My pastor is one of those priests who seems to be everywhere and to know everyone, and it probably appears to those outside that he holds our parish together by sheer force of personality. He has a cadre of parishioners who seem worryingly close to equating their faith with his impact on it - the "Fr. B club" maintains an email chain to inform its members which Mass he'll be saying on a given Sunday and tracks his media appearances. I have to admit this has gotten on my nerves at times.
This past Saturday I went to one of the parish churches to go to Confession, which is usually held at 4 pm. There were a few other people gathered, kneeling in the back of church near the confessional, but no priest. We all waited for a while, and there was some less-than-Lenten muttering and watch-checking.
At about 4:30 Fr. B walked into the church and disappeared into the sacristy. A few minutes later he re-appeared and sat down near the front of the church with his breviary, seemingly oblivious to those gathered in the back. Since Mass was scheduled to start at 5, I figured out that he must just assume we were early for Mass and not know we were waiting for Confession. Eventually, feeling intrusive and embarrassed, I snuck up beside him and got his attention.
"Fr. B...I'm sorry to bother you...is there Confession today?"
He looked up at me, his breviary gently cradled in his hands, and for the first time ever I saw him without his larger-than-life, Cure d'Ars-cum-Oprah Winfrey public persona. The quiet depth of exhaustion around his eyes was striking.
I thought about the things that might have filled his day so far. I thought about how the Archbishop who ordained him retired in a miasma of scandal, and about how one of his associate pastors just left to enter a rehab program for alcoholism. I thought about how none of his time is ever his own, and how this was probably his one moment alone all day.
"Oh, I think they had confessions early today because of Palm Sunday. Are there people who want to go?"
He walked with me back to the confessional, and sat and listened and cried with me, as though there was no one else in the entire world. He gave me absolution. When I left the confessional, there was a small line forming even as the sacristans scurried around in the sanctuary making final preparations for Palm Sunday. It was clear Fr. B would not be getting back to his breviary before Mass.
I left the church feeling like I had gotten a tiny glimpse under the hood of the priesthood - what it really entails to be running on divine fumes, to have utterly exhausted your own resources, to be completely emptied of self so you can be filled with the person of Christ. I'm hoping that glimpse stays with me next time I feel like waxing critical about a priest's pastoral style or questioning the motives behind his popularity, and that I remember to just thank God for the men he has chosen to be his merciful Heart in the world.