Bringing Jesus to His People
Shortly before his death, Bishop DiLorenzo sat down with me for what I thought was going to be an uneventful annual meeting. As our chat was drawing to a close, he leaned back in his chair and said he had one last item to discuss. After noting my joy in serving as Chaplain of Roanoke Catholic School, he added, “There’s an opportunity for you to teach there, to share the Gospel in a different, but very important way.”
What he proposed was a new, full-time position in our school that would allow me the chance not only to teach high school theology, but also to continue developing our campus ministry program. He continued by sharing some of his own experiences teaching high school as a young priest, and having perhaps seen the shocked look on my face, promised to give me some time to think it over. Before we parted ways, I asked the bishop if he had any advice for me as I began discerning this role, and his response was characteristically direct: “Young people need Jesus. Bring Him to them!”
In that reply, I was given my mission for the year to come, and in the course of my priestly ministry, I have been amazed and humbled by the many ways that the Lord has invited me to share Him with those I am called to serve.
First and foremost, the priest brings Jesus to people through the sacraments.
The “heartbeat” of our school is our weekly Mass, which brings together our student body, which ranges from age 3 to grade 12, as well as faculty, staff, and family members. While it can sometimes be a challenge to preach to such a diverse group, it is a greater joy to lead our community in giving thanks to God in this most perfect and beautiful prayer.
During the first Mass I celebrated as a priest and theology teacher, I was struck by the moment when my students came forward to receive the Eucharist. That morning, I was handing on the faith in the classroom, discussing the theology of the Church and our call to be instruments of communion. Then, at Mass, I was handing on our Lord Himself, facilitating an intimate encounter between these young people and Jesus. These two experiences revealed for me the essential connection between the sacraments of the Church and the many ways they nourish us as disciples of Jesus.
The Eucharist strengthens me and my flock to carry out the work entrusted to us by the Lord, sending us forth as His people. At the same time, our work, whether it be studying, teaching, or administration, invites us to acknowledge our dependence on God and to return to Him with humble hearts, seeking his grace to carry forward in our mission. As a priest, I have the unique opportunity to serve as the instrument through which God’s people receive this sacramental grace. It is always an awe-inspiring privilege to see God’s marvelous work unfold, often right before my very eyes.
The priest also brings Jesus to others by his witness of love.
In his landmark encyclical on evangelization, Bl. Pope Paul VI wrote, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” There exists today a tremendous hunger for true witnesses, people who are animated by Christian joy and the desire to share Jesus in a humble, authentic manner. In more familiar ministerial settings, this means carrying out even the seemingly mundane responsibilities with faithfulness, patience, understanding, and joy. Very often, however, opportunities to witness will lead me outside of the classroom or the church — to the cafeteria, the sidelines or the bleachers at my students’ sporting events, or even in social media.
These opportunities for authentic, informal engagement with my students and teaching colleagues help me live out the “spiritual fatherhood” that comes with being a priest. I get to share in the lives of those entrusted to my care, learning about their passions, seeing their God-given talents at work in their lives, all the while coming to a better understanding of their ordinary joys and sorrows. At the same time, my hope is that my “spiritual family” gets to see the priest as a man who is in need of God’s mercy, sharing in many of their own experiences while striving for holiness. In order for me to be the best priest and teacher I can be, I’ve learned how essential it is to first be an authentic witness to the love of Jesus.
Together, the priest and his people help one another grow in holiness.
Teaching theology to high school students has been the most unexpected joy of my first years of priestly ministry. Each day, I am humbled by the opportunity to delve into some of life’s deepest and most important questions with a group of sincere, intelligent, and good-natured young people. In the course of my teaching, these students have also taught me a great deal about how to be a better priest, classroom instructor, and man of God.
The challenges that have come with taking on this new and unexpected ministry have helped forge in me a desire to plunge more deeply into prayer, rely more wholeheartedly on the grace of God, and embrace with greater enthusiasm the adventure we call “discipleship.” At the top of my Theology 11 syllabus, I included St. John Bosco’s formula for sanctity: “First, be happy; second, study and pray; third, do good for everyone.”
Above all, my hope for my students and all those entrusted to my care is that they become saints, and as a priest, I try my best to bring Jesus to them, in the sacraments and in my way of life, so as to help them grow in holiness. What gratitude fills my heart for the many ways they bring Jesus to me, helping me to better live my vocation.