Two Aspects That Have Helped Me Become The Priest I Am
BY: FR. CEDRIC PISEGNA, CP
I remember seeing a billboard once that showed a graphic portrayal of Jesus suffering on the cross. Underneath was the caption “Be a priest like me.” It was a startling message for vocations.
There’s no doubt that the priesthood requires sacrifice. You must be a man for others. It demands self-denial, discipline, and giving of self. On the day of my ordination, June 29, 1991, my character was indelibly etched by Jesus and changed.
However, the actual realization of who I am as a priest is gradual and lifelong. I like to say, "I was ordained a priest in 1991, but I am becoming a priest every day." I am growing in patience, generosity, and love for others. I am learning to trust in God. Two aspects of my priesthood have especially helped me to become the priest that I am. One is hearing confessions, and the other is sharing my faith with young people. Both have brought me great joy.
Touched by Christ in the Confessional
I have to admit that when I was first ordained, I thought it might be burdensome or strange to hear confessions. Yet through these years, I’ve been surprised at just how powerful the Sacrament of Reconciliation really is. I’ve heard thousands of confessions, and I never cease to be amazed at how Christ touches us in this sacrament.
Many people are nervous when they come to celebrate this sacrament. Once a woman came in, and instead of praying, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” she said, “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts.” I half expected her to break out some food so we could celebrate. Actually, we laughed about her nervous start, and it became a moment of relaxation for her.
The trust people give priests is inspiring. There are no masks in the confessional—people are extremely honest and vulnerable. I see them at their best as well as at their worst. They share their hidden secrets and tell me things they haven’t even shared with their spouses. I try to provide a nonjudgmental, safe place where people can open up fully.
The Twelve-Step Program has a saying: "You are only as sick as your secrets." When people share their innermost secrets and sins with me, I know they are letting the light of God in and moving forward. A process toward freedom begins. Healing occurs. Issues are confronted. Forgiveness and mercy are received. The founder of the Passionists order, St. Paul of the Cross, said he preached in order to get people to come to confession. He knew the power of what could happen one-on-one in that sacrament.
I am surprised not only in what happens in the penitent but also in me. When I hear you share honestly and with complete vulnerability, I find that my heart becomes very soft. As I look into your eyes and listen to your struggles, in some ways you reflect my life, as if I am looking into a mirror. Your wrestling to forgive others, overcome your compulsions, and be sincerely devoted to God confronts me with my own struggles and helps me resolve to try harder and address the same issues in my life. Your honesty is a witness to me. We are not islands unto ourselves but are all part of the same continent. We share a common humanity, and my communion with you is profound as you share.
Reaching Out to Young People
Before I was ordained, I was a youth minister, so I have a special place in my heart for young people. I believe that one of our primary roles as priests is to reach out to our young. As a priest, I have had many opportunities to speak with our youth in large gatherings as well as one-on-one. They are so gifted and energetic. I see such potential and such hunger. I so want them to become all they can be and to discover God's plan for their lives.
I remember the largest Mass I ever attended, the Mass that concluded World Youth Day in Denver in August 1993. We celebrated outdoors at Cherry Creek State Park. Pope John Paul II presided, and I was one of three thousand priests concelebrating. There were people as far as the eye could see. Some estimated the crowd at half to three quarters of a million people. Most of those present were teenagers.
I encountered one young man when I was preaching the "call to the mission" at the well-to-do St. Stephen’s Church in Orlando, Florida. I had just preached my homily about having a personal relationship with Jesus. After Mass a good-looking sixteen-year-old boy with blonde hair approached me. He was adorned with a gold chain around his neck, and he had an urgency about his appeal. He reminded me of the rich young man in the gospels.
"Father," he said, "look around at this building. Beautiful, isn't it?" I looked around at the huge sanctuary and glistening marble floors. "Yes, this is one of the finest churches I've ever been in," I agreed. He continued: "My parents have poured lots of money into the building fund to get this place built. Week after week they make me come to church. I have to admit I don't know the God we worship. I don't know the God for whom this building has been built. But when I heard you talking about knowing God in a personal way, something in me stirred. Can you help me?" "Yes," I said. "Let that hunger you feel in your heart guide you, and you will come to know God. God is real and is calling you to know him in an intimate way."
I see priesthood as an opportunity. It stretches my limits. I am tapping into inner resources and potential I never knew I had. I continue to launch out into the deep "for a catch." When I was ordained, I resolved that I wouldn't just "get by" or "drift." I want to live with passion and impact as many people as I can in as deep a way as possible for Jesus. For me, priesthood is packed with meaning, purpose, and significance. Whether I am preaching, writing, producing, counseling, hearing confessions, or meeting with youth, I am very fulfilled.
I heard a saying years ago that I have adopted as the foundation of my ministry: "Who you are is God's gift to you. Who you become is your gift to God." Priesthood is all about becoming your best and presenting your life to God as a gift. It involves striving to achieve your potential and inviting others to live with passion. Because of this priestly call, I have gone where I never thought I would go, met people who I never would have met, and am becoming someone I never dreamed I could be. That graphic billboard stays in my mind: "Be a priest like me."
Fr. Cedric Pisegna, CP, is a Passionist priest who preaches parish missions across the United States. He has authored thirteen books, including God's Not Boring! for young people. He also produces a television program Live with Passion!, which airs in numerous cities. His Web site is www.frcedric.org.