen each other. The priest who brought me into the Church recently spent over an hour with me in confession, listening not only to my sins but to my fears, my doubts, my worries and my struggles. He reassured me, gave me absolution, prayed over me and then gave me a blessing. All this after having spent all morning celebrating various Masses.
While I can never understand or even really appreciate the depth of the sacrifice which our priests make for us, I can write this post and hopefully clear up some misconceptions about these men who’ve given their lives. I know this post is woefully inadequate, but I hope that someone who reads it will think twice before accusing priests of not caring, not loving, or worst of all, intending harm. I hope that a priest will read this and know that the faithful do cherish our priests, even when we don’t act like it.