This weekend, we mark World Priest Day:
WORLD PRIEST DAY (WPD) has been sponsored by the Worldwide Marriage Encounter since the year 2000 and is celebrated on the last Sunday in October. The mission and purpose of World Priest Day is to celebrate and affirm the men who commit their lives to the Lord and the Church through priesthood. It focuses on honoring priests and it is designed to be a celebration to rejoice in the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Catholic organizations across the country like the Knights of Columbus, National Council of Catholic Women, Serra Club and other Catholic Lay Ministries join in affirming our priests by celebrating this annual event on this day or during the week preceding or following it.
What does it mean to be a priest today? I think it is probably more challenging, more stressful, for difficult right now than most of us realize. Many vocations are being tested right now; the pain, isolation and sense of betrayal among many priests are real.
Yet, many good men continue to answer the call and serve with joy. A few years ago, Fr. Antonin Kocurek, a priest in our parish who ministers to the Czech apostolate in the Diocese of Brooklyn, celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. He asked me to serve and preach at the Czech Mass marking this occasion in Astoria, Queens. Here’s some of what I had to say:
It’s a great privilege to be here this morning, to celebrate this special occasion. When I was preparing my remarks for today, I asked different people what they thought I should talk about for Fr. Antonin’s 25th anniversary. “Talk about how he’s a priest forever,” someone told me. “Bring up the grace of Holy Orders,” another person suggested. “You might go into the idea of ontological change,” someone said.
When I asked her what I should say, she thought for a moment. And then smiled.
“Tell them,” she said, “that he is a happy priest.”
There you have it. The shortest homily I could give on a morning like this.
In five words: here is a happy priest. If I were smarter, I could probably learn to say it in Czech.
But what marks his priesthood, I think, is more than just happiness. It’s something wider and deeper.
The writer Leon Bloy once said, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Knowing Fr. Antonin, working beside him all these years, I have seen it. And I agree. Joy brings us closer to God, closer to his Holy Spirit, and a joyful priest magnifies that by bringing with that joy a sense of the holy— a sense of God’s grace at work. What a blessing that is!
But there is something else. Something deeply personal. Cardinal Dolan wrote about this some years back, when he was a seminary rector. Speaking to seminarians in Rome, he put it simply: Joy in the priesthood, he said, comes from responsibility, a committed prayer life, a sense of sacrifice—and something else.
That something else is pure love.
The joy of Fr. Antonin, the joy of every priest, is the joy of a man in love. In love with his vocation. In love with his people. In love with his God.
Every vocation story is also, at its most fundamental, a love story. A few weeks ago, I read a beautiful essay by a young man named Greg Hurst, from Boston. He was entering seminary to begin studying for the priesthood. He wrote about attending the weddings of some friends just before he left. He kept noticing something extraordinary. It was a certain look. He could see it in the eyes of those about to be married: the look conveyed devotion, beauty, a wonder that was truly out of this world.Greg Hurst mentioned it to a friend. His friend responded by saying it made perfect sense. “The way they looked at each other was beautiful,” his friend said. But he went on: “And we were all created to ultimately find that look of love in Christ.”
Because the story of the priesthood is a love story.
It is about falling in love with the God who loves you, and feeling that love so deeply, that you want to spend your life bringing it to others in the most simple but profound ways: in drops of water, in crumbs of bread, in the sign of the cross in the confessional or at a bedside.
It is about falling in love with news, good news, that you cannot help but share with the world.
It is about loving those around you so much that you not only want to share that news with the world—but you want to share with them, too, the promise and hope of eternal life. You want to bring them the sacraments. You want to keep them close to God. You want to laugh with them, pray with them, grieve with them, hope with them.
Being a priest means you love people and your faith so much you want to bring Christ to them.
Yes. Being a priest is a love story.
And how blessed we have been, because Fr. Antonin has been here to share that love story with us. We have been a part of it. And he has been a part of us.
In the gospel we just heard, Jesus prayed for his disciples, saying to his Father: “As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world.” One of those he sent into the world is this priest from across the sea who likes to play volleyball and drink beer. He could have spent his life happily in a far off village in the Czech Republic. But instead, he came to another village: here, New York City.
In behalf of my village: thank you!
I mentioned this when I preached this morning back in Forest Hills: one word recurs again and again in this gospel. “World.” Jesus says it no less than nine times in this short gospel—reminding us what it means to be a disciple in the world. It isn’t easy. We know that. Fr. Antonin knows that. Our brothers and sisters around the world who are suffering for their faith know that.
But we are assured—as we hear in John’s letter—that if we remain in God, he remains in us. He will not abandon those he loves. For “God is love.”
And the love story goes on.
As we receive Christ in the Eucharist today, let us pray to remain in God. Let us give thanks for the love that has brought Christ into our lives—and the love that brought Fr. Antonin into our little village of New York City, to live out his own love story here among us and with us.
His vocation, like the vocation of any good priest, is a reminder of God’s love at work in our lives.
It is something we should all celebrate. It is a cause for his joy—and ours.
And why not? After all, as my wife reminded me, in words that ring true in any language:
Here is a happy priest.