The Quest: A reflection on priesthood

Don Quixote by Pablo Picasso
Don Quixote by Pablo Picasso

I am going to offer another reflection based on The Man of La Mancha. Sorry, it’s been on the swimming mp3 player for a bit. Anyway, during the story, as the residents of the inn at which Don Quixote takes up residence as his castle, he is asked to explain his quest. In musical theatre, a request for a explication of this sort almost invariably leads to a musical number. Don Quixote is no exception; he sets out with a challenging and beautiful song that lays out his quest, his vision of his knighthood. I realize that this song was so overplayed for a time, that for many it may be trite or cliché, but I think that, if we really take a moment to dig into what it’s saying, it is both real and very challenging. Within the context of the story, in fact, it is the quest that brings Don Quixote back from his final senile stupor for a final burst of strength before he dies.

I also thing that it lays out a goal of what life as a priest will look like in many ways. Here, I am going to attempt to illustrate that. But I will ask you, dear reader, to allow me even more rambling than usual.

Here’s how the song goes:

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

 

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

 

This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far

 

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause

 

And I know if I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest

 

And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star

I’m going to try the line-by-line exegesis that is used for biblical texts (not that I’m suggesting musical theatre from the 60s carries the same weight as Scripture).

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

What could any human ever undertake that is more impossible than to act in persona Christi to the world. I am asking to participate in the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ. My model in priesthood is not one of safety, comfort, and security; instead, in the words of Fulton Sheen, I have a captain who stumbled to his throne! I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, it is, at best, intimidating and, at worst, absolutely petrifying.

People who know me from my time in youth ministry know that one of my favorite parts was speaking about,  getting teens prepared for, and giving them an opportunity for confession, penance, reconciliation, whichever name we choose give the sacrament. There is a part of me that sees that as a giant draw to serving as a priest. The Lord, through His Church, through my bishop will give me – me, of all people – the authority to say to someone “I absolve you.” What joy comes with that, but, at the same time, what sorrow! Priests often say that they forget what is told to them in confession; I have no doubt of that, but, at the same time, I believe that there must be a deep commingling of joy and sorrow as each person comes to the confessional: joy at the opportunity, as an instrument of Christ’s Church, to snatch as soul from the very gates of Hell and return that soul to the Father and sorrow of the receiving of the human pain of each soul who approaches the priest for that absolution. This is why the Curé of Ars, St. John Vianney, called confessors to give light penances, for the soul has already been punished by alienation from his Creator, and, instead to take the rightful penance on themselves.

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

Is man’s sin itself not already a wrong that cannot be righted by man’s own effort. This has been central to the Christian mystery since Christ founded is Church. Christ, however, righted that unrightable wrong, and the priest participates in that. I beg for the privilege and duty to participate in that in my own service. Who is there that a priest is not called to love. As a priest, I must learn to love those I desire to love, and those who are most impossible for me to love. A priest’s love must be pure and chaste, his fatherhood a shining example of the Father’s Fatherhood in this dark and wounded world. Retirement is no part of the life of a priest. Each time my arms weary, each time I have no more strength to give, that is the time I must seek strength in my God to pick me up and hold me upright as I strive to see and serve each person who seeks Christ in each moment of their lives, from the first to the last.

This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far

This is the quest of a priest. As I stand and reflect on the world as man has made it, I see gifts of intellect and technology; I see suffering and death brought about by that same intellect and technology given to man. How can I keep hope when all seems hopeless? It is only in the Lord that I can hope. The quest that I willingly undertake, that I even ask for cannot give in to hopelessness and despair. The deeper my fellow man sinks into the abyss, the more I must struggle to show the light of Christ and His Church to men.

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause

This almost goes without saying. It is, however, in four lines, the priest’s job description in the temporal world. I must always seek and do what is right. If people seek an example, they should see the example of Christ lived in the 21st century in me. Impossible! But necessary. To be willing to march into Hell, into this world given over in so many ways to the enemy, for the cause of heaven. This is my quest.

And I know if I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest

In the ordination Mass, the bishop, standing for the Church prays that God will complete the good work He has begun in the priest. As a priest, I am freely undertaking this glorious quest – a guide to show others the glory of the Heavenly Kingdom. It is only in remaining true to that quest that I can ever hope, when the Lord calls me home, to hear those words “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Yet, even those words are grace, for how can my own actions ever repay the wasted gifts and opportunities of the past or those that I know my human frailty will yet bring in the future?

And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star

Will the world be better for this? I hope so. But even in this, I must avoid the hard temptation to think of this quest as my own achievement. The world will be better, not because of me, but because of God working in me. That is the goal of every priest. I once prayed that I may be forgotten when I die. That was not an act of humility, but it simply means that, if I am remembered ahead of Christ, it means that I focused attention on myself rather than upon Christ. Any moment of that is a failure. Instead, I seek to spend every moment, every interaction, every opportunity in ministry to point, after the example of my Blessed Mother, to the Only Begotten Son of God, and through him, to direct souls on the road to salvation.

I have no doubt I will suffer scars on the way. I have no doubt I will suffer scorn and contempt more than any mortal can bear. I find both in my past. The love of Christ has carried me through those. I know there will be more in the future; the love of Christ will continue to hold me upright, and give me, as long as He chooses me to fight this battle, a last ounce of courage to fight in his name the powers of darkness on earth.

Then, when He does call me home, I can lie peaceful and calm, knowing that I have done all He put me here to do. I seek forgiveness for the moments I failed to fulfill His will, and I trust that He, even in those moments, will make His will come to pass. Without the Grace of God, I can do none of this, but, with His Grace, I can dare to even dream the impossible dream, and trust in His loving mercy for my own salvation and those He has entrusted to my care in this life.

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