On Thursday of Holy Week, the Lord Jesus gave us his heart. He did this in three ways—that is, by giving us three gifts: the Priesthood, the Eucharist, and the washing of feet. I want to speak about them all by talking about the priest I was blessed to have growing up.
When I was in second grade, my best friend’s dad died of cancer. It happened quite suddenly. I remember that we kids didn’t know quite what to do right after it happened. What do you do? What do you say? Do you still play football at recess? Most adults don’t know what to make of death; we kids were even more confused and distraught. It was, after all, for most of us our first encounter with death.
I still remember where I was sitting in Mrs. Willman’s second grade classroom at St. Charles School when my priest, Fr. Charlie, came into the room shortly after it had all happened. Fr. Charlie, who was our new priest that year and who was my priest from second grade until I went to college—he came into our classroom to pray with us and talk with us. It was, in my second-grade mind, as though God himself had walked through the door that sunlit afternoon. In retrospect, I think second-grade me was right.
I still remember what time it was in the day when he came in. It was around 1:30pm, right before gym class. I remember thinking, after he came in, “everything is going to be alright – because my priest is here.” That turned out to be right, too. Fr. Charlie spoke to us about Tom’s dad’s death and about the Resurrection. He told us that he gave him last rites. I thought to myself, “You mean Tom’s dad is in heaven right now – because Fr. Charlie went to his hospital room and prayed over him with oil?!” I was amazed! But that is, after all, what the priesthood is all about: the salvation of souls. On my better days I remember that—that the priesthood isn’t about running meetings, or planning budgets or calendars, or being a CEO or a therapist or even bus driver. It is about saving souls for Jesus, for heaven.
I do distinctly remember thinking in the back of my second-grade mind as Fr Charlie was talking to us: Maybe that is supposed to be me one day, a priest. Just maybe. That thought turned out to be with me for years. Though I tried to chase it out.
Later that year, Fr Charlie gave us kids First Holy Communion. In my Bible is my First Communion picture – I keep it in John 6—and there I am. Amid the class of 40+ kids, I’m standing there right next to Fr. Charlie, and he’s got his arm around my neck. Perhaps it was the only way to keep me standing still. Or perhaps it was because Fr Charlie was fishing for me even, then and I didn’t know it! I had a dark green suit coat on for First Communion that day, and a tie I found it hard to negotiate – and it was a clip on! I was nervous as could be, but Fr. Charlie smiled at me when it was my turn and said, for the first time in my life, “The Body of Christ,” as he placed Our Lord in my mouth. I often think, especially as I now do First Communions myself, about how Fr. Charlie was the one who literally gave me Jesus for the first time. Fr. Charlie filled my soul with the presence of the Lord. And not just once. But every Sunday and holy day and school Mass, for 15 years.
Fr. Charlie also gave me my First Confession. I waited extra long to go to his station, which was right in front of the Tabernacle. I couldn’t bring myself to go to anyone else, nor did I want to. I wanted to go to my friend Fr. Charlie. Years later he met with me one-on-one before Confirmation and was there to hug me after I was confirmed. On occasion he would come to our house, he would eat with us—he was a jolly man, so you couldn’t leave the plate of cookies next to him or he would eat them all. He was part of our family.
When I was at the Catholic school, sometimes Fr. Charlie would call some of us boys over to help him move things at the church office or in the church….we loved it because we got out of class! We would move boxes or statues or plants, and then we’d just sit in his office and chat with him until he finally would tell us we had better head back to school. Fr. Charlie taught me how to serve in more important ways too- I’m thinking especially about the Holy Mass–and he would always ask if I could serve Holy Week liturgies and Confirmations, and when I was older as one of his Men of the Altar. I was always one of his “go-tos.”
It dawns on me now that, all those times that I moved boxes and statues and books and so on for him, every time I washed his hands at Mass – he was really washing my feet. He was serving me. We loved him and he loved us. He was always there for us. This is what amazes it: it took one little word from him, one high five, one visit to our lunch table, one “hey big Mike”… for us to feel the heart of Jesus. He gave me Jesus in thousands of ways, most especially in the Eucharist, but also in his just… being him.
St. John Vianney, patron of priests, famously said: “The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus” because the priest is called to show the heart of Jesus, to reveal the Father’s love. HE said:
Without the Priesthood, we would not have the Lord. Who put him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of your life in baptism? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for its journey? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest, always the priest. And if a soul should happen to die as a result of sin, who will raise it up, who will restore its calm and peace in confession? Again, the priest…Only in heaven will he fully realize what he is.”
Fr. Charlie wasn’t perfect. He called himself the dandelion of the priesthood. I saw him mad a time or two, there were lots of liturgical rules he preferred not to follow, and he told me he thought he was one of the least intelligent and ineloquent priests. He wasn’t a Youtube sensation, he wasn’t athletic, he hardly ever even wore his collar. But like the apostles and like all priests since them, he was called in his nothingness, in his brokenness, in his personhood…to be an alter Chritus, another Christ, a Priest. He was a beautiful priest.
He was deeply devoted to the Eucharist – and I think that is the secret as to how he loved so well. The Eucharist, he would say, makes it easy to love people. And so it was that Fr. Charlie’s heart was beautifully configured to the heart of Jesus. Fr. Charlie was Jesus to me, he gave me Jesus, and Jesus used Fr. Charlie to wash my feet for 15 years by laying his life down for me—and for thousands of other souls.
Sometimes people ask why I talk about Fr. Charlie so much. It is because I found him as a child – as I find him now – almost synonymous with Jesus. So it is with any good priest. And I keep trying. I’m so glad Fr. Charlie said yes to being a priest and that he was my priest. He was the first one to tell me: I think you might have a priestly vocation. We talked about it as time went on and my courage grew, and then he told me one night at the Malibu Grill: you should go to the seminary.
I don’t regret, not even for an instant, that I said yes.