Here on Long Island, the little town of Farmingdale is reeling as they deal with the stark pain that comes of burying five teenagers, all lost in one horrific car accident. Families, students at their high school, even perfect strangers within the community are bound in grief, and our prayers must fly to heaven for their sustenance and consolation.
Frequently quoted amid the many reports is Father Michael Duffy, an associate pastor at Saint Kilian’s Church. The parish is located not far from where the teenagers died, and when all is said and done, he will have buried three of the five from that church’s doors and have waked with all of their families.
Father Duffy also blogs here at Patheos when he has free time, which is not often as his parish is large and his plate pretty full. He is certainly too busy to blog at the moment, but in a private message he was thankful for prayers and asked that we “keep them coming” for the community, the families and for those who minister to them. He added, “I’m grateful for the gifts of priesthood and His Grace,” without which he would feel unable to offer anything of himself.
In his letter to the Philippians, Saint Paul wrote “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” I get the impression that Father Duffy is feeling the truth of those words, and the help of the Holy Spirit as he moves from waking one child, to helping plan the funeral of another, to praying the Mass of Christian Burial for yet another.
This young priest’s words were answered by another cleric, who noted, “This is something that will leave a permanent mark on your heart, and on your priesthood…it is a kind of cruel grace.”
Cruel grace is a grace that permits you not only to suffer with others, in empathy and sympathy, but to suffer for their sakes. It permits you to wade into the terrifying intimacy of another’s keening pain and then assists you — strengthening you so you may not run away from such stripped-raw reality.
It is a grace that costs something. It costs something of us to be open to the suffering of others and consent to companion it.
It costs something to stand a helpless witness.
It costs something to say, “I am sorry, I cannot fix this; there is no remedy and I have no solution, only my presence, to offer.”
You suffer with them. You suffer for them, and for your own inability to stop the hurt they must endure.
The privilege of the priesthood is spiritual parenthood, and parenthood means:
“humbly accepting — for the rest of one’s life — involvement and responsibility for specific human beings of varied gifts and challenges. There are no days off; if you don’t like your job, you can’t just move away; you can’t re-staff. Parenthood contains moments of surreal bliss countered by a lifetime of work, self-abnegation, stress, and anxiety.”
Parenthood is a weighty gift; it is joy weighed down daily by self-doubt, pain, guilt, regrets for all of the ways in which one has fallen short. Seen as such, it is a wonder anyone undertakes it willingly — and many of us, perhaps most of us, consent to it before completely appreciating that truth.
Priests, if they are well-formed, have it spelled out for them, and consent to all of it, but when this duty and delight plays out before them, what formation can truly have prepared them? None. Parenting, in any form, confounds theories and waylays expectations, and it can never be learned in a lecture hall or through a book. As with birth and death, it must be experienced in the openness of the unavoidably real.
Love and pain cannot exist exclusive of each other, and joy fits itself, somehow, between the two.
Parenthood, in all of its forms, including the Priesthood, is a Via Dolorosa not to be missed.
Pray for the parents of these children gone-too-soon. And pray for our priests whose fatherhood daily gifts them with costly, costly grace.