The Luckiest Man in the World, The Anchor, June 11, 2010

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Year for Priests Vocational Reflection
June 11, 2010

I have always believed that the seeds of priestly vocations are revealed not just in a general desire to give one’s life in the service of others — the starting point for some priestly vocations programs— but in the hunger a boy or young man has to be able to give not himself but Jesus: specifically Jesus’ body and blood in the Eucharist, his mercy in the Sacrament of Penance, and, in short, his salvation in everything a priest does.

I was first awakened to a priestly vocation when I was four. At daily Mass with my mother and my twin brother, I carefully watched our pastor, Fr. Jon Cantwell, devoutly pronounce the words of consecration. With a four year old’s sense of wonder, I was fascinated that God had come down from heaven to earth and was in our Church. I wished that I was tall enough to be able to climb up on top of the altar to peer into the chalice, because I wanted to see what Jesus’ blood looked like. Then I beheld Fr. Cantwell, who was 70 but frail, gingerly maneuver his way down the marble steps of the sanctuary to give Jesus to those who were fortunately old enough to be able to receive him. I remember saying to myself, “The priest must be the luckiest man in the whole world — capable of holding God in his fingertips and giving him to others.”

I then watched Fr. Cantwell bring the ciborium to the tabernacle, located on the side altar in front of the pew where we were kneeling. He put the ciborium behind the veil, struggled to genuflect, shut the bronze tabernacle door and returned to the altar. My eyes, however, remained transfixed on Jesus behind the door. I prayed silently and simply, “Jesus, make me a priest so that I can give you to others like Fr. Cantwell!”

Over the course of the next 25 years, which I’ve always looked at as my extended time of priestly preparation, that desire to become a priest in order to bring Christ to others never left me. Growing up, I also naturally developed many other aspirations — to become a husband and father, a catcher for the Red Sox, a professional boxer and tennis player, a medical doctor, an actor, a pro-life political kingmaker, a professor and more. Whenever in my more mature moments I pondered about the future, however, I would confess to myself and others that I believed God had already given me a strong priestly identity, which I took as a sign of a vocation.

My priestly identity and vocation were nourished tremendously at my first seminary: home. My earliest memory is praying the Rosary as a family, which all six of us did every night until I went away to college. There were many occasions when I would have preferred to have continued playing sports rather than praying, but I’m so grateful, retrospectively, that my parents taught me that God comes first.

The priests at my home parish of St. Michael’s in Lowell also fostered my vocation, by encouraging me to become an altar boy, then a lector, then an extraordinary minister of holy Communion. The most formative experience of all was working afternoons and weekends in the rectory from eighth to twelfth grades. The pastor, Fr. Paul Bailey, became like a second father to me and a genuine Christian Socrates, questioning my answers, guiding me to the truth, teaching me what a priest does and why, and introducing me to Catholic periodicals as well as to so many priests and gifted lay Catholics. The rectory was always full of good priests and future priests who demonstrated for me that the priestly life was fun, personally rewarding, and could do so much good. Fr. E. Paul Sullivan became a close family and tennis adversary. Fr. Leonard O’Malley always encouraged me in my desire to do more for the parish and trained me how to do those things well.

Another greatly formative experience was at Harvard College. I remember a Jesuit priest friend’s joking that my brother Scot and I were going to Harvard “to lose the faith.” The first time I encountered blatant anti-Catholicism was a few weeks into my freshmen year when my roommate had some friends over who were upperclassmen. They hated what they mistakenly believed the Church to be: an oppressor of women because it opposed abortion and a persecutor of gays because it taught that same-sex activity is wrong. I had many late night debates with these bright students. I learned from those tete-a-tetes how great the need was for the Church to be able to refute such errors and how much I personally needed to grow in faith and in my knowledge of apologetics and Church history in order to be a part of the solution. A great help in this regard was my finding and frequenting an off-campus Catholic study center called Elmbrook, run by priests and laymen in Opus Dei. There I began to receive formation in a daily plan of life geared not only to intellectual nourishment but to sanctifying my studies and whole young existence. The priests there, Fr. Dave Cavanagh and Fr. Sal Ferigle, became my spiritual directors, inspired me and greatly helped my discernment.

Looking back after nearly 11 years a priest, I rejoice at having been privileged, nearly 6,000 times, to celebrate Mass, including inside the empty tomb in Jerusalem; to have been able, like Fr. Cantwell, to give Christ, happiness incarnate, to so many communicants; to have been able with joy to pronounce the words “I absolve you from your sins” to tens of thousands of faith-filled people, one by one; to have anointed so many, including at death’s door, and prepared them for God’s imminent visitation; to have celebrated hundreds of weddings and baptisms, including, as priests say, many “good ones”; to have preached retreats to lay people, seminarians and even brother priests; to have led several pilgrimages with great people; and to have walked with so many on the narrow road leading to the heavenly Jerusalem.

There have been many surprises along the way. I would have never thought on the day of my ordination that I would have ministered so much in Portuguese, which I have really grown to love; that I would have spent so much of my priesthood as a writer and an editor; that I would have never been assigned to teach in a seminary, which others in charge of my formation had always told me to expect; and that I would have become pastor, so young, of St. Anthony of Padua, which, even as a seminarian, I called “one of the most unbelievably beautiful Churches in the country.” But God is full of surprises. I anticipate more surprises are in store!