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10-PRIESTS

When are the ‘best days of your life’?

The first seven years of priesthood have been full of joy and challenge, but the best is yet to come, Fr Michael Kane says.

Recently, when speaking to a group of high school pupils, I found myself using the often-quoted banal expression ‘remember, these are the best days of your life.’ Naturally, it received the sceptical reaction it deserved. In truth, I have grown unsure of the sentiment myself.

I have a sense that the best days lie somewhere between the care-free student days and the first years ‘learning your trade’ in the real world. This is the chapter of life filled with unbounded enthusiasm, energy and zealous activity. They are also the years of finding your feet, making mistakes, and setting down important markers. For many, they are the years that provide a reality check.

When I think back to my first days in seminary, in the Scots College in Rome some 14 years ago, in many ways, life seemed very uncomplicated. I left high school and immediately entered the seminary, an experience which was marked by friendship, camaraderie and the routine of study and prayer. Back then, priesthood still seemed a million miles away; it was a goal very faint in the distance.

When I think back to those happy days, I was bursting with theoretical and untested ideals. Life in seminary was filled with endless conversations in the common room about made-to-measure solutions to every problem under the sun. Our idealism carried an air of certainty in all things and painted a rather binary, black and white canvas of the world.

These ideals we naturally bring with us in the transition from seminary to parish life. After ordination, I unpacked these together with my material possessions when I arrived at my first parish appointment as a curate.

In my case that meant a brief appointment to Our Lady of Lourdes parish in East Kilbride in 2011 before moving to St Augustine’s, Coatbridge where I have remained ever since, first as the assistant priest, then administrator, and now as parish priest.

Over these past seven years I have made more than a few mistakes and, importantly, adjusted more than a few ideals. Regrettably, I have also upset people, offended others and dealt with some situations insensitively, albeit unintentionally. Given the opportunity again I would have done some things very differently.

In some pastoral initiatives I have seen successes, in others I have failed completely. When I look back at these seven years my imperfections are not hard to find! It has been a steep learning curve, no doubt with many more twists and turns up ahead.

Over these years, many people have asked me how priests cope with the lack of intimacy in our lives. Of course, there is an intimacy which is absent as a result of our promise of celibacy. Nonetheless, in other ways the priestly life is intensely intimate.

Strangers afford us an invitation into the core of their lives: their problems, their families and relationships, their brokenness, their vulnerability and their innermost selves. The priest stands in the extremities of people’s lives. He’s a listening ear to the hidden self of so many people.

Perhaps more than most, priests see the fragility of human life, and we are changed by it. It is an experience of encounter which is truly a moment of grace.

In this encounter with others, ideals soften, mercy increases and, I would like to think, we begin to find a more Christ-like version of ourselves. Through these experiences, more and more, the gentle, loving Good Shepherd finds a home in us. A meeting with brokenness stirs an intense desire to heal gently.

I’m glad to say that the first years of my priestly ministry have been full of happiness, joy and contentment. From the moment of my ordination, I always knew I would be happy as a priest, but never did I imagine that this adventure would be so joyful and rewarding.

I can honestly say I have never once regretted my decision to respond to the Lord’s call to priesthood. I have a strong sense of His guiding hand in my life, and His generosity in sustaining me in His grace.

Of course, that’s not to say that there are no difficult days. There are real challenges in the priesthood, as in other vocations. Nonetheless, it’s a privilege to be called by God to be His priest, and to give my life in the service of others.

This has been my experience living in the midst of the people of Coatbridge these past seven years. I am not the same priest now as I was when the oil of chrism was rubbed into my hands on my ordination day.

My faithfulness to the teachings of our ancient Faith remains undiminished. I believe and profess the standards of the Gospel in an unshakable way. These ideals stand intact, and my desire to preach Christ’s commands is unchanged. This comes from my conviction in the authority of Jesus.

What has changed immensely, however, is my response to human fragility and weakness. I have recalibrated expectations in light of the complexities of life than I have seen with my own eyes. I no longer see the world as black and white. I hope I understand more fully the sincerity of people’s struggle to accept and live by the standards of the Gospel in the midst of complex, concrete situations. I hope I have the patience now to walk with people, however slowly, in the direction of Jesus.

My hope is that it’s a change that will make me a better priest during these, the best days of my life!

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