Feed My Sheep

I want to apologize in advance: this is going to be an informal post. I’m tired, but I have a lot of impressions in my mind that I have to commit to text so that they can become clear in my own head. And several of my friends from home have asked me to share more of my day to day experiences with them. I’m not sure what the best way to do that is going to be—I’m toying with sending a weekly email blast, but tonight I remembered I had a blog, so this is the medium of the moment.

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the very last day of the liturgical year, I served a funeral with my pastor at my home parish. It was very interesting: the woman who died was a daily Mass-goer, but the whole family was fallen away from the Church, except for her ex-husband. He came up to me and gave me some advice about perseverance in the spiritual life and was all excited to meet a seminarian. The others, God bless them, hardly knew an aspergillum from a dipstick. Anyway, I served the funeral—which was fine, in essence more or less a normal Mass, just with the blessing of the woman’s ashes and an obituary afterwards. (And a man came forward and tried to demand Holy Communion. Father said “are you Catholic?”, and he said “do I have to be?” which, well, answered that question).

Then we went to lunch. But then we went to the internment. And that was a very different experience.

It was just the close family, Father Manuel and I, and a bagpipe player. And the family was so happy as we gathered there at the burial plot, laughing and cracking jokes. Father sad it was the happiest burial he’d ever been to. But there was also a real sense of loss. Father blessed the ground with holy water, then he had me lead the optional prayers for a lay minister in the Rite of Commital, and we prayed together the “we commit to the earth the body of your servant…” and the “eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord…” And he introduced me to the family as his priest in training. And I— I’ll admit, when he introduced me to the bagpipe player that way, I felt proud. When he introduced me to the family that way, I felt unworthy. 

There was a boy, who couldn’t have been more than a couple years younger than me. He was freckly and gangly and had a really poorly-fitting suit on with these high-top sneakers, and he had been yawning and stretching really obviously during the Mass, and now here he was crying at his grandmother’s graveside. And here I was, I don’t know how many years his elder, but I didn’t feel like it was nearly enough, first serving at the Holy Mystery of the altar, now assisting at the commitment of this woman’s body to the earth and the commendation of her soul to God.

I hugged the deceased woman’s sister, her best friend, her brothers, who had dug their sister’s grave, and then her grandson. And Father hugged everyone, squeezing shoulders, holding people close, holding the women’s heads as they sobbed into his stole, clapping the men on the back, comforting them. And… we left. Our duty was to that moment. The blessing of the earth, the commendation of the soul, the commitment of the body, the comforting of the grieving. We had been a priestly presence to a family who had not known the inside of the Church or the grace of a sacramental blessing in probably decades, and they welcomed us back into their family like they had been daily Mass-goers themselves, so hungry were they for…blessings, holy water, prayer, liturgy, the presence of a priest, the feeling of being loved, cared for, not abandoned by God. I mean, a man demanded Holy Communion, for crying out loud, who probably hadn’t so much as thought about Communion in 20, 30 years. And Father told me, “That’s the power of these moments. Sometimes that can be the reason for suffering. God takes a woman to Himself and saves a whole family.”

Which brings us to today. Last night, I ran into Marco, a good friend of mine and one of my seminarian brothers from the Diocese of Baker. He didn’t seem to be feeling well, and told me he had been having stomach pain all day, but now it had moved more to his side. He had had to leave Mass that morning because he felt sick, and hadn’t eaten anything all day. When he said the pain had moved, I warned him it might be his appendix. I told him to go see the seminary infirmary first thing in the morning, and to call me if it got worse.

Today, he called me during my ancient lit class. Yep, appendicitis, or so quoth the infirmarian, but they wanted him to go to the hospital to be sure.

I had only one appointment that afternoon, so I ran and got my car, weaving through a Canadian tour group visiting the abbey, picked him up, and drove him to Silverton, which is the closest hospital to our holy hilltop. They took him in for an X-ray and warned me it would be a few hours. I went back to the seminary for my spiritual direction appointment. As it was drawing to a close, Marco called me back. It was confirmed, swollen appendix, needed to be removed right away. They had scheduled surgery for 7:00. As he was calling, it was almost 5.

So I ran up to his room to get him a few things (breviary, cell phone charger, pillow), told my formation director and the president-rector of the seminary the news, and headed back to the hospital to meet him. By the time I got there, he was already on some painkillers—nothing too strong yet, but enough that he couldn’t speak English. He asked me to call his mom and tell her the news. He was scared. First surgery ever. His mom was worse. Her son was in pain, going into surgery in another country, and she couldn’t be there to hold his hand. I called her again after it was over, almost 3 hours later, and she told me tearfully she had been praying the whole time.

We had both missed evening prayer at the seminary, so we read it together from iBreviary. He insisted that we pray in English even though he stumbled over the sentences. When we were done, I put my hands on his forehead and prayed over him in Spanish, defiantly.

Then came a knock at the door—my formator, Marco’s formator, and Msgr. Betschart, the president-rector, all come to make sure that he was okay. A confused murmuring followed them all the way up the hall, three priests in a secular hospital. They anointed him there and then, minutes before the surgery was scheduled to begin, and Monsignor motioned for me to lay hands on him too, which I did. Again, I felt totally, completely unworthy, and again, like my participation in the internment made me realize how unworthy I was even to serve at the funeral Mass, my recognition of my own unworthiness to participate in the bestowment of sacramental grace upon my friend at that moment made me realize how unworthy I was to have prayed over him myself a few minutes earlier. Who am I? I thought—who am I, that I should commend a stranger to the earth and ask God to take her to his breast—who am I, that I should lay my hands on my friend, and brother, and ask God to preserve him in safety and in health—what right do I have to do any of this? To ask God to do anything?

And I think the answer is: none whatsoever.

Like the man who came to Father Manuel, demanding to receive Holy Communion.

“Are you Catholic?” Father asked him, holding the Most Precious Body of He Who Is, the Word made flesh, which the other man made a grab for.

“Do I have to be?”

“Yes,” he told him gently, “you do.”

“Well,” the other man retorted, “then I’m Catholic for today.”

Father just smiled. “May the blessing of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit descend upon you and remain with you always.” He made the sign of the cross over him, and the man went away in peace.

He had no right to receive Holy Communion. But then, none of us do. There are rules about who may receive the Most Blessed Sacrament—confirmed Catholics, of the age of reason, who have made their First Holy Communion, confessed their sins, are in the state of grace, and in full spiritual communion with the Church—and when: in the context of Holy Mass, or Anointing of the Sick, or if they are homebound or in an emergency. But nowhere in canon law does it say that those who meet the requirements to receive Holy Communion are therefore worthy to receive. No man or woman on the face of this earth could ever so much as dream to be worthy.

The whole and entirety of our faith is contained in the mystery of the Eucharist. God, He Who is, the creator of the universe, became created man in the Incarnation, which we are anticipating in this Advent season. God, He Who Is, Lord of all creation, He who set the stars in their orbits, “who taught every tree its leaf,” in the beautiful words of Virgil, He who “knit me together in my inmost parts,” in the words of the psalmist—God became man and died, died the most horrific death, suffered as much as anyone has ever suffered, and in his death bore all our sufferings.

And God, He who felt the abandonment of his friends, their betrayal, their denial, who felt his hands and feet nailed to the wood of the Cross, who felt his side pierced with a lance, who hung between heaven and earth at Calvary and surrendered his spirit up to the Father—He died, and arose to Heaven, and He continues to give Himself to us, day and night, from now until the end of the world, in the continuing, timeless, eternal sacrifice, the unbloody sacrifice of the Mass and the sacrament of the Eucharist, in the breaking of the bread, which is the body, broken, on the cross.

No one is worthy to celebrate the sacraments. No one is worthy to be ordained to the priesthood of Jesus Christ. No one is worthy to so much as pray to the Father for our intentions. St. Louis de Montfort says that even the best thing we can do, even our best works which we offer up to God, are like a peasant putting a worm-eaten apple before the king. Got that? Because we are tainted, fallen men and women, all of us. Even our best works are clouded by evil intentions. Our hearts are like muddy water, Christ’s living water mixed with the dirt of sin. No one is worthy.

And yet.

By His sacrifice, God purifies us. He sanctifies us. He justifies us. He created us perfect, and perfect He wants us to be. He created us in love, and He wants us to love Him. He wants us to be with Him in eternity forever—and none of us are worthy, but our own unworthiness is irrelevant because the God who created all things loves us personally, and particularly, and forever. We can dare to come before God with our petitions because God is our own Father, who loves us and desperately wants the best for us. Some of us are called to priesthood. We can dare to celebrate the Mass, consecrate Jesus Christ’s own Body and Blood, feed His sheep, heal his people, comfort the dying, the grieving, the sick, not out of our own worthiness, or our own holiness, but because it is the service to which God calls us and the office to which He ordains us.

And I, as a seminarian?—There are moments when I am conscious of the importance, the radicalness of my vocation, and I am proud. And there are moments when I am even more conscious of it, and I am terrified. I know that Fr. Peter, Fr. Terry, Msgr. Betschart: they’re not worthy either, but they have decades of experience and wisdom on me. They have titles in the Church, liturgical roles, they teach, they bless, they sanctify. They may not be worthy, but they seem worthy! I don’t know the interior state of their souls, but I know mine. It’s a mess in there. I can serve at the altar, or pray over a friend informally, and feel like I’m doing good, but when I’m called upon to do the work of the priest, to commit, to commend, to comfort, to lay on hands, I feel like a fraud. “I know myself,” I think. “I’m not good enough to do this.”

I forget that God knows me better than I know myself. 

I forget that it is the particular vocation of the priest to surrender everything to God: to surrender his own will, his own preferences, his own comfort, his own security. His own choice of which ministries to perform and how to perform them, and where, and when, and with whom. Everything.

“I’m not good enough!” wails my heart.

But Jesus tells Peter, “Feed my sheep.”

I stayed with Marco until he went into surgery, and I kept vigil until he came out again. The other priests came and went. A few of his seminarian brothers from the Diocese of Baker visited after he was out of surgery and made him laugh. Fr. Peter came back, fed him ice chips out of a paper cup, and told horror stories of his experiences in hospital when he lived in Italy, stories of unimaginable terror and unbelievable grace. And I stayed by his side. Gave him juice. Called his mom again. Brought him his pillow from home. Prayed with him. Prayed over him. Joked with him. (“They showed it to me!” he told me blearily. “My appendix! It was like I gave birth to a mouse!”) Kept his spirits up until the nurse added morphine to his IV and he finally began to fall asleep. It was almost 8 hours from start to finish.

As I was leaving he looked at me and very clearly said “Thank you. Matthew. Carnal,” which means “friend,” or “brother,” or “flesh of my flesh.”

And I’m not worthy of that kind of compliment, either.

My math professor this morning, who I’ve gotten to know pretty well over the course of this semester, told me at the end of our oral exam, “You have a way about you that is very comforting. You’re obviously very talented, and there’s a lot you can do to help others, but you do it without it feeling patronizing. And I think you’ll make a fine priest.”

I’m certainly not worthy of that. 

But that’s a kind of ministry I can embrace. I can’t wrap my head around celebrating the sacraments yet, but ordination to the priesthood, should it be the will of God that I ever get that far, is still a good seven or eight years away. I can understand a ministry of presence. I can understand dropping everything to take my brother to the hospital and staying with him til the very end. And I can understand dropping everything to be with a family of strangers the weekend after Thanksgiving at the burial of their mother and grandmother and sister, as terrifying as it might be. I can’t understand being a priest. I can’t understand the sacraments, the mystery of Heaven touching earth, of the divine communicating through fallen, mortal matter. But I can understand being a priestly presence, being the presence of God when people are at their neediest, their hungriest, their most vulnerable. And I think that might be the first step to understanding priesthood. 

Just my reflections on these past few days. More to come as they come.

P.S. Marco is fine, and should be back to the seminary by tomorrow afternoon. Your prayers are appreciated. God love you.

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