One of the first items I purchased for my first parish office as a priest was a respectable piece of artwork. After looking around online, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Rembrandt stood out. This piece, I thought, would make for a good image to have in my office for a person coming in to talk about any variety of issues. I, however, had no idea how profoundly the message of Rembrandt’s Christological window into the chaos of the storm – that Jesus truly is with you amidst any storm or trial – would resonate with my first year of priesthood.
Within my first year of priesthood the Church experienced scandal nationally and worldwide. In our own diocese, a young priest, whom I attended seminary with and knew well, was caught in a horrific scandal which brought immeasurable levels of shock, hurt, betrayal to many of us. Now, the world is experiencing the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has provided a good amount of ministerial challenge. The waters have been a bit choppy.
Knowing, in hindsight, all that has come to pass this year, someone could reasonably ask whether or not I would still have laid my body down on the marble of St. John’s Cathedral last May, surrendering my life to all in priestly service. My answer: Being in the boat with Jesus, even if the waters are terrifyingly tempestuous, is better than jumping ship. God is in the boat and I am not a good swimmer.
Yes, this first year of priesthood has been a rough go in some senses; but it has also been incredibly grace-filled. Certainly, there have been moments of questioning and doubt, but more overpowering have been the feelings of courage, hope, and even excitement that – by the hand of the Holy Spirit – have helped reinforce a positive perspective of the Church’s future of transformation and revival.
So what does the Holy Spirit’s work of transformation and revival look like in some of this year’s trials? After the McCarrick scandal and Grand Jury Report, some priests and myself entered a period of prayer and fasting for clergy who had abused children, for the victims themselves, and for those who allowed the abuse to persist. This spiritual venture helped to bring hope and peace to a scandal about which I was disgusted and about which I felt helpless to bring any actual healing.
After news broke of Fr. Bob McWilliams, I immediately called his classmates and other priests who were close to him. Our only response was to gather – from different corners of the diocese, late on a Thursday evening – in prayer before our Eucharistic Lord. Our time of intimate prayer together, I knew, had been brought about by the Spirit. As we laid all of our raw emotions and wounds before Jesus, I have no doubt that the grace we received from the Father that night poured directly into our preaching and ministry the following weekend.
Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has caused some great suffering, I know and already see the Spirit at work helping to ground us more deeply in our Christian identity as missionary disciples. I pray we may be humbly faithful.
Looking back, it really has been one heck of a first year of priesthood. Yet, I now turn to Almighty God, not in frustration and despair, but in faith. In faith, I know that God’s Spirit will continue the journey with me; loving, supporting, and guiding, no matter what kind of waters are ahead.
This reflection is an adaptation of a longer reflection first seen at Wordonfire.org