I was at our local Catholic High School the other day to give a presentation and I greeted one of our parishioners by name as he walked into class. One of his classmates asked him why I knew who he was, and he simply replied: "Oh, he's our priest." Little did he know it, but those few words prompted some serious spiritual reflection for me in the following days.
"Our priest." What a subtle, yet profound reminder of the apostolic work of priesthood, to be completely at the service of the Body of Christ. During our time in formation we often focus inwards, and rightly so, as we try to discern who God is calling us to be and how we might be effective ministers of His. The spiritual, intellectual, pastoral, and personal growth done in formation are essential for a life of ministry, but at the same time our own self-improvement is not why we decide to become priests. Our self-growth allows us to share our gifts and talents with those whom we serve. To be at the service of another; this is the ultimate mission of priesthood.
My parishioner's comment was an important reminder to me that the reason I spend time focusing on my personal and ministerial development is to share Christ with others, so that I can give myself over to the people of God. The goal of a religious priest isn't solely personal growth in holiness, but also to lead others toward holiness. In a very real way, we belong to someone else. We belong to each and every person in our pastoral care. Like in marriage, the vocation to priesthood requires an earnest desire to belong wholeheartedly to someone else, to give oneself over completely in service to another. In doing so we conform ourselves to Christ the High Priest, who offered Himself on the Cross for the salvation of the world.
This desire to belong to others certainly comes with its challenges at times. It means we are constantly on call, that our schedules are random and varied, that sometimes late nights are followed by early mornings. At the same time these challenges bring immense joy because they allow us to bring Christ to others in a very real way. The people of God are able to see in the priest an image of Christ who gave Himself up for us. Though my time as a priest has only been a few short months, I have found such immense joy in belonging to others, in serving such a wonderful community of faith. I can only hope that I will always be of service to the people of God so that I might be "their priest."
Fr. Brian Ching, C.S.C., is associate pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in South Bend, Ind. He is originally from Flushing, N.Y., and is a graduate of Holy Cross High School. He entered seminary while a student at the University of Notre Dame. He professed Final Vows in 2012 and was ordained to the priesthood in 2013. Learn more about Holy Cross parish ministry here.