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The priceless gift of the priesthood

By William P. Leahy, 4/17/2002

I LOVE BEING a priest. To be a priest is to be given a precious gift and invited to serve people and work for the greater glory of God in a special way. I realize that such convictions may strike some as inconceivable in today's world, but they are true for me and for so many men who have chosen to minister as priests in the Catholic Church.

I am a Jesuit priest because of the grace of God, not because I have earned or merited such a vocation. When I review my life, I see evidence of grace and freedom, freedom as defined by the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner: ''the power to decide about oneself and to actualize oneself.''

Ever since I can remember, there has been a sense that I would someday be a priest. I recall a moment in Iowa when I was 7 or 8. My brothers, sisters, and I were talking about what we would be when we grew up. I said that I wanted to be a farmer or a baseball player, but privately I told my mother that I thought I would be a priest.

That early desire for the priesthood has always been with me, not as something oppressive or robbing me of my freedom but as an invitation. I entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) because I wanted to, because I felt God drawing me to it. Nothing in the years since has ever made me want to change my mind.

Ordination was not a time when I was plagued with doubts or apprehensions. Rather, after listening to myself, my deepest desires, and examining the pattern of my life, I believe I freely and positively chose to be ordained, obviously not knowing all that would be asked of me as a Jesuit priest but at the same time trusting in God's grace.

So much of the grace and freedom that I believe is part of my life has come to me through my fellow Jesuits. They have profoundly influenced me, and I owe them a tremendous debt.

I have never met a finer group of men, and they have given me far more than I deserve or have a right to expect. I have been privileged to know a great number of excellent priests, men who are deeply human and generous. The quality and commitment of their lives speak so eloquently to me about priesthood. They do not promote themselves or continually tell you about their latest achievements and insights. Instead, they have a self-possession and simplicity about them. They do not seek for themselves, but give to others. They are ministers in every sense of the word.

The Gospel of Matthew urges, ''The gift you have received, give as a gift.'' These words apply to the priesthood. It is a gift, a grace to be used prudently and wisely, of course, but nonetheless one that does not allow for holding back or refusing to get involved with the human situation.

To be a priest requires living a life marked by faith, integrity, and service, and it offers the possibility for doing so much good and for helping make God more present in our world.

One day this winter I visited the parents of a recent graduate of Boston College whose son, like 20 other alumni of our university, was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center.

In grief and pride they told stories about their son, and showed me photographs, awards, and diplomas that chronicled his young life.

They were speaking to me, I knew, as the president of the institution their son had loved but also as a priest. They asked if I would like to go upstairs and see their son's bedroom, which they had kept exactly as he had left it. Perhaps they would have asked the same of the president of Harvard University or Stanford University. Perhaps not. But as a priest I was glad to be there to offer whatever comfort I could.

Such moments have been part of my life as a priest, and as a result I feel truly blessed by God.

I do not deny that there have been times of suffering and sorrow in my life. Like so many others, I feel betrayed and saddened by the shameful incidents of sexual misconduct committed by some priests, so devastating and harmful, especially to children and their families.

But I trust that God and his people will sustain me and my fellow priests, now and in the future, and that my vocation, with all of its gifts, will never cease to be the wonderfully fulfilling experience that it is for me today.

William P. Leahy is president of Boston College.

This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 4/17/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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