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Confessions of a Catholic priest

Posted at 12:13 PM, Nov 14, 2014
and last updated 2014-11-14 12:13:26-05

priest collar

Editor’s note: The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, is editor at large of America magazine and author of the new book “Jesus: A Pilgrimage” (HarperOne). Follow him on Twitter. Go inside a Michigan town where young men are drawn to the priesthood on “This is Life with Lisa Ling: Called to the Collar” on Sunday, November 16, at 10 p.m.

Here’s a confession: I can never preside at a baptism without conjuring the scene from the “The Godfather” in which Michael Corleone rubs out all his enemies.

Thank you, Francis Ford Coppola.

If you’re looking for juicier confessions — that is, admissions of the kinds of sins unearthed on detective shows or reality TV — then you’ll want to look elsewhere. My sinning life is rather uneventful.

But if you want to hear what it’s really like to be a Catholic priest, read on.

This may disappoint some readers, but I love being a Catholic priest. And I’m not alone. Survey after survey, year after year, shows that the priesthood is among the most satisfying of jobs.

Now, I need to distinguish between being a member of a religious order, which I am (the Society of Jesus, aka the Jesuits) and being a priest.

While many people conflate the two, you can be in a men’s religious order and not be ordained. In the Jesuits, as in orders like the Franciscans, Benedictines and Dominicans, we have brothers, who are not ordained. In a religious order, priesthood is an outgrowth of your original vocation to the order. In other words, being a priest flows out of my being a Jesuit.

But even though I don’t work full-time at a parish, as other priests do, I am a priest like all other priests. I celebrate Masses, hear confessions, preside at baptisms, weddings and funerals, and do all the “sacramental” things priests do.

So let’s start with the most enjoyable part of being a priest: being invited into people’s lives.

Think of just three moments of deep joy and deep sorrow in life: a wedding, a baptism and a funeral. You’re invited to participate in each of those moments with all manner of people — from families and friends you’ve known for years to nearly complete strangers. By virtue of your priesthood, you’re sharing people’s most important moments.

Now, as most people know, wedding preparations can be time-consuming and often stressful affairs. The playful joke among priests is, “Give me ten baptisms for one wedding!”

But it is deeply moving to stand beside two young people and watch them profess their love for one another in a public way. I often laugh when, after the Mass or during the reception, they express their gratitude for the privilege they have given me!

Years later, you may be invited to celebrate with them the baptism of their child, and welcome the child into the Christian faith.

I’ve always loved saying the words of Catholic baptism, “The Christian community welcomes you with great joy.” I think of all the years to come, when the child will find nourishment in the church. What will the church mean to this child? And what will this child mean to the church?

At a funeral, on the other hand, you’re invited into a dark time, but also one in which you can offer consolation. The byword among priests is that while not many people pay attention to the homily at weddings or baptisms (they’re usually staring at the bride’s dress or waving at the baby), everyone wants to hear what you’re going to say at a funeral.

People are longing for a word of comfort, and I’m grateful to remind them of the hope of eternal life. God, I always say, would never destroy the relationship that God has with each of us.

It’s hard to overstate how moving all this is. But it goes beyond these peak events.

Most Catholics feel at ease discussing the most personal aspects of their lives with priests. Whether in spiritual direction, pastoral counseling, confession or just one-on-one conversations, you witness the beauty of people’s lives. So, day by day, you see how people struggle. You see how they try to love. You see how holy they are.

Perhaps at no other time is this truer than during confession, formally known as the sacrament of reconciliation.

One thing that priests often say about confession is that unlike, say, therapy, people quickly get to the heart of the matter in confession. And people are usually brutally honest. (Otherwise, why would they come?) How wonderful it is to see God’s grace work within them and to offer them a word of forgiveness on God’s behalf.

Some people say that they don’t need a priest to offer them forgiveness. And, besides, it’s God who is doing the forgiving — which is true. But take my word for it, from my experience both as one who confesses and one who hears confessions: Hearing the words of absolution, which are said on God’s behalf, can be incredibly healing for people.

And for those who have been away from the church for many years, what a joy it is to say two words to them: “Welcome back!”

Being a priest is not a perfect life — obviously. What life is? Celibacy is not the easiest path. Overall, it works for me. As I see it, it means loving many people deeply and freely. (Not that others can’t love freely and deeply, but this is the way I do it.)

But living without physical intimacy can be difficult. And being a priest in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis was profoundly demoralizing. But no life is perfect — married, or single or divorced. There are joys and hopes, and griefs and struggles, in each life.

Being a Jesuit priest works for me. As the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote about his own ordination, it feels like the “one great secret for which I was born.”

I’ve not even mentioned the other joys of priesthood — celebrating Mass, preaching about the Gospel, and yes, even anointing the sick. Each of these moments brings me into a relationship not only with God, but with my fellow human beings in a deeper way.

In these moments I often think of what Mary’s cousin Elizabeth says in the Gospel of Luke. Mary has just learned that she is pregnant with Jesus, and she rushes to tell her cousin.

“And why has this happened to me,” Elizabeth says, “that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

In other words, “Who am I that this should happen to me?”

I think about that often as a priest. Who am I that I should be invited into people’s lives like this? All I know is this: it is a blessing I cannot fully comprehend or explain.