God needs us to be hopeful disciples of Jesus

Father Bob Brownell, a retired priest of the Diocese of Richmond, vests Father John Baab during the Mass at which the latter was ordained a priest, Saturday, June 2, 2018, at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Richmond. (Photo/Billy Nguyen)

I’ve backpacked across Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Truly, I love adventures of all kinds. Maybe this is why I imagined priesthood as one great adventure. And it is — though not as I expected. This adventure with Jesus is even more hopeful.

On Saturday, June 2, 2018, I arrived early in the morning at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. I wanted to walk around my hometown. Richmond’s streets had always cleared my mind.

I strolled around the Fan for an hour and made my way back to the bishop’s residence in peace. The excitement was thick in the air, and the smiles were childlike on the faces of James O’Reilly, Nick Redmond and me as we vested for our priestly ordination. But something was awaiting that none of us expected.

Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo once said that priests today are like men running into a burning building. It’s a good, prophetic metaphor, but as prophecy goes sometimes, it became literally true as well. The three of us entered the cathedral to find standing- room only and the air-conditioner on the fritz.

Sweat beaded down under my vestments for two and a half hours. An omen perhaps? I don’t know, but an unforeseen adventure had begun — one with darkness and yet overflowing with light.

The shadows came first. A dear friend of mine left the priesthood a month later. Since then, probably a dozen priests I know have left or been dismissed. Many are friends. There were also the “reports” — Pennsylvania, Mc- Carrick, Virginia and many more. The first year of priesthood was lonely, too. In Virginia Beach, my nearest friend was 45 minutes away. I made good friends eventually but only with effort.

But there was light.

Despite the struggles of my first year, there was tremendous grace: Accompanying a family after the tragic loss of their teenage daughter. Being surrounded by boisterous, smiling kids after Easter Mass, and then having one mom hand me an infant for the picture. Learning to golf with patient parishioners.

God placed many in my path to reach for him. Then after only a year, I transferred to one of the largest, busiest and most delightful parishes, St. Bede in Williamsburg.

Then came 2020.

Amid the pandemic, Jesus surprised me with what I always wanted as a priest. My “pod family” isn’t bothered by my “make it up as I go” style. Unannounced visits are welcome. Their three beautiful children ask incessantly, “Is Father John coming over?”

I’ve also seen light shining brightly in many rediscovering their faith: Notes detailing how a family learned to pray together during the pandemic. Catholic school students smiling because they’re in their desks. One non-religious student told me I reached her with my homily. Dozens of cards and emails about lives changing are encouraging. So, too, are parishes entering the digital age.

My young priest counterpart, Father Cassidy Stinson, fashioned a professional grade livestream system from scratch for our parish. From across the globe, people have watched our English and Spanish Masses and become adopted parishioners.

I’ve witnessed many people returning to the Eucharist after long years away, even if with having to wear a mask or only worshiping online. Parishioners reaching out to estranged friends and relatives; a young woman giving up TikTok and starting to pray; the Williamsburg House of Mercy overflowing with donations of food, dollars and eager volunteers; and once dust-covered Bibles have become worn.

All of these experiences have been grace.

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul wrote that Abraham “hoped against hope” (4:18) in believing God would keep his promise. I hope to have such hope. I don’t mean to suggest naive optimism, but authentic Christian hope.

We don’t need more “prophets of doom,” to use St. John XXIII’s term. God needs us to be hopeful disciples of Jesus and emboldened, spirited missionaries for his vineyard.

I’ve had the grace of delivering the Gospel to many hungry for Good News — in the parish, at the DMV, in trailer parks and in gated communities. God couldn’t have given us a better time for harvest.

God will keep his promises. I believe that. There is no shortage of lonely, forgotten and maligned souls in our world. If we allow the Lord to fill us with the Spirit, we will have the hope and courage to speak, and many will respond. The adventure of yours and mine will then continue in the Kingdom.

Father Baab is a parochial vicar of St. Bede Parish, Williamsburg, and chaplain to Walsingham Academy Upper School.

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