Farewell to St. Peter’s

The 19th century French Dominican, Jean-Baptiste Henri Lacordaire wrote a famous poem about the priesthood.

“To live in the midst of the world without wishing its pleasures; to be a member of each family yet belonging to none; to share all suffering; to penetrate all secrets; to heal all wounds; to go from men to God and offer Him their prayers; to return from God to men to bring pardon an hope to have a heart of fire for Charity, and a heart of bronze for Chastity; to teach and to pardon, console and bless always. My God, what a life; and it is yours, O priest of Jesus Christ.”

The words of Fr. Lacordaire give me a good starting point for a reflection on the blessing of my almost 9 years here at St. Peter’s in The Dalles. I have indeed been privileged to have become a part of the lives of so many of you and of your families; so many names and faces that I have come to know and have become dear to me; so many children I have baptized; so many first communions, so many marriages; countless confessions; so many funerals at which I have officiated.

Yet now I must leave because as a priest I am not ‘freelance’ but subject to the Bishop who assigns priests according to his judgement regarding the needs of the Diocese. It was in obedience to him, and Christ in him, that I came here 9 years ago; now it is in obedience to him, and Christ in him, that I move now to Burns.

That means for 9 years now you have ‘belonged’ to me as members of my parish, but now you will ‘belong’ to Fr. Steve Garza as members of his parish. Let us think about the meaning of that ‘belonging’ of love. Fr. Lacordaire wrote that a priest “is a member of each family yet belonging to none.”

A husband and wife belong to each other because of their mutual lifetime commitment and promise of love. They belong to each other because they have given their hearts into each other’s keeping in a unique and exclusive manner and because they have handed their bodies over to each other as male and female to become on flesh in a fertile union. They say to each other, “You are mine and I am yours”.

They first of all have given themselves directly each to the other, but if their mutual belonging is not to go astray and degenerate into the belonging of domination or use, they need to belong to each other in Christ, in the sacrament, drawing upon his grace and his love to sustain them in their weakness and free them from their egoism. They have given themselves to each other, but they must also learn each one to see his partner as given and entrusted to him by God.

Then their children belong to them and they to their children because they have given them life and have become responsible for that new life they have brought into the world. Again, the relation between them is immediate and direct, but parents must learn to see their children not simply as ‘theirs’ but as having been entrusted to their care by the Lord, to be brought up to know, love, and serve the Lord, to be brought up to discover and live from their baptismal dignity as children of God. Meanwhile the children must discover that their parents are not simply ‘gods’, all knowing and all powerful – they sure seem that way to very young children – but bearers of the authority of God himself, given to them by God to guide especially the beginning of their life.

With the mutual belonging of priest and people, however, it is different. This is truly made clear when the parish priest is changed. The people belong first of all to Christ, through baptism, and are entrusted to the priest as the representative of Christ.

The priest is given to share in the love of Christ for his Bride, the Church, and in his love for his children, the faithful, but it is always Christ himself who is the Bridegroom, Christ himself who is Father of the baptized, who has regenerated them to the life of grace. The priest must represent Christ, not take his place.

It is given to the priest to love the faithful of the parish not so much as belonging to himself, but as belonging to Christ; it is given to him to love them not so much with the love of his own heart as by sharing in the love of the Heart of Christ, giving his own heart only in the Heart of Christ. So I have sought to do.

It is an awesome privilege because to the priest who loves in this fashion it is given to witness the love of Christ in action and the working of God’s grace in souls. There is nothing more marvelous. And he witnesses the love of Christ passing through his own human heart which he has put at the service of the Heart of Christ.

Now, since my transfer has been announced I have received and been deeply touched by many expressions of gratitude for my service here. I am indeed touched and grateful – it has served as a great encouragement to me – but above all I desire the love not for myself, but for the Heart of Christ.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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