July 12, 2013

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

When the word ‘vocation’ takes on greater meaning

Cynthia DewesWe don’t seem to hear as much about priests being essential people in our lives, not like we do other folks.

Maybe that’s because their vocation doesn’t involve the expansion of intimates to include children, grandchildren, and so on ad infinitum.

Rather, their human connections, aside from their own relatives, mainly include friends, colleagues and the people they have served. This is of course a large group, but somehow it’s more low-key than the family intimacies of births and marriages, or the professional awards, job changes and promotions of married or single life.

Naturally, the rest of us are involved with priests as friends or leaders. We discuss their abilities, performance and personalities. There’s praise, criticism and maybe envy of priests from those in other vocations. We love them, dislike them, are inspired or annoyed by them, as we are other people.

But since the priest doesn’t have the family life that married people do, and is not assigned usually to one lifelong situation, he’s often not one of the main figures in our lives. In that sense, he is somewhat apart.

That being said, we should point out that there are many remarkable priests we’ve known—the ones who, like our parents or other inspirational people, have enriched our lives. Indeed, in some cases they’ve been the parents or mentors that we never had.

The best priest I’ve ever known, the one who was a priest forever in every sense of the word, was my husband’s Uncle Bill. He’d graduated from Purdue as an electrical engineer before entering the seminary. Then he served in parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, much of the time under Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter. He served mainly in poor or rural churches.

In one really old-fashioned parish, the men and women sat on opposite sides of the church. So his duties included everything from giving financial advice to encouraging social responsibility to improving attitudes about women.

Father Bill was quiet and somewhat intimidating; when he looked at you with his steady gaze, you felt that every sin you ever committed was written across your chest. But his manner disguised a caring, perceptive and selfless friend.

During World War II, Father Bill accompanied the U.S. Army through the battle of the Hurtgen Forest, among others. He celebrated Mass on the hood of his jeep with his driver as altar server. He dispensed most of the sacraments to many people, military or not.

Along the way, he met European families devastated by the war, so he wrote home for the rest of us in his family to send packages of food and clothing for them. He arranged for several of their children to gain an education, sometimes paying for them to come to the United States to study. During the wake before his funeral, many visitors told our family stories of Father’s generosity and kindness. He was wearing a pair of shoes donated for the occasion, as he lay in his coffin.

We’ve been fortunate to have known other fine priests, like Father Steve Jarrell, who recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of his ordination. The large number of well-wishers at his party, the wonderful stories they told, and the overwhelming joy prevalent at the occasion testified to the high regard in which he is held.

And there’ve been others—Father Clem Davis, Jesuit Father Tom Widner, Father Harold Knueven, just to name a few.

We thank God for sending them into our lives, and for the many graces they brought to us.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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