Today is Holy Thursday, the day Jesus bestowed on us the Priesthood – so I figured I might reflect a bit on how I ended up becoming a priest.
I grew up with great parents – some of you have met them – who volunteered and worked endless hours at the church: dad played the organ every 8am Mass and was the finance chair, mom was a EMHC and worked in the school. I grew up truly thinking of the church as my home. I learned from my parents the necessity to give generously to the Lord and the church, to wash feet generously. I might just pause here and say a word of thanks to all who serve so generously here at SJ and SV: those who take care of the homebound, the sick, the grounds, the budgets, the school and formation programs, the liturgies, the music, the SVDP Society. Every day I see folks here washing others’ feet so generously, just as I grew up watching my parents do. Thank you.
Taking a page from my parents’ book, I became an altar server as soon as they’d let me, when I was in fifth grade. You had to take a test. I failed it but Fr. Charlie told me I could be a server anyway. I remember how I loved sitting next to Fr. Charlie and how he would sometimes whisper jokes to me. I remember how he always called me “big Mike” and how I saw in him a man who was different, who had given up so much and loved so much. I remember one summer Sunday morning looking out at the people and thinking, “this may be the view I’m supposed to have my whole life.”
In middle school my friend Christian started calling me Father Mike. Some others did too: it caught on. I hated it when people said such things and I kept saying, “I like girls.” And I really thought that because I wanted to get married and have a family it meant I wasn’t supposed to be a priest.
But God kept working on me, almost despite myself. In high school I went on my Confirmation retreat and I just remember feeling so close to God that weekend for the first time in my life. Believe it or not, I’d never experienced adoration of the Blessed Sacrament before and hadn’t been to confession since my first confession. I think it’s the time I really met the Jesus I’d heard my priests and teachers and parents talking about. I didn’t hear a voice or see a vision at that retreat, but I felt this sense, “it might be you. God might be calling you to make a sacrifice. You should be a priest.”
Now I was just a teenager then and the idea of never getting married seemed really really crazy…but somehow I started getting closer and closer to God. I tell people I went to IU because I figured if any place could kill a vocation it was there. But God kept chasing me and I kept feeling drawn to Christ..not just spiritually, but literally: I mean I felt drawn like a magnet to the sacred contents of the tabernacle. I remember spending countless nights in the church at St. Charles, which was open 24/7, in front of the tabernacle. I probably went there every night for the last few years I lived in Bloomington. I kept saying, “Just tell me what you want Lord.” Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament kept drawing me to himself. It got to where that’s what I looked forward to each day, it’s what gave me peace, it’s what gave me direction. Sometimes I went with friends, often by myself. I just wanted to be with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
Finally it dawned on me: I had always wanted to live my life for others, what more could I do for them then give them Jesus?
So I entered seminary…and when you enter seminary, it isn’t because you’ve figured anything out, it’s just the place to go to more easily figure things out—with others going through the same discernment, with prayer structure, with spiritual direction, etc. I absolutely loved it. It wasn’t always easy, but the anxieties I had ahead of time vanished and I felt so much happiness. In my ministry placements, in telling kids about God and serving in food kitchens and at Mass and in bringing folks closer to God, the God who can save them, I came to realize that this would be worth giving my life to. Fr David Michael says it well: Celibacy wouldn’t be some obscure, abstract sacrifice – I’d be doing it for real people. I don’t love being a priest because it’s easy because it’s not; I don’t love being a priest because it’s fun although it often is. it’s meaningful. Every day I focus on the things in life that matter most. Every day I get to see and participate in miracles and the greatest miracle of all: the eternal salvation of souls.
When Jesus gave us his Body and Blood on Holy Thursday, when he gave us the Priesthood, when he washed the feet of the Apostles, what he was saying is this: Feed on me and do as I do, and give yourselves away…just as I do in the Eucharist. Pour yourself out for God and the Church. Love endlessly and radically. Pope Francis today reflected on how Jesus washed the feet even of Judas, who he knew would betray him. People will hurt us: love them anyway. Love until the end. Love when it isn’t easy. Love when it doesn’t even make sense. Live a life beyond yourself. Take your life from God and give it back to God.
This kind of love means real sacrifice. But it also means endless, eternal joy – and not just for you. For the people whose lives here and hereafter depend upon your YES to God. And there are thousands. As St John Vianney says, “Priests go to heaven or hell with thousands of souls behind them.”
As we celebrate Mass tonight, let us pray that we will all live generous lives of service. Let us pray that we will treasure more than anything the gift of Jesus in the Eucharist. And let us pray for our priests, our seminarians, and let us pray that one day soon our parish will give birth to a seminarian. Young men: it might be you God is calling. Pray about it. There are natural and supernatural forces in this world that will try to keep you from your call; resist them. Because if it’s your call, it’s nothing to be afraid of…it is something to be embraced, treasured, and assented to.