I just returned from a wonderful weeklong conference for priests. It took place in Austin, Texas. There were 215 priests in attendance from just about every state of the union. There were older priests and younger ones. Every possible nationality was represented. It was held at a resort on a Lake that gave it an unmistakably retreat-like atmosphere.
During the three days, we listened to 15 talks that were more than 1 hour long in length. We also had beautiful liturgies in the Ballroom that had been completely transformed into a church, resplendent with statues, Tabernacle and altar rail.
The speakers were dynamic, insightful, and all but one were lay people. Yep, you heard it right: 215 priests listened to spiritually enriching talks given by Lay People, three of whom were converts: one from Judaism, and two were former Protestant Pastors. They were all married with children and even grandchildren.
And what did they talk about? They told us over and over again in so many different ways how important priests are to them and their families! There is something very poignant in this.
We are in the midst of a great renewal of priestly commitment and spirituality. The sexual abuse crisis has revealed how deep Satan’s attack were on the Church through the debasement of the priestly commitment to celibate love. While it is easy to see how this has damaged the self-image of priests, attention needs to be paid to its effect on the laity of the Church. Traditionally we call this majority of Catholics the Faithful. In attacking the sacred priesthood, Satan has struck a blow at the whole people of God who have always needed a humble, holy Priesthood to sustain their fidelity and the day-to-day spiritual needs of the people of God.
It is only fitting and proper that members of the Faithful rise up to help their priests regain the needed holiness to discharge their service to them.
That is what was most evident in the words and the overall demeanor of the lay presenters at this conference. They were certainly qualified. Each of them had a Doctorate and had written a good quantity of books outlining how to be Catholic in today’s world. They were equally aware of the pressures on priests and bishops both from within the Church and outside the Church.
One of the presenters was a Presbyterian Minister who converted and who now has one of his sons as a Priest, and another son discerning his possible call to the priesthood. He spoke movingly of how he attended his son’s first Mass and how he received Holy Communion from his son for the first time, and how he called his own son “Father” for the first time (and meant it!).
In listening to these holy lay people, I was filled with awe at the vocation to the Priesthood that I received: how I have been empowered by Christ Himself to forgive sins in the name of the Church and, more importantly, in the name of Jesus! And furthermore, when dealing with the Holy Eucharist, I tremble at the powers granted to me in bringing Christ to earth once more! I cannot tell you how unworthy it makes me feel when I reflect on my sinfulness and on this call that I sometimes take for granted.
This week also taught me the wisdom in the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the universal call to Holiness. There was always a tendency to elitism in the self-knowledge of many in the Church. In past ways of thinking, theology and the Spiritual Life was the province of those in priestly orders or in Religious Life. But following up on the clear teaching of St. Francis de Sales, the Council proclaimed that all of the Baptized were called to holiness and that, as the great writer and Spiritual author Leon Bloy wrote, the only true sadness in this life is not to become a saint.
The wisdom and the beauty of what I heard spoken at this conference was actually being lived in the holy life of these lay teachers. We priests benefited greatly as these teachers taught us about the joys and the glory of the priestly vocation.
We serve the people of God.