By Monsignor Robert J. Panke
I love being a priest. When I shared this fact in a homily a few years back on a college campus, a young man came to me after Mass and told me he had never heard that from a priest. He had no idea priests were happy. He respected the sacrifices of priests, was grateful for the ministry they provided, but the thought of priests as happy never entered his mind. I am happy to report that most priests do experience a great deal of joy in their life amidst the sacrifices. Priests live a life in deep relationship with God and in service to the people they serve. It is in this receiving from God and the gift of self that one finds the joy that no material thing in the world can give.
I experienced this truth firsthand in my life. I was blessed to have been raised in a strong Catholic family, going to public schools until attending the Catholic University of America. After graduating, my life on paper looked pretty good. I was working in Chicago, had a great apartment, and good friends. But I was experiencing an inner lack of joy and could not figure out why. I believed in God, but my faith had waned considerably. It was a pilgrimage to a Marian shrine in Europe that changed my life. I realized the one thing missing in my life was the most important relationship one can have: God was missing me, and without knowing it, I was missing him.
I was pretty much living for myself at that time in my life, and the empty feeling that came from my selfishness was replaced by the generous love of our Lord. God gave me a taste of the happiness and peace that comes from living a life centered on him and others and not on self, and so I pursued that path, which eventually led to the priesthood. People often ask why I chose the priesthood, and I reply with great confidence that I did not choose the priesthood, God chose it for me. It is God who calls the priest through an interior desire, as he did the early apostles, and I am convinced that following the will of God brings one the greatest happiness and freedom.
Once I remember rushing to the hospital late one evening to anoint a woman who was about to die. Just moments before, she was happily having dinner with her family. These are the difficult moments in life that our Lord very frequently asks the priest to enter. After reassuring the family of God’s deep love for her and reminding them of the promise of eternal life and a great family reunion in heaven that is sure to take place if we trust in God, her husband remarked, “Thanks for bringing Christ to us.” It is in these moments that I realize why God called me to this life of sacrifice, to bring Christ to the world. There are so many moments when the priest brings Jesus to the people through teaching, service, and the sacraments. It is hard to explain the deep joy and satisfaction that one receives in the priesthood but it is evident to me and to the overwhelming majority of priests who are good and faithful in their vocation. I love being a priest.
(Recommended reading: “Why Priests Are Happy: A Study of the Psychological and Spiritual Health of Priests” by Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, associate dean for seminary and ministerial programs and clinical associate professor of pastoral studies at the Catholic University of America.)
Monsignor Robert J. Panke is rector of Blessed John Paul II Seminary in Washington, D.C. He received a B.A. in financial management from the Catholic University of America in 1989 and worked in the hotel and restaurant management industry before entering the priesthood.