Fr. Gordon Essay to be Included in Anthology

Father Charles Gordon

An essay by Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is listed in “The Best Spiritual Writing 2013” anthology as one of the nation’s notable essays of the year in 2012.

Fr. Gordon, an assistant professor of theology at the University of Portland, wrote “Why I am a Priest” for Portland Magazine. His is one of two pieces published in the anthology from the University magazine. Other pieces were drawn from magazines including Harper’s, The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. The anthology is published and distributed by Penguin.

Here is Fr. Gordon’s complete essay, which also will be excerpted in the upcoming issue of Pillars, a magazine from the Office of Development of the Congregation of Holy Cross, United States Province of Priests and Brothers.


By Father Charles Gordon, C.S.C.

I love being a priest for all the usual reasons, which are excellent, and I revere them, but here are some other reasons.

I love being a priest because it is great to be something that has been around so long that it is practically hard-wired into the human brain. There have probably been people recognizable as priests about as long as there have been people recognizable as people. If a guy wandered out of the Pleistocene epoch and into a church and saw me behind the altar he’d likely have a pretty good idea what I was and what I was doing. And if Origen of Alexandria or Theodore of Mopsuestia or Eleanor of Aquitaine or Shakespeare of Avon or Shakespeare’s tailor walked into the church they would know exactly what I was and exactly what I was doing. This matters to me because I’m a romantic by nature and find it moving to think about. More importantly, because a priest is such an ancient thing to be, an encounter with one touches very deep chords in the human mind and heart. Strains of longing, hope and dread are sounded, as are any number of other feelings, some for which there are not yet names, and doubtless some for which the names have been forgotten. They are feelings as old and profound as those stirred by an encounter with a solar eclipse or a virgin queen.

Once you are known to be a priest you are treated differently. Walk through an airport in clerical dress: a stranger might pull you aside and pour out a story of joy, grief or repentance; and moments later you might receive from another passer-by a glance of such unfathomable loathing that it makes you miss a step. Despite the unpleasant aspects, the thing I love about all this is that my meetings with other people are freighted with possibility. The energy is there, at some level, for almost anything to happen. And God willing, what happens might be full of grace.

I love being a priest because right now there are more than a billion people in the world for whom I’m not only a priest but also their priest. On the off chance that we ever meet, they will know what to make of me, and I will have a way to be with them.

I love being a priest because I hear about miracles. Many people think miracles don’t happen, or are very rare, but this is only because people tend not to tell each other about their miracles. But they’ll tell a priest.

I know a woman who was comforted by an angel and a man who was visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary. I know a woman whose beloved father died when she was barely out of her teens. When it happened, she turned to the scriptures for solace. She opened her Bible at random and read, “In place of your fathers will be your sons.” She was single then. Now she is married and has four children, all of them boys. That is her miracle.

And then there are the conversion stories. I know a fellow who when he was a graduate student was teetering on the brink of faith. One night, while walking past the darkened shop windows of a deserted city street, he offered up a silent prayer: “God, if you are there, and if you care, please give me some kind of sign.” At that moment, a shabbily dressed man on a bicycle came around the corner riding in the opposite direction. As he passed, he looked the student in the eye and said, “God loves you.”Game, set, and match.

I’ve spoken to a Chinese physicist who converted from atheism to Christianity because ice floats. He told me that every other liquid sinks when it freezes. If water sank when it froze, he assured me, the earth would be entirely lifeless. We exist because water behaves in this odd way. That, he said, cannot be a coincidence and so he believes in our Creator.

I hear stories like these because people feel it’s OK to tell a priest things they would find awkward to say in public. Happily, there is a corollary to this instinct:It’s okay for a priest to say in public things that would be awkward for other people to say. As a priest, I have a kind of diplomatic immunity from the social taboos against talking about God or anything else that really matters in polite company. When I speak up I will at worst see an expression on someone’s face that seems to say, “Oh well, what do you expect? He is, after all, a priest.” I can speak badly, or I can speak deftly, but at least I’m free to have a go. What I love most about this special priestly license is the freedom it gives me to speak without irony. Almost invariably, when folks do speak about God in public, they hedge their remarks around with protective ramparts of irony. That way no one can be certain that they really mean what they say, and if push comes to shove they can pass it all off as a joke. I love not joking. I love being able to speak about God simply and freely from the heart. I love being a priest because, years after the event, people will come up to me and tell me that something I said changed their lives. And more often than not, if I can remember the occasion they are referring to, what they heard is not what I meant to say. I suppose I could be bemused or even annoyed by this; instead I take it as welcome evidence that the Holy Spirit is using me as an instrument through which people hear what God wants them to hear.

Akin to this are occasions when I manage to say something useful during a pastoral encounter that I am dead certain I couldn’t have come up with on my own. Again, in those moments, the presence of the Holy Spirit seems palpable. And when I preside at the Eucharist I am the instrument of Christ, who is the real priest. I love being a priest because the Mass is a distillation of what it is to be human. In 1977, two Voyager spacecraft were launched carrying golden phonograph records. The records were designed to tell extra-terrestrials what human beings and human culture were like. A great deal of thought was given to what the records should contain. They could have saved a lot of trouble by simply making a recording of the Mass: it’s all there. After the Gospel and the Eucharistic Prayer what is there left to say about human nature? And as for culture, the Mass is imbued with cultural riches that reach back through the Middle Ages to ancient Rome and Athens to Mount Sinai and beyond. An epic poem or oratorio could be written about nearly every phrase and gesture. In fact, countless artists, knowingly or not, have taken inspiration from the themes, shapes and textures of the Mass.

For instance, I teach a course about the Catholic novel. For years I have been telling my students that when they have an essay to write for class and are stumped for a topic, there are two questions that can be fruitfully discussed in relation to any Catholic novel. The first is, what is the good news that that the novel holds out? No matter how bleakly the human condition may be depicted in a Catholic novel, there will invariably be some element of hope on offer. The second question is whether the main character is ultimately saved. This fundamental theme in Catholic writing goes back at least as far as Everyman and the other morality plays of the fifteenth century. Whether the protagonist lives or dies is a secondary issue. The condition of his or her soul is what really matters. It has occurred to me only recently that these two questions correspond to the two main parts of the Mass. The good news is a kind of gospel. It is analogous to the Liturgy of the Word. The theme of whether the protagonist is saved is ultimately grounded in the Liturgy of the Eucharist in which the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ are offered so that sins may be forgiven.

I was ordained at a time when people were having difficulty saying just what a priest was. Some of us were told we would have to go and find out for ourselves. I found my answers in the parishes where I served. My teachers were devout women who had been members of their local churches for decades. They were spiritual heirs of the prophetess Anna and of the “widows” of New Testament times who practically constituted a distinct office in the Church. In their day these women had seen any number of priests come and go. If anyone knew what a priest was, they did. I set out to benefit from their wisdom. If they were pleased with me I couldn’t be going far wrong. I love being a priest because of them.

And I love my order, my particular tribe of priests. I love the Congregation of Holy Cross because when you sit down to dinner in community there will be someone in the room who knows the answer to just about any question you can imagine. I love Holy Cross because in our community there are conversations and arguments that have been going on for 30 years or more. I love Holy Cross because the familiar, unprepossessing fellow sitting next to you is sometimes a world authority in his field or has poured out his life in selfless service to the people of God, or both. I love Holy Cross because, in a crisis, a fellow with whom you’ve had an apparently casual, friendly relationship will be revealed as a well of wisdom and compassion. I love that several hundred good men have my back. I love the way we honor each other’s fathers and mothers and families. I love that Holy Cross hospitality is legendary. I love that Holy Cross men seem to know instinctively that you do not have to stand on your dignity in order to have dignity. We spend the greater part of our time together talking about sports or the next movie we want to see, but we are having those conversations with men who have given their lives over to service of Christ and his Church with unqualified generosity. They have known success, and had their share of failures, but they are still here, and they are still Christ’s men. I love spending time with men who are very different than me in the ways the world cares about, but with whom I am in deep agreement on the things that really matter. I love the high regard we have for good, hard work. I love to sing the “Salve Regina” with my Holy Cross brothers. I love the way you often discover, after knowing someone for a long time, that they have a profound devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. I’ve found over the years that this turns out to be true of most of the best of us. I love the transformation that seems to come over someone you think you know well, and perhaps have taken for granted, when you have the privilege of seeing him minister to God’s people, particularly in a moment of tragedy or great joy. I love the stories about the old days and the great and colorful men who did so much to make us who we are, but who now sleep in Christ. I love that we remember our beloved dead in prayer by name on the anniversary of their deaths. I love that a hundred years after I’m gone someone will be mentioning my name aloud in prayer. I love being able to visit the community cemetery where I will one day be buried myself. I love being able to work in places where we have been so long that the lifeblood of our community is in the bricks. I love to visit a Holy Cross community and its members somewhere in the world for the first time and feel instantly at home. I love the way that members of Holy Cross parishes and schools and universities feel about their priests. I love to visit our seminary and meet young people who remind me of Holy Cross men who have gone before, almost as if there were some kind of spiritually transmitted Holy Cross genetic code …

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