When I was ordained as a priest thirteen years ago, the landscape of what it meant to be a pastor was remarkably different. My dream was to be sent to some backwoods little town as a pastor and to be there until my successor lowered me into the ground. The ideal of priesthood that Pope St. John Paul II put forward was that of a little French saint named Jean Vianney. St. Jean, who is better known by his title - the Cure d'Ars (lit. The Pastor of Ars), was generally average. He wasn't particularly smart or savvy or anything else. All he had was a genuine love for God and a sincere belief that everyone needed the Church. He served in a small town of farmers right after Napoleon had done his best to destroy the Church. St. Jean poured his energy into preaching and into hearing confessions. For the first ten years, the people were so affronted by his unwavering zeal and challenging preaching that they threw rotten fruit through the windows of his house! After twenty-five years, the government had to build a new railroad into Ars because tens of thousands of people were traveling there to see the saintly priest and to go to confession. St. John served his one and only parish for more than forty years and he's buried right there in the town that he served. That was my dream when I drove to the Cathedral on May 21, 2005 for my Ordination as a Priest.
But... Nowadays priests tend to get moved around constantly. Every six or twelve years - whether things are going well or not - we shuffle all of the priests. It's hard on the parishes and it's a nightmare for the priests. It's hard to feel like a spiritual family when you have a new father every few years and it's hard to be a spiritual father when you know you're going to be divorced from your family just as you get to know and love them. What's more, the first complaint or letter that gets made about father's latest sermon or decision and he's promptly moved along so as to keep the peace... Whatever the reason for these modern structures and whatever their merits, the life of the priest has changed dramatically in the last few decades.
Nowadays, I find myself looking less to St. Jean Vianney and more to St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier. The early Jesuits were less stable in their lives and more pilgrim-like. They were good pastors and they managed to be good pastors despite a near constant changeover in their circumstances. That kind of ministry requires a different way of thinking, though. It requires a different perspective on the Church and on the local Parish and on the kind of choices and programs and initiatives that I would establish in the Church to which I am assigned.
My main impetus for this Sabbatical, then, is to embrace the pilgrim lifestyle intensely enough to help me make this kind of transition in perspective. I'm thinking of it in the same way that a student of a language would immerse himself in some place where that language - and only that language - is spoken.
Re-tuning my Perspective
There's something to be said for the outside point of view. After all, the frog in the pot which is slowly heated may well find himself boiling without realizing that the big picture of his situation has changed... I've been priesting now for thirteen years. If I include my time in Seminary, half of my life has been spent in active, mostly non-stop ministry. While I can't say that I'm tired, dissatisfied or in any way unhappy with my life, I can say that I notice myself losing some of my broader perspective.
It's shocking how quickly I was able to say to myself, "I can't remember my life before I was a priest." It's also shocking how hard it is to keep in my mind what life is like for someone who isn't a priest. I have to remind myself frequently of what the life of a parent or a widow or a student or an employee or a retiree is like. Of course, reminding myself isn't the same as living that life, but it's an essential part of the perspective that I need to be a good priest. BUT - here's the challenging part - most people are anxious about telling their pastor the real circumstances of their lives! I know we all think that we're really ready to open up. I know that some people have been wonderfully frank with me. But, at a certain point, none of us are totally honest with the people around us. Everyone wants to put their best foot forward and that's ok. But as a priest, part of my continuing education is tuning and re-tuning my perspective so that when I preach or teach or counsel, I'm speaking the good things that men need to hear and not merely yammering.
Fasting is Easy, Feasting not so Much
The third big reason for this Sabbatical is to celebrate in a genuine way, my fortieth birthday. As my poor mother can tell you, I'm not great at celebrating. She buys me wonderful presents and I smile and nod and say thank you and then put them down and stare off to infinity. I am not a fan of being the center of attention and I don't show emotion freely in public. It's just not me. Still, I want to celebrate my 40th. Partly, I want to do that for me. But moreso, I want to celebrate it for the people around me. I want my parents to know how much I love them. I want my friends to know how much they mean to me. I want to take this moment in my life as an opportunity to be thankful in an outward way to God for the blessed life He's given me and my friends and family are a huge part of that reality!