This is my final reflection on how intercessory prayer is a part of my life as a priest. It's also the final day of my retreat. I'll be heading back to Colorado Springs for a few days before going to the upper peninsula of Michigan to be with my sister for a few days before going to La Crosse, WI, for a Called & Gifted Workshop.
The final question I had been asked to respond to was this: based on your experience, why would you say that this anointed priestly prayer matters—to God or to the world?
When I think of my priestly prayer, I normally think of gathering the prayers of all the faithful in a perfect sacrifice of praise at the Mass. Because it is then that our prayers are most part of Jesus’ high-priestly prayer on behalf of the world. But my personal prayer of intercession for others is intimately connected to my ordination, as well, for all that I learn about people and their lives comes through my experience of being their priest.
I was pastor at the St. Thomas More Newman Center in Eugene, OR for six years – my longest assignment, to date. There, I got to know the congregation pretty well, particularly through individuals who touched my life and gave me access to theirs. I was able to learn about their work, their hopes, their frustrations, their challenges. One man worked hard on a family farm passed from his father to him; he was the steward of that land, not its owner. He was, and is deeply committed to sustainable agriculture. Another fellow was an ObGyn who never performed or recommended abortion as an option, but who helped all his patients see their pregnancy as an opportunity for wonder. Another person struggled with alcoholism, another was learning the intricacies of ancient Chinese literature in a Ph.D. program. One friend worked for city hall in the planning department, which in Eugene, OR, is like trying to herd cats.
Every week they’d come in procession to receive Jesus in the humble form of bread and wine, hoping to be strengthened and encouraged to continue to face what life, or the Evil One, threw at them They also wanted to better recognize the much more common moments of grace. I came to the point where sometimes I could identify them just by their hands: the strong, perpetually dirt-stained hands of the farmer, the large, thick hands of the ObGyn, the slender fingers of the pianist, the scholar’s right hand with the callous where his pen sat.
It was during this time that I read Christifideles Laici, and was taken by this quote: “The lay faithful are sharers in the priestly mission, for which Jesus offered himself on the cross and continues to be offered in the celebration of the Eucharist for the glory of God and the salvation of humanity. Incorporated in Jesus Christ, the baptized are united to him and to his sacrifice in the offering they make of themselves and their daily activities (cf. Rom 12:1, 2).”
This became a common theme in my preaching; reminding people that their very lives, as ordinary as they might seem, could be an offering to God that is then united, with everyone else’s, including Jesus’s at the Sunday eucharist. I remember at times being in tears as people came forward to receive the Lord and to offer themselves to him; all those hands – so different, each with a story. These were hands that were meant to become holy and whose every deeds could consecrate the world to God. The Christians who were coming forward for communion were acknowledging His part in all the good they'd done.
Over the years, my understanding of priesthood has developed to the point where now my prayer of intercession for others often focuses on their graced ability to overcome obstacles that would prevent them from becoming the person God created them to be. I pray that they discover their calling in the world and have the courage to live it. I pray that they become more in love with the Person of Jesus, and desire to follow Him where ever He might lead them. I believe that kind of prayer is pleasing to God, Who wants the best for His children. I also believe it's the best prayer for others, because it is only in discerning what we were created to do and to be that we will discover the greatest happiness, fulfillment and meaning in this life.
In becoming who God created us to be, we will be more likely to hear at the beginning of our eternal life, "Well done, good and faithful servant."
That's why I can say confidently that my prayer for others to discover their purpose for living matters to God, and why it matters to others. Because in becoming who we were meant to be from all eternity we will be the most profound good in this world, and experience the most satisfaction. My prayers for that kind of discovery and fulfillment for others - whether in my personal prayer or in the context of the Mass - are, perhaps, one of the deepest expressions of what it means to be a priest.
Now I would like to ask your intercession on my behalf. Throughout this week I have been splitting wood at the cabin where I've been staying as a way to thank the owners for letting me use it. Yesterday, while trying to pull apart two halves of a particularly large log that had not been completely split by the wedge and sledge hammer method, my back began to spasm. Alternating applications of heat and cold are helpful, but it is most uncomfortable to sit and painful to walk. I slept well, thanks to drugs, and it appears that laying with my feet elevated is helful. But tomorrow I have a long car ride ahead, and I'm not looking forward to that. Thanks for any prayers you can send my way!