One question I often hear as I travel about the country is generally posed by a member of the older crowd, often prefaced by disparaging remarks about my generation.
“Do you see any hope for the Church?” they ask disconsolately.
Hope for the Church? Hope for the Church?? By definition there is hope for the Church. Jesus told us when he founded it that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. There is always hope for the Church because the hope of the Church is Christ, victor over death.
Still, I know what they mean, these faithful grandparents who feel as though they haven’t seen a twenty-something at Mass in twenty years. They see babies having babies and pews standing empty. They watch divorce rates rise even as sacramental marriage rates plummet. There sometimes seems little hope in a Church that’s accused of being irrelevant.
But ah, there is hope. There is hope in youth programs filled with kids who love Christ. There is hope in the flourishing campus ministry centers, hope in the young families with four and five and six kids and enough John Pauls and Thereses to stock a Catholic gift shop. There is hope in long confession lines and in the wild popularity of @Pontifex.
There is hope in every tabernacle and every Sunday School classroom, but nowhere have I seen more hope than in the home where I ate dinner last night.
Gathered around kitchen table and dining table and card tables were a dozen deacons, all of whom will be ordained in the next few weeks, a handful of seminarians, a bishop, half a dozen priests, and assorted non-clerical types. I’d accidentally shared a holy hour with five of the deacons earlier in the day, startled from my silent distraction by the sight of these strong young men dropping to their knees before a God made weak. Over a marvelous dinner, I saw the fruit of many such holy hours in the kind eyes and passionate conversation of these godly men, each one eager not for the honor due to a priest but for the sacrifice required of a victim.
This morning, a dear friend, Father Joe Kirkconnell, was ordained down here on Grand Cayman and his seminary classmates are here to celebrate with him. Father Joe is a quietly holy man, a man more humbled and overjoyed and astonished at the grace of ordination than any I’ve seen. He is intelligent and pious and kind and somehow he is shocked that God would give him this gift. After the election of the candidate (when the bishop declared that he would be ordained), he let out a joyful sigh of relief, as if even during his ordination Mass he had been afraid they might change their minds. It’s enough to make a person weep,1 seeing how grateful he is for what so many would consider a cross.
But this is priesthood. These men don’t feel they’re doing the Church a favor. They’re awestruck by the magnitude of what is being given them. “These hands,” one said to me. “These hands with their long fingers and their odd wrinkles–these hand will consecrate, will bring God to earth.” They are longing to serve, longing to sacrifice, longing to lay down their lives for their sheep.
Now, I’m notorious for going all catholic fangirl on seminarians, but this time you would have done the same. Watching these men, these brothers in Christ and soon to be brother priests, tease each other over their reactions to stingrays, spend an evening filling glasses and taking plates in service to the others in attendance, and roar with laughter at stories that ended with the punchline, “I never should have asked a liturgist,”2 I was overwhelmed by their joy, their goodness, their servants’ hearts and love for truth.
The first time I asked Fr. Joe if he thought he might become a priest, years ago after we prayed our usual rosary in his dorm chapel, he looked wistfully at me and said, “I hope so.” There was no pride, no indecision, just a longing to belong to Christ and serve his Church. Today, he lay on his face on the floor of the church and offered his life irrevocably to you, whoever you are. Others did the same all over the world. And next week there will be more, and the week after. On and on throughout the summer and beyond.
This year and next year and every year until the end of time, there will be men who throw away perfectly good lives to live for the people of God. And these young men who taunt each other and encourage each other and challenge each other and pray for each other give me hope. Oh, there are bad priests out there. But there are so very many men who are laying down their lives, holding nothing back, pouring themselves out for people who see nothing beyond the collar. Pray for them. Invite them to dinner. Thank them for their service. Go to Mass. Go to confession. (There’s no greater gift you can give a good priest than your sins.) These men who absolve and instruct and consecrate and suffer for you are, along with so many other God-lovers, hope for the Church. May God grant us holy priests.
My dear Fathers, thank you. Thank you for the gift of your life.