“I can’t believe that this day is here.” I remember, vividly, thinking this very same thought last year on Saturday morning June 3rd, 2017. Then it happened. I was ordained a priest and it truly was the happiest day of my life. I remember the hugs from all the priests of the diocese welcoming me into their brotherhood as one of their own. I remember being challenged by one of my priest heroes to wake up every morning and pray “Lord, help me to love your People as Christ loved us.” And finally, I remember my first Mass, the smiles, and joy visible on the faces of my family and friends. It was one of those moments that no-one would deny the presence of the Holy Spirit. And yet, I find myself thinking these same words this weekend, “I can’t believe that this day is here.”
This weekend marks my one year anniversary as a priest. One year that really is filled with a lifetime of memories. When I arrived here I was filled with both the excitement and nervousness at beginning priestly ministry. I arrived and felt immediately welcomed. Fr. Tony in his joy and good humor and by all of you in your open hearts to receiving a baby priest. I remember looking out over the hill at the city of Rockford, smoking a cigar with Fr. Tony in late July saying, “I am so happy to be here as associate pastor.” Then July ended, and the marathon began.
In August I met a man from the parish who would teach me more about priesthood than I ever learned in the seminary. He was a young married man with children, and for some reason, he was very sick. Over the next 4-6 weeks he and I would chat about sports, pray, and laugh. But we would also worry, cry and wonder why he had to suffer and why he wasn’t getting better? I didn’t have the answers. All I could tell him, was that “no matter what, God would never leave him; God would never allow him to suffer alone.” And eventually we would celebrate his funeral. It seems odd now to say that this was one of the highlights from my first year as a priest. But it was. I saw in this young man the face of Christ. I was with his family as they said goodbye. I watched as his Mom, Dad, sibling and wife all kissed him on the forehead and said, “we love you.” I remember being thanked by the family for being there, and I thought, “where else would I be. You all are my family. This is what priests do.”
I’ll never forget this young man, but since his funeral, I’ve often wondered, “Why Lord?” And, as it so often happens with God’s grace, but at times we least expect, months later I received an answer. Barely two weeks ago our parish said goodbye to a lifelong parishioner, and one of her daughters spoke after Mass saying, “My mom lived a life in loving service modeled after Christ’s love, and so it is fitting that she would experience a death like his.” We may never understand why we have to say goodbye to people we love before we are ready, and I certainly do not think it is God’s perfect will for us to experience this. But I think God uses even their ‘deaths’ to be wellsprings of grace for us. They are moments of great suffering, confusion and pain, but they can become also great memories of God’s never failing love and proximate presence in our lives.
And then it was October. I was walking up the hill to the rectory while the kids from the school were outside playing during recess. A couple of the young ones ran toward me and with great joy shouted, “Fr. Stephen! Fr. Stephen! Will you play with us?!” This was one of the best moments. From an outsiders perspective, it may have looked like I had given those kids a great gift that day, but I can assure you it was the other way around. At that moment, I felt at home. Our Lady had transitioned from being “my first assignment as a priest” to the place that I now call home.
The amount of families who have opened their homes to me and invited me over for dinner is impossible to count. This is not a highlight because of the great food; although my waistline would say otherwise 😉, but it has been a highlight as it has allowed me to come to know many of you on a more personal level. I look out now at the congregation as I begin my homily, and I see all the familiar faces. I see the people who I have shared a meal with, talked and prayed with. It truly is a beautiful thing to stand up there and see the person that I know needs prayers right now, or the person that I know has received the happiest news, or the person that I know needs God’s comfort and peace. Getting to know all of you has been one of the best highlights.
Finally, it cannot be overstated how much I love celebrating the Sacraments. I find myself in awe as I come down the hill most mornings. “How can it be that I have the great privilege of celebrating Mass for and with God’s people today?!” I am equally in awe as I think about the people I have anointed over the past year. Upon reflection, I think these moments have been so powerful because I have the privilege to witness people’s trust and hope in God. Hope that God will make us well, and trust, that whatever the outcome, God is with us no matter what. Reconciliation, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing the joy on one’s face after receiving God’s forgiveness and assurance that one is loved unconditionally by our Father; who indeed is rich in mercy.
Friends, the priest’s vocation is to imitate Christ’s loving service completely. The life of a priest is a shared gift. It has been a great gift to me as I have encountered God in so many people and experiences this year. But, the life of a priest is a gift for God’s people as well. May we rejoice with grateful hearts this weekend for the gift of the priesthood. Especially as our Diocese ordains three men this weekend; including our beloved Fr. Michael Steffes. Much more can be said here, but I end with this, some days I fear I am receiving much more from all of you than I could possibly give to you. But isn’t that what’s truly great about Christian friendship, we become icons of God’s goodness, grace and love for each other.
With great love and joy,