Fr. Stephen Koeth, C.S.C.

The Gift and Mystery of the Priesthood

I recently read an interview with a priest-author in which he stated: “I do not know of any condition of man, any state of life, which gives such immediate access to so many people of all kinds, as does the Catholic priesthood.”

That was certainly my experience of the priesthood as I was growing up in Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish on Staten Island, New York. The priests of our parish were universally admired by parishioners young and old, rich and poor alike. Even from a young age, I recognized that people went to our priests “in situations of suffering, of illness, of death, of problems in the family,” but that our priests were also with us when we celebrated our first Sacraments in the Church, our academic achievements in school, and our triumphs on the athletic fields. They were indeed “our priests.” We knew they belonged to us, and that they allowed us to have a claim on them.

Years later, as a student at Notre Dame, I served as a Resident Assistant in Siegfried Hall. In some small measure I had an experience of what it was like to make myself available in service to others. The students knew they had a claim on me, and they invited me to accompany them in their moments of joy and grief, success and failure.

This experience helped me discern the Lord’s call to religious life and priesthood. I knew that there were many ways that I could serve Him and others, but I knew of no better way to reach so many different people in every aspect of life.

I knew, too, that it is the priest alone who stands in the person of Christ, and makes our Lord sacramentally present for His people. It is the priest, as spiritual father, who gives Christians new birth in Baptism, who feeds and nourishes them in the Eucharist, who forgives their sins and anoints them in their illnesses. I felt a deep desire to give my life to the Lord so that through me He could be present to all His people, in all these situations and more.

Even in my still few years of priesthood, I have already experienced the many joys of priestly ministry, and seen the truth of what Pope Benedict has said to priests: “No other profession, it seems to me, gives the possibility of knowing the human person in his or her humanity.”

As a priest in parish ministry, as a priest formator on the staff of a seminary, and even now as a priest in graduate studies, I have seen time and again how my share in Christ’s priesthood gives me a share in people’s lives and allows others to be themselves with me. In the Sacraments I celebrate for them, and even in day to day encounters, people of all kinds – grade school students on the playground, young people discerning their vocation, couples facing challenges in their marriages, and even strangers on the street – see in the collar I wear a sign that I belong to them. They know that because I am a priest, I am theirs, and in me they can find the compassion, forgiveness, and love of the Lord.

I know that this is through no achievement, wisdom, or holiness of my own. It is only through the Lord’s gracious gift of my vocation to the priesthood that I have experienced these tremendous honors and joys, and that so many people call me Father. I therefore give thanks always for the great gift and mystery of the priesthood and my share in it.

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