Being a priest is an amazing gift! Every day is a new day filled with unexpected grace-filled moments! I hope you will prayerfully read through the following examples of priestly life. I got these ideas from the book To Save a Thousand Souls. I have adapted some of the stories to my own life (I have changed the names so as to preserve confidentiality). However, some have remained the same because I have had a similar experience in my own priestly life. There are always new experiences to be had! I want to personally thank Fr. Brett A. Brannen for his hard work on this excellent book dedicated to helping young men discern the priesthood!
-Fr. Josh Waltz
I often hear people ask me, “Father what do you do besides say Mass on Sunday?” These people always seem to be alluding to the fact that all priests do is say Mass! I always have a good laugh and say, “Well mostly we sit around and watch TV and read theological books.” After an awkward moment I begin laughing and tell them the many things that are involved in the life of the priest. I’m not sure if I can think of a more crazy and exciting life than that of a faith-filled diocesan priest! It is hard to desire something unless you know what it is. The following list is just a beginning to help young men understand just what it is that the diocesan priest does.
What do priests do?
• Priests pray with and for the people of God
When I was in high school I had the opportunity to experience the zeal and love of two priests from our diocese who I now call my brothers: Fr. Austin Vetter and Msgr. Tom Richter. They had a passion and a love for God and they passed that on to us. At the end of the year, a week before graduation, one of my friends was in a terrible accident. He was hit by a train and the doctors had very little hope for his recovery. My whole class ended up at St. Alexius Medical Center in the chapel. Fr. Austin and Msgr. Tom led us in the rosary as we begged God to spare his life. The young eighteen-year-old man had suffered many serious injuries. What worried the doctors was that his blood pressure kept falling and would not stabilize. The next few hours were critical. Everyone was terribly distraught, but we just kept praying. After a long time of uncertainty, one of the family members came in and said to us, “We just received great news. His blood pressure has stabilized. He is going to survive.”
• Priests preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ
A priest who is a friend of mine once received a letter from a Catholic family in his parish. “Dear Father, we want you to know how happy we are that God sent you to our parish. When you arrived three months ago, we had already decided to leave the Catholic Church. We had been searching hard for Jesus and for His truth, reading the Bible as a family every day, and trying to grow in holiness. But we did not feel fed in our church. We enjoyed the preaching much more in other churches and we seemed to learn more. We even attended Bible studies in Protestant churches. The Sunday you arrived was to have been our last Sunday as Catholics.
But you mounted the pulpit with your Bible in your hand! And you encouraged us to bring our Bibles with us to every Mass. Then you preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ and explained the teaching of Jesus on the Holy Eucharist, using the Bible. We had never heard this. We had not realized that we were being fed more profoundly than we could ever know every Sunday in the Catholic Church, both in Word and Sacrament! Father, we were so close to leaving what we now realize is a great treasure: our holy, Catholic faith. Thank you for preaching the Gospel to us. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
• Priests celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass
There was an elderly woman in my parish who was very faithful, loved the Mass and loved her priest! One day I was informed that she had been diagnosed with cancer and would not live much longer. As the weeks progressed I would randomly go to the care center and pray with her, and she would often talk about the Mass. One evening as I was preparing my schedule for the following day, I realized that the Mass I was scheduled to take was being taken by another priest and I had forgotten to take it off my schedule. It just so happened that this Mass was on my day off so I was relieved that I could sleep in a bit and celebrate Mass on my own later that day.
That night as I knelt down to say night prayer this thought popped into my head that I should go and celebrate a private Mass for this elderly woman who was dying. I decided to do it. The next day I got all my stuff prepared to celebrate the Mass and I drove up to the care center. As I walked in the family was gathered in the waiting area and all of them simultaneously looked at me with a great expression of surprise. One of them said, “Father, are you here to celebrate Mass?” I said, “Yes, last night I felt like Jesus wanted me to come here and celebrate a private Mass for your mom.” The daughter looked at me and said, “What time?” I responded, “I suppose around 10:30 or 11:00.”
She was shocked and said, “Last night around that same time we found mom out of her bed with her dress on and putting on makeup. During the day yesterday she was in so much pain she couldn’t even move and now she was up and walking around. We asked her what she was doing and she said that she was getting ready to go to Mass. We thought she was losing her mind but now that you are here, we are amazed!” I then walked to her room and as I entered she was talking to someone. She looked over at me with a face full of light and love and said, “Father, I knew you would come!” I felt like I had interrupted a conversation so I asked, “Is it okay to come in?” and she said, “Of course!” I asked her who she was talking to and she said, “Jesus of course, can’t you see him?” I couldn’t believe what was going on! I proceeded to set up for Mass and we had a beautiful Mass together with the family. After she received the Eucharist, she went to sleep and I was informed that shortly after the Mass she passed away.
• Priests feed the people of God with the Body and Blood of Jesus
The following story is told about the life of St. John Bosco. He had founded an oratory (an orphanage of sorts) where young boys could come and live. They attended school and were instructed in the Catholic faith. There were so many orphans in Italy that the oratory was filled with several hundred boys almost immediately. Every day began with holy Mass. One morning, as Don Bosco was celebrating Mass, he looked down on the altar and noticed that the sacristan had made a serious error. He had forgotten to place enough unconsecrated hosts on the altar to be confected into the Body and Blood of Jesus, in order to give Holy Communion to all the boys. Only a few consecrated hosts were in the tabernacle, and by the time he noticed the error, the consecration was finished. It was too late to add more. Don Bosco looked up to heaven, said a quick prayer and then started giving Holy Communion to the boys. He never broke a single host in half and he just kept giving out Holy Communion. Because there were so many boys, the sacristan and everyone else began to realize that a miracle was taking place, a miracle of multiplication. Every boy received the Eucharist and they were all whispering to each other, “It is a miracle. God has done a miracle through Don Bosco.”
After the Mass was over, the boys all gathered around Don Bosco in the courtyard, chattering excitedly. One boy asked, “Father, what were you thinking when you realized that God was doing a miracle through you? He was multiplying the hosts.” Don Bosco replied, “I just kept thinking that transubstantiation is a much greater miracle than multiplication, and I see that every day.”
• Priests baptize
During my time as a seminarian I had the opportunity to work at our diocesan mission in Kenya, Africa. There were a lot of experiences that I had that I will never forget, but one that always will stick in my mind is when we attended a village baptism.
As we drove along the dirt roads on our way to the baptism, we would constantly be stopped for one reason or another. At one point I realized that we were going to be late by an hour or maybe even two. The priest didn’t seem the least bit concerned. To my surprise, when we did finally arrive the people were not mad at all. In fact as we walked up to the church they started cheering. After the mass we baptized over 50 children!
• Priests witness marriages
Though I was still a young priest, it was the best marriage I have ever witnessed. The young couple had come to me early in their engagement and happily completed all of the marriage preparation required. Neither of these young people had been to college and they both had ordinary, manual jobs paying the minimum, hourly wage. But they were rich in faith. They both loved Jesus and they loved one another. They were not living together or sleeping together. They wanted a holy marriage, with Jesus in the middle. The Church was decorated only with hand-picked flowers from their family’s home and most of the guests arrived in pickup trucks. There was no limousine or special music; they could not even afford an organist. “I, John, take you Susie, to be my wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” I have never witnessed a marriage where I saw grace in action so powerfully. Jesus was definitely there! Jesus was the honored guest, just like at the wedding feast of Cana.
• Priests visit the sick
A priest friend was telling me that he was called to the neonatal intensive care unit at the local hospital to do an emergency baptism. He got the call right after the seven o’clock morning Mass. He had a very full schedule that day: he was scheduled to teach several classes in the school that morning, plus a marriage preparation at eleven o’clock and another meeting at noon. The afternoon was also full. He really did not have time to go to the hospital. And he had not even had breakfast yet! Nonetheless, he grabbed his baptism ritual, a bottle of holy water, and a stole and quickly jumped in his car. When he arrived, according to hospital requirements, he had to go through a special hand-washing and then dress in a special mask and gown, all designed to protect premature infants from disease. All this took another fifteen minutes. He finally made it to the incubator where the baby was, only to discover that the parents were not even there.
The nurse said, “Father, they left over an hour ago to run home and shower. They were here all night and wanted to freshen up before the baptism.” He felt great irritation and impatience. He had a full schedule and the children would be waiting in the school. But what could he do? He could not baptize the baby without the parents present. So he just sat in a chair by the infant and he touched the little baby’s hand. Immediately, she latched onto his pinky and held it tightly. For the next fifteen minutes, he sat there and prayed for the child and for her parents. He realized that she would have a long road ahead and she needed prayers. He said, “The Holy Spirit communicated to me strongly in that fifteen minutes that nothing else I would do that day was more important than sitting here holding this tiny baby’s hand and praying for her while I waited for her parents to return.”
• Priests bury the dead
One of the saddest moments of my priesthood was burying my former band director. He was a man who had left a legacy at our local high school and was a huge influence on any student who had him as a teacher. He had a profound impact on me in high school and taught me many life lessons. I had a tremendous amount of respect and love for him.
Many times during his illness, I went to visit him and talk about his faith life. He eventually died from cancer and the family asked me to perform the vigil service which almost a thousand people would attend. Four years before this moment, I had approached him in his office and asked him if he would play in the brass ensemble at my ordination. He looked at me and said, “You played for me, I would be honored to play for you!”
The day that the family asked me to perform the vigil and assist at the funeral I said quietly to my departed band director, “You played for me I would be honored to preach for you!”
As the hearse pulled up to the Cathedral, the entire band in full uniform met him and followed the hearse as they let their director lead them one more time as they marched. We laid him to rest with his family, friends and students surrounding the grave. What seemed to be the saddest day turned into a beautiful day of thanksgiving for the gift of this man’s life!
• Priests instruct others about Jesus Christ and His teachings
The Young Married group at our parish had only recently formed and they were a delightful group of young adults, excited about their faith. They had been meeting monthly, having a meal and a social, but they also wanted to grow in their faith. Various speakers were invited to each gathering to discuss various aspects of Catholic teaching. They told me, “Father, we don’t care what you talk about. Just teach us about Jesus.” I prayed every day that week during my holy hour for the Lord to show me what issue he wanted me to address. I began to get a fairly clear message—a message that I did not really want to hear. I felt like the Lord was asking me to talk to these young couples about the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception and natural family planning (NFP). Suspecting that the presentation might not be well received by some of the couples, especially since some of the spouses were not Catholic, I was nervous. So I worked very hard to craft a gentle presentation designed to invite the couples to re-visit the issue of family planning in their marriages. The couples were respectful and they looked at me and listened politely. I watched their faces for signs of disagreement, anger, or frustration. Clearly, some of them were not very interested.
At the end of the presentation, one couple came up to me and asked if they could talk with me for a few minutes after everyone else had left. They said, “Father, thank you so much for teaching us about contraception and natural family planning. The priest who married us never gave us any information at all about this, even when we asked, and we have always wondered what to do. We want to be good Catholics and we know the Church teaches that contraception is wrong. But we have been using artificial contraception because we did not know that there were any alternatives. We want to learn about NFP right now. Where can we go to learn?”
I gave them the information they needed and asked them to keep me informed. That couple was so hungry for the truth that they contacted the Couple to Couple League and went through the course in NFP. They were so thrilled by the positive difference it made in their marriage that they went through the course to become NFP instructors themselves. They continue to serve the Church in this capacity eighteen years later!
I don’t know if that presentation made any difference in the lives of the other couples who were there that night. But it made a tremendous difference in the lives of that one couple—and through their ministry, it impacted many other couples preparing for marriage. Priests instruct others about Jesus Christ and his teachings.
• Priests counsel and guide the suffering
A woman I knew had as many problems as Job. She had so much suffering in her life that whenever something new would happen, which was often, I would just say, “Lord, what next? Please give her a break.”
She would come in from time to time to talk and get advice on the many layers of difficulties in her life: problems with her health, her children, her job, and her husband. She asked me one time, “Father, why does life have to be so hard?” At the end of one of our counseling sessions, the lady said something to me that I will never forget. She said, “Father, thank you for being a Simon of Cyrene for me.” I did not know what she meant, so she explained, “When I walked in here today, I was carrying a very heavy cross. It was crushing me. But when I came into your office, I gave you this cross to hold for me while I talked. You simply listened, you cared, and you gave me some good advice. And now, at the end of an hour, you have given the cross back to me. You know that you cannot keep it. But you helped me today, just as Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus with his cross, and for that, I thank you.”
• Priests fight for the souls of God's people
A priest friend told me of something he had done as a young priest back in the 1960s. He was pastor of a church and school in a small town. One day a parishioner came in with some astonishing news. This man worked for the city and he had just learned that a business license had been granted to a pornographic book store, which was to be located on the same block as the parish school. The priest sprang into action, organizing a campaign of letter writing and demonstrations. The mayor’s office was inundated with phone calls and letters. Editorials were written in the newspaper. A personal visit was made to the owner of the new book store by a team of parishioners, many of them attorneys, led by the priest. In the end, the store never opened. The people of God saw this as a threat to the moral well-being of their children and community and they willingly and enthusiastically followed their shepherd in fighting that battle. And they won.
• Priests evangelize; They bring the Gospel to the world
I once heard a story told about a traveling missionary priest in South America who died around 1900. This priest had been sent from Europe to evangelize the native populations and he worked heroically to bring Christ to them. Every day, he got on his mule and rode through the mountains from village to village, clothed in his black cassock. He slept on the ground, was bitten by mosquitoes, endured hunger and thirst, and still he struggled on. When he arrived at each village, he would teach and preach the Gospel all day long to anyone who would listen. This was a difficult task because each village had a different dialect. He was largely unsuccessful. Some of the people would listen politely for a while, but very few ever embraced the Catholic faith and asked for baptism.
Months turned into years and years into decades. After thirty years, the priest became very ill one evening in a mountain village. Realizing that he would die, he told the young Indian man who traveled with him from village to village, “I have been a failure. I have tried to bring Jesus to the world but the world has not received him. May the Lord have mercy on me. May the Lord have mercy on us all.” The priest died and was buried on the mountain.
About forty years later, in another mountain village in that region, a great, powerful chief lay in his hut awaiting death. As he lay there, contemplating his mortality, he suddenly remembered something from when he was a boy. He remembered a white man dressed in black who visited his village and spoke of a powerful God named Jesus, who had been killed but had risen from the dead. And this white man had said that if you believed in Jesus, and received the cleansing waters, you would live forever. The chief immediately sent runners to the nearest large city with instructions to bring back a man in black—a priest. The priest arrived some days later, quickly instructed the chief in the Catholic faith, baptized him and gave him Holy Communion. Then the chief died.
But he was not only chief of one village, but ten villages, spread all over that region. The law said that the religion of the people would always be the same religion as that of the chief, so they sent for more priests. The priests came and they spent several weeks teaching, baptizing, marrying, and burying the dead. Thousands and thousands of people accepted Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith, and taught it to their children and grandchildren down through the generations. All because of one priest, who worked faithfully and then died, thinking himself a failure.
• Priests defend the people of God from the Enemy
Two weeks after my ordination, I was given a random wedding because the pastor was unable to do it. It was a little awkward because I did not know the couple nor had I prepared them for the sacrament. As we began the Mass with the sign of the cross and the greeting, I noticed a young woman in the congregation who seemed to be annoyed by the name of Jesus. What I mean is that every time I said “Jesus” she would cringe as if it hurt her. It was very strange and I, being a newly ordained priest, had no idea what was going on.
This continued throughout the Mass until it was time for communion. I saw her coming forward to receive and wondered what would happen when she came before Christ substantially present in the Eucharist. As she stepped forward looking at the ground, I held up the host and said, “The body of Christ.” She was horrified and turned away in disgust, shaking as she walked away. I must admit I was a bit taken aback by the whole ordeal but continued with communion.
After mass, I was divesting in the sacristy. I had just hung up my alb and turned around only to find this young lady and her father in the sacristy. He looked at me and said, “Father, my daughter needs to receive the Eucharist.” I said, “Sir, I tried to give it to her in Mass and she refused.” He begged me to ask her again. So I looked at her and said, “Jenny, do you want to receive the Eucharist?” She continued to look at the ground and said nothing. Getting a little frustrated I said again in a more forceful voice, “Jenny, do you want to receive the Eucharist?” Nothing... Finally I remembered from my seminarian training that when one is dealing with the demonic, one is to command by using the name of Jesus. Realizing that this was not an ordinary problem, I said one last time, “Jenny, do you want to receive the Eucharist, answer me in the name of Jesus Christ!”
Her head raised and she stared me right in the eyes! Honestly I cannot remember a time I have been more scared in my life. I stepped back in terror as I locked eyes with her. The darkness that was in those eyes, the despair, the suffering was overwhelming. In midst of this battle between Christ’s priest and the demonic I heard a tiny voice say, “Yes!” It was barely audible but it was enough for me! I rushed to the tabernacle and brought her the Eucharist. The minute she received it she fell to the ground in convulsions. I had never seen anything like this! She was screaming and shaking and then all of the sudden she was asleep. I looked at her father who had a tear rolling down his face and said, “Is she okay?” He looked and me and said, “She will be fine now, this is the only time she is able to sleep. It is slowly getting better, Father. Thank you!”
• Priests stay with their people in good times and bad
Fr. Stanley Rother, a priest for the diocese of Oklahoma City, graduated from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary back in the 1970s. He was not much of a student and much preferred to work with his hands. He had grown up on a farm and had a strong work ethic. He had a heart for evangelization. Just a few years after he was ordained, he requested assignment to the diocesan mission down in Guatemala. This formerly poor student learned the language of these people in a remarkably short time. He even translated the Bible into their language! He was a great missionary and shepherd.
Soon political and military instability in the country began to cause problems. An encampment of soldiers moved near the outskirts of his village and many of his good, simple parishioners were being kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. Fr. Rother’s “crime” was that he buried the dead. He would get into his old pickup truck and go looking in the ditches for his people. When he found a dead body, he would bring it back to the church and celebrate a funeral Mass and burial. For this “crime,” he was put on the death list.
His bishop called him home, hoping to save his life. He was obedient so he returned home to take a few months of rest on his parents’ farm. While there, he was extremely anxious and upset. He told his mother, “A shepherd does not leave his sheep when the wolf comes. I have to go back.” With his bishop’s reluctant permission, Fr. Rother went back to Guatemala. Soon after, on July 28, 1981, he was shot in the head several times by two assassins who broke into the rectory one night. The people of his parish sent his body back home to his parents, per their request, but they kept his heart in Guatemala. They buried the heart of their priest in the parish church. This is just what priests do.
(From John Rosengren, " Father Stan Rother: American Martyr in Guatemala")
• Priests care for the dying
When I was a seminarian, we had a retreat master who told us the story of a Catholic priest who worked himself to the bone in the Midwest in the early 1900s. He was a circuit rider who rode his horse thousands of miles, going from small town to small town to celebrate Mass and offer the other sacraments for the few Catholics who lived in the area.
Late one afternoon, after he had completed the Holy Mass, one lady said to him, “Father, have you heard about old man Jones? They say he is dying.” Immediately, the priest took the holy Eucharist, his oil stock, and his ritual, and he followed the woman’s son, also on a horse, who led him back through the woods many miles. Finally, they arrived at a dilapidated one-room cabin.
When the priest walked in, he saw a cot in the corner. Lying there was an old, black man, emaciated from cancer. He had been a slave, or at least the son of a slave, and his hands were calloused from a life of hard work. He was only skin and bones. When the man saw the priest, dressed in his black cassock, he exclaimed, “Father, I knew you would come!” Immediately, the priest set to work. He heard the man’s confession and then gave him Holy Communion, followed by the sacrament of Extreme Unction (so called in that day). Already the death rasp was audible, so the priest knelt down by the bed, held his hand and began to pray the holy rosary. As evening arrived and the sun went down, the cabin got darker and darker. Suddenly, this weak, cancer-ridden old man sat straight up in bed. He pointed behind the priest and shouted, “I see the Blessed Virgin and she’s smiling at you and me!” The priest turned around quickly, but all he could see was darkness. When he turned back, the old man was dead. The priest said, “I stayed there, kneeling on the floor in the darkness and I held that old man’s hands until they grew cold. And I cried, and I thanked God that I was a priest.”
“Without the sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord. Who put him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of your life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for its journey? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest, always the priest. And if this soul should happen to die (as a result of sin), who will raise it up, who will restore its calm and peace? Again, the priest…After God, the priest is everything! Only in heaven will he fully realize what he is.”
-St. John Vianney