When Father Gary Graf, a Chicago priest, was pastor at Holy Family Parish in Waukegan, he donated a portion of his own liver to a parishioner, who was the father of a large family and in danger of death. When Father Mike Enright, a Chicago priest, was pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish on the Southeast Side of the city, he would regularly stand in the crossfire from rival gangs, compelling the young men, at the risk of his own life, to stop. Father Matt Foley, a Chicago priest, left parish work in 2008 to begin his ministry as a military chaplain among frontline soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. For decades, Msgr. Ignatius McDermott took care of the poorest and most destitute along skid row.
You probably know the story of Maximilian Kolbe, the great saint of Auschwitz. A prisoner from Father Kolbe’s barracks managed to escape, and in retaliation, the Nazi guards picked out 10 other prisoners from that barracks at random for execution. When one of those chosen broke down in tears, protesting that he was the father of a family, Kolbe stepped forward and said, simply and calmly, “I am a Catholic priest; take me and spare this man.”
Priests are called “father” because they are life-givers in the spiritual order. Spiritual fathers protect their children; they teach them; they are there for them. At the limit, they give their lives for them.
Jesus gathered around himself a band of apostles whom he shaped according to his own mind and heart and whom he subsequently sent on mission. Priests, down through the centuries — from Augustine and Aquinas, to Francis Xavier and John Henry Newman, to John Paul II and your own pastor — are the descendants of those first friends and apprentices of the Lord. They have been needed in every age, and they are needed today, for the kingdom of heaven must be proclaimed, the poor must be served, God must be worshipped and the sacraments must be administered.
And may I say that spiritual fathers are required especially in our time, when a rising tide of secularism threatens to overwhelm the religious impulse. St. Augustine told us long ago, “Lord, you have made us for yourself; therefore our heart is restless until it rests in thee.” What that great saint saw is that we are wired for God, that we will never satisfy the deepest longing of our heart apart from God.
The secularist ideology, which is propagated practically everywhere today, teaches that sufficient amounts of wealth, pleasure, power or honor will make us happy. Who will counter this? Who will speak to this culture of the beauty of God? Who will remind us that our lives are not about us? Who will break open the words of the Gospel and spread out the banquet table of Christ’s body and blood? This is why we need priests.
Did you know that a Time magazine cover story some years ago demonstrated that the happiest profession in America is clergyman? And a Pew Forum Study from just last year showed that, in the United States, some 500,000 young men have, at some point, seriously considered priesthood or religious life. The sadness is that the vast majority of those halfmillion did not receive adequate direction or information or encouragement.
A few years ago, 90-year-old Father Vic Ivers celebrated his final Mass at St. Joseph’s Parish in Libertyville. After giving the final blessing, Father Ivers took off his shoes and placed them in front of the altar. Before processing out, he pointedly asked, “So who will fill these shoes?” It was a striking gesture and a darned good question.
Are you one of those half-million who has heard the whisper of God’s voice? Do you want more than what the world can offer you? Do you want to embark on the high adventure of the priesthood?
Can I ask mothers, fathers, grandparents, relatives, co-workers of these prospective candidates to encourage them to come? And can I ask everyone reading this to pray for the success of this endeavor?
There are hundreds of priests in Chicago who do marvelous work day in and day out, for very little pay and often with little or no recognition. They are heroes, and the church depends on them for its survival. But who will fill their shoes? Perhaps someone reading this right now.
- Fr. Robert Barron, Rector of Mundelein Seminary
If you have been thinking and praying about the priesthood and a life of service in the Lord, please contact Reverend Francis Bitterman Vocation Director for the Archdiocese of Chicago. He can direct you toward the next steps on your journey.