As the Year for Priests ends today, on this feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I think the best thing we can do is to tell one another a good priest story. Surely, in these past months enough bad priest stories have been told, and our beloved Pope Benedict XVI has once again publicly apologized on behalf of the Church and vowed vigilance in the cases of priests who have abused young people.
But now is the time for good priest stories, and here is the one I like best:
Father Bill Shelley was an assistant priest at St. Agnes Church in midtown Manhattan, one of the most-visited churches in the city, a block from Grand Central Terminal. About 15 years ago, I was helping him conduct inquirer classes, bringing business people from the area into the Catholic Church or back to the Church. He called me at work one afternoon to tell me that he might not be at the class that evening because was due to have a growth removed from his chest, and the doctor wanted to check if it was cancerous or benign. I told him he should rest, and that I would handle the class myself in his absence.
Well, when I got to the church hall after work, there was Father Shelley arranging the chairs for the class, as though nothing had happened. A large white bandage protruded from an open button of his cassock. Anxiously, I asked, "Well, what did the doctor say? Is it cancer?"
"Um," he had to think. "He said it was negative. So that’s bad. But he didn’t mention anything about a treatment, so I’ll just keep going."
"Negative," I pressed. "What was negative?"
"Oh, yes," he stood up straight as though a light bulb had gone on. "It was negative, which means it’s not cancerous. That’s probably what he meant. Well, that’s good news." He went back to arranging chairs.
I shook my head at the level of detachment Father Shelley showed that day. Cancer or no cancer. Sickness or health. It was all in God’s hands. His job was to build up the kingdom until God called him from this world.
Let us thank God for Father Shelley, and the countless priests who are like him, more concerned about the salvation of souls than for their own physical condition.