I was ordained to the priesthood in June, thirty-two years ago, on the Feast of Saint Anthony, patron of what is lost. During this time, the church has changed; I have changed; the ways people view Catholic priesthood have changed. Some of the changes are cataclysmic. Much has been lost. Yet Saint Anthony reminds me that, in Christ, what is lost can be found.
Though the Second Vatican Council promoted the priesthood of all the baptized, the church mirrors a military model that aligns the commander-in-chief and astral generals to lower ranking enlisted personnel and civilians. Our ecclesial hierarchy from the pope and cardinals to parish priests, deacons, religious sisters, and laity reflects a similar structure. With corporate guidelines and bureaucratic regulations, we celebrate our unity in Christ and desire for victory over sin and death while also being mired in institutional quicksand and formidable battles.
But the church is far more than an institution. It is a universal way of living in imitation of Jesus and being missioners of His love. It is an inheritance of salvation history with Jewish ancestry and first century followers of our Lord. It is a lineage of martyrs’ blood and sacrifices of holy women and men who inspire us; some are recognized saints whose courageous stories motivate us while others are lesser-known souls who are personal beacons of hope. Though the church has one foundation, it has been built up in many ways by many people over many centuries in many places.
In my first years as a priest, as an associate pastor at Visitation Parish, I absorbed aspects of the relational nature of priesthood. I think it complimented the academic and introspective aspects that I focused upon during my prior seminary formation. As l observed parish life and experienced my role as sacramental minister, I often thought about the words of my mentor, Monsignor Arthur Tighe, who told me, “Just love the people, Don. If you do, the rest of priesthood will fall into its proper place.” I am still guided by his words.
I was sent to the inner city for the next decade: to Saint Therese Little Flower and Saint Louis Parishes. During a half-dozen of those years, that overlapped Vis and the urban core, I also served as vocation director for our diocese. Little Flower was viewed by many, in those days, as the most vibrant Catholic parish in Kansas City and beyond. It was unorthodox, like Jesus; and like Jesus, it was life-giving. It attracted people from every direction. Saint Louis Parish struggled but we were able to give it an identity with the establishment of a youth and family literacy center called The Upper Room, utilizing space above the church building. The Upper Room spread to many sites and remains a powerful education advocate in Kansas City’s urban core.
Next I was in suburbia for five years and then to the southern tip of Kansas City for ten. During much of that time, I also served as diocesan director of priest personnel. Saint John Lalande in Blue Springs was enlivening because of the great energy existing in young life, family ventures, suburban growth, and the excitement of feeling youthful, though I was, by then, middle-aged. Saint Thomas More was probably where I felt most well-matched and most at-home but also where I was when the church seemed to unravel. It happened as priest sex scandals hit our diocese in earth-shattering ways, when people lost faith in ecclesial structures and left the church in droves, and parish leaders clashed with diocesan leaders. Though my first two decades of priesthood seemed smooth in retrospect, I experience much push-back in the most recent one. I guess the turning point was when it became clear to me that the parishioners of STM who asked for open, honest, and loving dialogue about crisis-level topics were met with self-protectionist responses from higher ranking personnel that were not open, or honest, or anywhere close to loving. It cut deep.
I realized, then, to distinguish the church I love from the corporate, bureaucratic, self-referential, self-protective institute. The church I love is none of those things but one that identifies, first and foremost, with the life of Christ and promotes His message and mission. I wish the two aligned more closely. But too often they don’t. I firmly believe that Pope Francis is very aware of the discrepancy. Like his namesake, he is dedicated to reforming and rebuilding the church. Inspired by his renewal, I came to Saint Charles Parish in Kansas City’s Northland, a community that understands well the need to rebuild and revitalize—its school, its worship, its buildings, and its community spirit. It is probably the right place for me to be now. As I approach my thirty-second anniversary, I am blessed. I want to spend the years ahead helping people to know Christ better and better know the merciful and loving church He entrusted to us. It has been lost to so many people whom I encounter. I want to help it to be found again in their lives.