Never forget my brothers, the priesthood is true and good and beautiful because it belongs to Jesus. He is the great High Priest.” These were the words spoken by Father Chris Martin, the president of the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors during our annual convention held in Phoenix this year. Father Martin’s comments came at the end of the closing Mass and were a beautiful capstone to the week for the 250 of us that gathered from around the country.
It seemed appropriate that this year’s conference was held in Phoenix, in the desert, because I think many of my brother priests and I have felt like we are in a spiritual desert these last few months. Yet with all of us gathered in such a harsh and challenging natural environment, it was a reminder that all us are together as brother priests in whatever atmosphere we experience in our culture and society. We are joined by the sacred vows we have taken, the promises we have made. All of us on our ordination day laid down our lives prostrate on the sanctuary floor of our different cathedrals. One of the most moving parts of the ordination is the laying on of hands when all the priests in attendance, following their bishop, lay hands on the heads of the men who will only in a few moments join them in the gift and mystery of Holy Orders and the priesthood. What a blessing it is to share in this sacred brotherhood encouraged by the example of so many good and holy priests who have gone before. Each of us can point to those priests we have known personally who served as an inspiration, and many times it was the example of a priest who encouraged us and asked if we had ever thought about the priesthood. Their words of support are never forgotten.
What has been so amazing to me these last few months in the midst of all of these terrible reports and causes of scandal is how supportive people have been, even complete strangers. A few months ago I was in an airport and while passing through security one of the TSA agents smiled at me and said, “Keep up the good work.” Coming home from my annual retreat three weeks ago, a man seated next to me on the plane said how happy and relieved he was to be sitting next to a priest on his flight home. As I prepared to disembark the plane one of the young men who was cleaning the interior asked, “Are you a pastor?” I said, “I’m a Catholic priest.” His response was simple, “Cool.” If I had not worn my clerics, none of those encounters, brief and perhaps seemingly insignificant as they were, would have transpired. It may be tempting for we priests these days to go out in public in mufti, as they say, undercover. In a sense I have found myself more inclined than ever to wear my collar because most people never see a priest in real life, only judging us on what makes the front page or the evening news. Yet sitting on the subway reading the newspaper, waiting patiently at a bus stop, or reading a book at the airport gate, in other words, just acting in a normal way, can help to dispel some of the horrendous stereotypes people have about us.
Maybe this seems Pollyannaish, and I have yet to encounter the person who makes a nasty comment, and I am sure that as I walk through Manhattan or Newark Airport there are some people who view me with suspicion. The truth is, I don’t care. As a priest I share in something much greater and holier than myself. All I can do is strive every day to conform myself to Christ and hopefully bring His love to the spiritual desert of our world.
Father Argano is director of vocations for the archdiocese.