“After you are ordained, turn around and let the people love you.” I could hear Father Kevin Bradt’s voice in my head as I lay face down on the cool marble floor of the cathedral. Ordination was a long, beautiful, complicated liturgy, and, though we had been rehearsed by Father Bradt, I was not sure what came next.
Except that at some point we would turn around, be presented to the people and let them love us. Whatever that meant. And we were to just stand there and accept it. After 10 years of Jesuit formation, after 23 years of classes and after 42 years of life, I was supposed to “turn around and let the people love me.” Fifteen years later, this advice still calls me forward, challenges me and feeds me.
All over the United States and Canada, men will be ordained Catholic priests this spring and summer and they will be getting lots of advice for the life ahead. All of it well-meaning and some of it useful. One soon-to-be-ordained seminarian, Anthony Frederico, took to Twitter seeking tips from priests and lay people:
Dear twitter priests - for those of us joining your ranks in the next few weeks, what’s one thing you didn’t learn in seminary that you think we should know?— Anthony Federico (@AntFeds) May 14, 2019
Dear lay friends - what’s one thing you want the next wave of priests to know?
Mr. Frederico struck a nerve with this request, and with 233 replies and counting, he is still getting suggestions. Many respondents want more time slots for confession; most want him to actually pray and to keep praying, and a surprisingly large number encourage him to get exercise and enough rest.
He was urged to “Be kind” and to “Be open to hanging out with young families” and to remember that “people are critical but they love you more than you know.” So much good advice and warmly offered by the people this man is about to be ordained to serve. The sheer number of responses seems to be proof of how much hope people have for their new priests.
Yes, your life is focused on God but centered by the people God gives you to serve.
Father Bradt’s advice in the ordination ceremony is what I offer the newly ordained as priests this year. It was given not only as a stage direction during a ceremony but as advice for the life ahead. Turning around and letting the people love you. Both parts are important, and both seem almost too basic to mention but have been foundational to my attempt to be a priest for the people of God. If you are about to be ordained, I think this advice will feed you, too.
Turn around. The people of God surround you, and sometimes you are invited to lead them. But turn around and see them, know they are there, understand that they look to you, they are looking at you. Lead and lead well, but keep turning around to see those you now lead. You belong to them; turn and check in with them often.
Yes, your life is focused on God but centered by the people God gives you to serve. Turning toward them is not a turning from God; it has not been my experience that God forces me to choose between God and God’s people. More often, I am called to turn away from myself, from useless distraction, from fear, and toward the people of God. In this way, turning around is more a returning to the life-giving relationship with people.
Let them love you. Let people love you. This is hard, and on some days it will seem impossible. Because people will love you in a whole range of ways, and some of these ways will seem crazy to you, at least at first. Some will want to smother you with attention, some will want to criticize you, and most will just want to spend time with you, to know you, to walk with you. Let them. Make this a priority. Trust that the good training you have received about boundaries will serve you well. Learn to listen closely enough to feel the real affection they have for you, let it sustain you, and let yourself be shaped by this love into a priest who will be a true shepherd for the people of God.
Father Bradt was right: There came a moment toward the end of the ceremony where we turned and stood open to the people. And the congregation erupted into a huge noise of hope, sounds of joy at what God had done for God’s people. It was not about me; it was not about us. It was about them and the hope the people of God have for a shared future. And every day, I have the opportunity to turn around and let myself be loved. I hope all our newly ordained remain open to the same experience.