I must admit, when I agreed to participate in priestly renewal at Notre Dame this summer, I really had no idea what I was signing up for at that time. I knew it had a name, the Bishop D’Arcy Program in Priestly Renewal, part of the McGrath Institute for Church Life. I knew it was free. I knew it was at Notre Dame, a place I’ve always wanted to visit. Of course, I also knew it was about priestly renewal. Even that, though, I probably have my own idea and judgment about what exactly that means and how it can be defined by each of us, based on our own needs and desires.
Shortly after beginning his pontificate, Pope Francis often used the image of the Church as field hospital. We all know that when it comes to hospitals, there is some knowledge or acceptance on our part that we may be sick, whether something minor or even terminal. When it comes to Church life and the understanding of the image of field hospital, the second half of the equation is not always known and we often live in denial of the illness or for that matter, blame others for it. Sometimes when you’re so close to the sickness you become immune or even numb to it, ultimately making you a part of the problem rather than an agent of healing and conversion. We become blind to the deeper issues that we need to face while trying to band-aid when often surgery is the necessary route, or at least some restful care to regain the capacity to once again thrive.
I know this is all a rather long introduction to my point, but a point that is necessary in understanding what this week at Notre Dame has been for me. Here’s the thing, those closest to me knew that I was burned out by the end of June, feeling fatigued and simply exhausted. It was a transition year for me in moving from being pastor of one parish and taking on a second. Despite the fact that they are a mere mile apart, it, over time, began to take a toll on me, especially interiorly. My point is, I was in need of that field hospital myself without even knowing it at the time, while being immersed in the day to day routine. That should have been a sign that a check-up was needed; everything was becoming routine. I was becoming numb to it all, gradually forgetting why I was a priest in the first place, allowing myself to be pushed to the triage unit, which I was unfamiliar and new to trying to navigate, when, at times, I was the one in need.
Now don’t get me wrong, I never stopped doing what I needed to do, such as celebrating Mass and even having the time for personal prayer, but over the course of time, and after having the time to step away this week, to reflect, to listen, to allowing myself to be ministered to, I began to realize that the clock seemed to be managing me much more than the other way around. Over time, it was easier to just escape for awhile, knowing that I had reached the bottom within myself, often without the capacity to give or receive, and try to gain enough muster to get through another day and another week, at least until the field hospital opened its doors to me and am once again breathing without a ventilator and no longer feeling like I’m on the brink of death.
One of the dangers of Church life and ministry is to become consumed by the weeds, which Jesus himself uses as metaphor. Dealing with problems, fires, people, and the multitude of personalities and agendas , and now times two, began to consume me and I didn’t realize how ill I was becoming and in need of that field hospital, to mend wounds, deal with resentment, theologically contextualize the reality, and to reconnect with the larger priesthood that I am a part of and was ordained to for now thirteen years. The crying child within, overwhelmed by the noise, needed to be cared for and loved.
For the past ten years, I have taught high school juniors not only the need for conversion but also have led them through that process. Any of us knows that, just because we can lead others doesn’t mean we can always lead ourselves there. The best leaders are often those that know how to follow. It requires the help of the field hospital, a team, to lead you back to health and to a deeper understanding of the mystery of the life in which I have felt called and the capacity to fall into that mystery without the feeling of drowning, it’s arch-nemesis which likes to disguise. There’s no book and no six steps that can bring about the perfect priest or parish, for that matter, (whatever that means anyway), all we can do is continuously allow ourselves to surrender to the mystery of God’s grace and mercy in our lives and through it we are changed, our environments are changed, the lens in which we view life is changed, broadened, and deepened, and ultimately the world begins to change. The first step, though, is to acknowledge there’s a problem, even when we don’t know what it is and allow ourselves to be checked into the field hospital for care. It may only require some medicine to sooth the soul, but it at least prevents something more terminal.
Each night I’d end my day down at the Grotto here on campus, often being bit alive by mosquitos, but there nonetheless. Each night I’d watch people come and go, renewing a sense of wonder in myself as to what brings them there, seeking prayer and understanding, lighting candles for someone or something. I sat, I listened, even to a young man in tears next to me one evening, knowing that this spot was a field hospital for him, in need of some kind of healing in his life and quite possibly in the life of someone he loved. Each night he’d return and pray, light more candles, making his offering to the Divine Physician. No words were necessary. Simply a light, some tears, and an openness to the grace at hand. I suppose the one good thing about field hospitals is that they are 24-7. At least for the past week, whether at the Grotto, hearing confession with young people, in sessions with other priests, laughter, connecting with some of the people I encountered on campus, or simply walking through this campus, this became the necessary field hospital in my life, first to acknowledge that I had become ill and then to accept the doctors and the Doctor and the care they provided to bring about healing, the capacity to give and receive this mystery, and of course, renewal.