To Be a Happier Priest

(Homily for Third Sunday of Advent, Year C)

Bottom line: An anniversary reflection - People want their priests to be happy, to communicate some of the Lord's hope and joy. Today St. John gives us one of the keys to happiness.

Today I am celebrating a thirty-fifth anniversary. On December 17, 1971, I was ordained to the priesthood. The ordination took place in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. My mom and dad, my brothers and various friends attended the Mass. It was a magnificent service, with many other ordinands. The Mass lasted the enttire morning. For my dad it involved considerable sacrifice since at that time he was a smoker. He lit up as soon as got outside, but he was also happy to receive my first priestly blessing. That was thirty-five years ago - and a lot has happened since then. This Sunday I would like to make a brief reflection on those years, in light of the Scripture readings we have just heard.

I will begin with a humorous story about a conversation between a recently ordained priest and his elderly pastor. Actually, it was a heated argument about a pastoral issue. In exasperation the pastor finally said, "Don't argue with me. I've had forty years experience as a priest."

The young priest looked at him and said. "No you haven't. You haven't had forty years experience. You had one year's experience and you repeated forty times!"

Well, I admit there has been much repetition in these past three and a half decades: thousands of baptisms and confessions, hundred of marriages and funerals - but each one with its own uniqueness. In addition to the sacraments, there have been other thousands of meetings, parish events and conversations in which people have shared their joys, their sorrows, their struggles to be faithful to God.

Last week I took some time to reflect on what seems like a cascade of experiences. I asked myself this question: What is required to be a happy priest? Or to be more precise, what can I do to be a happier priest? That is something people want - not necessarily that we be joking, backslappers - but that we have a measure of inner happiness so we can communicate the Lord's hope and joy. Well, I started writing and I came up with quite a long list. I then boiled the list down to thirty-five concrete things that I or any other priest could do to be happier. I won't give you the whole list, but I would like to mention one because it ties in with today's Gospel - and it applies not exclusively to a priest, but to all Christians.

Today St. John gives us one of the keys to happiness. When people came out to the desert to hear him, they asked John, "What should we do?" He replied that the person who had two cloaks should share with the one who has none. In some ways, that is pretty obvious advice. One of the keys to happiness is to share - or give away - as much as possible.

Recently I read about some Protestant pastors who share their financial resources in a dramatic way: they practice reverse tithing. Instead of giving God the first ten percent, they give away ninety percent of their income and keep only ten percent for their own needs. I am guessing that their incomes are quite a bit higher than the average priest. Still, their example inspired me. From my salary I could prudently set aside something to have a reliable car, heathy food, some educational resources and a few other needs. But, as St. John points out, the rest really doesn't belong to me. It belongs to God. In my years a priest, I am aware of how much it takes to keep a parish going, but also other worthy causes - especially those which promote respect for human life. Above all, there are the pressing needs of the poor. My seven years in Peru showed me how much good a relatively small amount of money can do for a needy family.

Thinking about it, I realize what a tremendous blessing it is to be able to give to others. St. Paul tells us that one of the principal motives for work is not just to earn money take care oneself and ones own family, but to have something to share with the church and with the poor. Jesus himself said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." (Acts 20:35)

Of course, financial giving must always be accompanied by a deeper giving. St. Vincent de Paul said, "It is for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give them." To be able to give to another - whether materially or spiritually - is a great privilege. And we must always be open to receiving. No one is so rich that he has nothing to receive - and no one is so poor that he has nothing to give. I imagine that the man who had two cloaks thought of himself as poor: one cloak to wear and one cloak to wash. But St. John told him to give to the person who has none.

Let me attempt to sum up: Today, on my 35th Anniversary, I am feeling enormous gratitude for the gift of the priesthood - and I am asking myself how to be a happier priest, so that I can serve you better. St. John gives one important way - for you as well as for me - that we determine our own basic need and joyfully, gratefully give the rest away.


Final Version

Spanish Version

From Archives (Homily for Third Sunday of Advent, Year C):

2015: Are You Missing Out? Week 3: Joy
2012: What Should We Do?
2009: Joy as a Duty
2006: To Be a Happier Priest
2003: Profile in Courage
2000: A Priest's Examination of Conscience
1997: Rejoice Always!

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