04 December, 2007

Living, breathing icons of Christ

I don't know why, but a conversation with my wife last night reminded me of a Raleigh priest's homily a few years ago. I think he was talking about the importance of having a church located in the city center. He mentioned that the priests lived in the rectory next to the church. Because of this, the priests there received a number of visitors who represented Christ suffering in the poor. The most recent example he gave was that of a man recently released from prison. The prison gave the man clothes and shoes, but the shoes weren't the right size. By the time he arrived at the parish, the man's feet were raw and bleeding. The priest tended to his feet, then drove him to a store and bought him new shoes. I don't remember how the story went after that.

Our pastor was a bit excitable, and he choked back a sob when he described the man's feet. It made me uncomfortable, and although I don't in the least object to helping others, I do object to a lot of the sentiment people attach to it. When I left church that day, I forgot about the incident entirely, until last night.

Once I did remember it, and I found myself profoundly moved. Can't say why. I thought I'd write about it briefly. The previous pastor had been a decent fellow, too, I thought, but I recall distinctly how he used to discourage us from helping any of the beggars who would gather near the church. "There exist public services for them," he once told us, "and they can provide real assistance, whereas your assistance could feed an addiction, or put yourself in danger."

I don't mention that with ill intent, because he wasn't exaggerating. Another priest I knew in Germantown, MD was known to help the poor and homeless who came to his parish. One of them broke into his house one night with intent to rob; surprised by the priest, he killed him. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty, citing in part the priest's personal opposition to capital punishment.

Diocesan Priests are very often Christ's front line in tending to the least among us; they really are living icons of Christ. People seek them out in times of need. The best of them hear our confessions with compassion, come to our bedside in times of illness and death, struggle to manage the finances of the parish, listen patiently to all the petty things that fascinate, discourage, or irritate us, and at the end of the day return to an empty home that cannot even serve as a fortress of solitude when a homeless ex-con shows up with bleeding feet, or with intent to rob. They sacrifice more than a wife and children; they often sacrifice respect in the eyes of their family and friends; they sacrifice careers; they sacrifice a great deal of freedom.

There exist devils among their number, yes, fallen angels who make a mockery of God's gift. All the same, even a mediocre priest reminds us of the holy calling to which we all must aspire, and all too often we forget to show even the smallest amount of appreciation for it.

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