is one to whom people come
at those junctions of life
when they come face to face with the unsolvable.
when they meet with the limits of creaturely power,
when they experience darkness
or have intimations of mortality.
AT SUCH MOMENTS
people have need to draw near to one who,
while able like other men and women
to swim in the waters of life
and stay afloat in them,
is not averse to drowning graciously in them,
able to be overcome.
PEOPLE need one who has entered deeply into
the paschal mystery of Jesus,
REJOICING IN LIFE BUT AT EASE WITH DEATH
(Msgr. James O’Reilly, 1977)
This definition of the priest was developed by the Rev. Msgr. James O’Reilly. He served as a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Born on Nov. 11, 1916 in Galway City, Ireland, he died on April 10, 1978 while taking his morning stroll around the campus of St. John Seminary in Camarillo, California.
I never had the good fortune of taking a class from him. I was studying philosophy in the college – part of the same seminary campus – while Msgr. O’Reilly taught mostly theology students. I remember the many stories told about him; the most memorable tidbit was a paraphrased extraction from his definition of priesthood: A priest should be able to drown with people.
I had heard this line many times in various forms. It was one of those insights that got me thinking. Another quote of Msgr. O’Reilly that I often recall was: “The Mass is intentionally boring, so that it can bore into your heart.” I’ll leave that quote for another article.
The idea that a priest should be able to drown with people stuck with me throughout the seminary. The tested wisdom of this venerable seminary professor was not clear to me until after ordination when the many who faced “the unsolvable” came to me. I quickly learned there were numerous circumstances and situations for which no pat answer or remedy was available, except the poor, meager attempt to imitate the Good Shepherd who said, “I am with you always, until the end of the ages.” (Mt 28:20) I learned the poverty of presence has a richness all its own. Presence is a treasure for which many search and few are willing to give.
Standing at a hospital bedside, speaking through a plexiglass window in a prison, listening to a disoriented homeless person on the sidewalk, lending an ear to a penitent’s litany of burdens, can leave one speechless, unable to find the words or the means to help. Sometimes the temptation arises to elude such encounters when there is little or nothing to say or do. To linger and listen, to stand and wait, to stay with the silent suffering of another offers more than we may imagine.
For many of us, the ability to give something, do something, or say something may often become a way to avoid having to be present. Such means may be used as a way to put distance between us and someone who is drowning in sorrow or broken in spirit. We let something else take our place, to get between us and them. Having nothing to offer becomes the justification to walk away.
The act of presence is a gift all its own. The giver is the gift, the gift of companionship. Our presence sends to the other person the message that one is not alone. Especially in those “unsolvable” moments, when there are “intimations of mortality,” the willingness to accompany another person in those dark moments may not solve a problem or provide a remedy. Still, personal presence can be an amazing grace.
Presence also transforms anything we may offer. A kind word, some good advice, and financial or material assistance takes on a richer meaning when it comes as an expression of companionship.
The National Eucharistic Revival – “My flesh for the life of the world” – is a pastoral initiative by the U.S. bishops and the faithful of the Catholic Church in the United States to awaken a deeper devotion to the real presence of the Lord Jesus in the Eucharist, the Most Blessed Sacrament, Santísimo Sacramento. The body and blood of the Lord Jesus in the Most Holy Eucharist nourishes and sustains us in our journey to life everlasting. This is possible because Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, is truly present to us. The Lord Jesus told his disciples on the night before he died on the cross, “Remain in me, as I remain in you.” (Jn 15:4)
The real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist invites us to be truly present to him. Faith reveals his presence to us. The nearness of his divine charity compels a humble reverential presence from us. Once his fingers probed the glorious wounds of the Risen Christ, the doubts of Thomas faded. The real, merciful presence of the Lord moved the hesitant apostle to proclaim, “My Lord and My God.” (Jn 20:24-29) The Eucharist offers us the same encounter with the Risen Christ.
Our faithful presence with the Lord Jesus in the sacrifice of the Mass also obliges us to bring his real presence into the world around us. The habitual practice of the spiritual and temporal works of mercies should serve as a sacramental extension of Eucharist. This cannot be done without a willingness to be present and available to other, especially those who face the unsolvable and feel they are drowning.
Msgr. O’Reilly’s insight taught me an important lesson about the priesthood. His wisdom coaxed me into many encounters where others faced uncertainty and despair. These occasions asked me to accompany another on their road to Calvary. Such moments were journeys of faith relying only on the undying charity of the One whose presence waits for us on the cross, “Remain in me, as I remain in you.”
About the Diocese of Sacramento’s participation in the U.S. Catholic Church’s National Eucharistic Revival at www.scd.org/eucharist. The National Eucharistic Revival and National Eucharistic Congress website is eucharisticrevival.org.