The privilege of being a priest hit me powerfully recently when I was part of an assembly of priests who gathered to celebrate their respective ordination anniversaries at a concelebrated Mass.
It made me think of all our contributions. Priests serve all over the world and have long been part of good and bad moments in history.
Salute, the magazine of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, recently had a cover with 13 smiling Catholic chaplains in their fatigue uniforms. They help the 16,500 Catholic servicemen and servicewomen currently deployed in Afghanistan. As I looked at those brave men, I remembered that my own vocation came while I was serving in the Army.
It also made me think of the dangerous situations priests in history have encountered.
Did you know that 2,700 priests were imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp during World War II? They opposed Hitler’s mad scheme to annihilate the Jews. Jesuit Father William O’Malley has a new fictional book about it. Though names, some events and characters are fictional, the stories in it are true.
One priest who managed to escape the Nazi reign of terror was Msgr. John Oesterreicher. Though he was born to a Jewish family, he later became a Catholic and founded the Institute of Judeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University in N.J. He openly opposed Hitler in the 1930s but miraculously escaped to the United States in 1940.
Catholic chaplains have received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their valor. Most recently, the honor went to Father Emil Kapaun, a Korean War chaplain. Father Kapaun spent almost a year ministering to the soldiers on the front lines, dodged bullets as he helped with the wounded.
The death of Father Kapaun and the other chaplains reminded me of my friend Father Mychal Judge, the Franciscan New York City Fire Department chaplain who died during the attacks on the World Trade Center. Priests such as these all over the world are giving up their lives for others every day.
Recently, Father Alfred Marzo, who celebrated 50 years of priestly service to the poor in India, said, “I am the happiest man alive.”
A life of altruism does that to a man. Father Marzo performed his normal pastoral duties every single day, but he also helped build a pipeline to bring clean water to a village. He even taught villagers to construct a strong foot bridge to save his people from being washed away during the monsoon season.
Today there are more than 400,000 priests in the world, serving in remote towns and villages, in wealthy parishes and everywhere in between. They bring Christ’s light and love to our troubled world.
Granted, we have had problems, including the sex abuse scandal, problems of alcoholism in our ranks and large egos. But I’d like to think that’s a small percentage. I am still proud to have served the Lord as a Catholic priest for more than 53 years.
Recently, Pope Francis asked for the prayers of the faithful for bishops and priests.
“We are men and we are sinners,” he said. “We are tempted. Pray for us.”
Amen to that.