Matt C. Abbott
July 3, 2009
A priest reflects on his anniversary of ordination
By Matt C. Abbott

Thanks to Father J. Patrick Serna and John Moorehouse, editor of Catholic Men's Quarterly, for allowing me to reprint the following article from the spring 2009 issue of CMQ. In this "Year for Priests," let us pray for all the clergy.


'Reflections by a parish priest on his eighth anniversary of ordination'

by Father J. Patrick Serna

This month of June will mark my eighth anniversary of ordination to the priesthood. What you are about to read is a simple, yet sincere, reflection of some privileged moments which God has blessed me with. There are other beautiful events which I would like to share, but the confines of this paper prevent me. Let me go back to June 2001, right before my ordination to the priesthood.

About a week before presbyteral ordination, I received an emergency phone call from my Dad: "Son, you need to hurry up and get home. Your little sister has some rare kind of cancer. She might die in a few days; no one knows what is going on!" The last time I received a phone call like this, it was also from my Dad, telling me about the death of my only brother, David, who had just been given a fatal dose of the wrong anesthesia by an incompetent doctor. That was back in 1992, three months after I entered the seminary. The flashbacks were terrible, the feeling in my gut was disgusting, and my heart felt like someone was putting it through a grinder, again. Normally, a fourth year transitional deacon at the Pontifical North American College in Rome takes about five days of packing things into boxes before flying back home to the U.S. of A. for ordination. After this phone call, I now had eight hours to pack everything in order to make my flight home the following afternoon.

A week after returning home and some visits to M.D. Anderson, my 22-year-old sister Erika was able to get around somewhat slowly. She had cancer in various places in her body, and this aggressive kind of ovarian cancer was almost unheard of for a young lady. The doctors were baffled at the various cancer manifestations, and they were unable to give a good diagnosis, much less prognosis. Despite all this, Erika was able to be one of the readers at the ordination Mass on June 23. As I looked upon my little sister as she read from the prophet Jeremiah, all I could feel was deep fear and grief, believing that hers would be the first funeral I would have to do as a priest.

A few days after the ordination, I went with my parents and Erika to M.D. Anderson for one of her many surgeries. Since I was a priest, the doctors let me go into the pre-op room with my little sister, where other patients were also in waiting for surgeries about to take place. My first time to use Oleum Infirmorum was when I administered the sacrament of the sick to Erika, just before her surgery. Immediately after giving her the sacrament, I heard a desperate yet feeble voice calling for me: "Father! Father! Father! Father! Will you please come hear my confession?! I am a Catholic nun and I want to go to Confession!"

It was then that I felt the profound reality of the gift God had given me, that is, the Gift of ordained priesthood. I realized, then, that my primary family was no longer limited to my parents and sister. What I had learned in my intellect was now a deeply real and essential part of my heart. I realized in that moment that I was now a very real and intimate part of a larger spiritual family. My bride, now, was the Bride of Christ; the Bride of Christ is the Church. Although I wished to stay with Erika, the girl I warmed baby bottles for when she was in diapers, my bride was now calling me in the form of an elderly Catholic nun who was about to go into a potentially fatal surgery. During the few minutes of sacramental time with the beautiful nun, I heard other voices from other people in the background: "Father! Father! Father!" I was hopping from here to there, and I was sad that there are not more priests. And so began my life as an ordained priest of God.

My favorite vehicle is the first vehicle I ever purchased; it was a 1991 Ford F-150 shortbed with big tires and two gas tanks. I went to the four corners and back in that nasty thing, and I still miss her! She lasted me from 1991 till 2002, when it was necessary for me to purchase a pickup truck with an extended cab. That red F-150, which has played an integral part in most of my craziest stories, had two 15 gallon gas tanks, and if one tank began to putter out, it was a cinch to flip over to the other one. It was almost impossible to run out of gas in that pickup on account of the two tanks, and for eleven years of service, she never left me stranded on account of an empty tank. Well, in February of 2002 I was driving from Agua Dulce to Corpus Christi around dusk, but now I was driving a new pickup which was only a month old. The bishop had appointed me as one of the chaplains to the Cursillo group, and on this particular night I was scheduled to give an important talk.

As I was driving down the highway to my destination in Corpus Christi, my truck began to sputter. The needle was deep in the red, past empty, so I started flipping for the switch. Wait... there was no switch! For eleven years I was habituated with flipping the switch to the front gas tank once the back gas tank went empty, but this new pickup was a one, not two, gas tank vehicle! So there I was, pulling over and stalled out on account of an empty gas tank on Highway 44. This was my first (and only) time to have ever run out of gas. By the time I started walking for the next town, which was six miles away, I realized that I would miss the Cursillo meeting. I also realized that I'd be in trouble with several lay people, not to mention the bishop. After taking about five or six steps from my truck towards the next town, I could hear the approach of a car. Not wanting to be hit accidentally by the car, I turned on my flashlight and made signals, making my location known. Well, I was about to get a big dose of some Divine Providence in those next fifteen minutes.

Rather than continue past me, the car pulled over. I approached the window so as to show the driver that I was not a threat, but the young lady in her twenties (What? A girl in her twenties pulling over in the dark to give a guy a ride??) simply told me to get in and not worry about explanations. As she drove, I talked. I thought she would be worried about some strange guy next to her, who might be a danger or threat, so I spoke about things of God and the Church. After three minutes of talk from me and silence from her, she finally spoke: "Have you ever saved somebody's life?" I was simply happy that she was taking me to the nearest gas station, so the awkwardness of the question did not strike me as weird. I answered: "Sure, all the time! God always uses priests to baptize and hear Confessions. These beautiful sacraments take away sin, which is deadly."

The young girl responded: "No, I mean, have you ever saved somebody from committing suicide?" I answered: "I've only been a priest for a few months, I'm not sure if my advice has saved anyone from suicide. I don't really know." To that, the young lady responded: "Before I picked you up, I was about ten minutes away from taking my life. As a matter of fact, I was on my way to the place where I was going to commit suicide, and then I said my first prayer in several years to God. I told God: 'If there is a God, then please forgive me for what I am about to do. Or, let me see an angel or a man of God.' And about three seconds later, I saw the waving of your flashlight on the side of the road, and I picked you up. God used you to save my life." I later explained to her that it was not good to put God to the test like that. We spoke for quite a while about God, and her life took a turn for the better after that day. I've never seen her again, but I know that she is okay now.

About two summers ago I received a phone call from one of the gun store owners in Corpus Christi. The owner of the store is one of my pals, and he asked me to go to the home of a hunter gentleman who was about to die from cancer. I made the drive from the western side of our diocese to the eastern side of our diocese, and I pulled up to the home of the man who was in his final moments. As it turned out, he was not in his final moments yet. I knocked on the door and a pretty lady with a German accent opened the house to me, making sure to let me know that "Although we are Lutherans, we don't hate Catholics." She was very polite, and after breaking the ice I went to the deathbed of her husband. He was a fifty-something-year-old and a well-known hunter of African animals; his six-foot-seven frame seemed to be a contradiction on that deathbed. His deathbed was flush against a window to the back yard.

I told the nice lady a story about a nice individual called "Mister Worm." I told her that Mister Worm lived in the village of worms, and everyone in that village was a worm. One day Mister Worm went on a vacation without telling people about it. He went up a tree and later made a cocoon on one of the branches. The rest is history... several weeks later, the ugly little "worm" became a beautiful monarch butterfly, with beautiful wings! The transformation was such a beautiful miracle! Mister Worm, now a beautiful butterfly, flew over the village of worms to show off his wings, but he noticed that all the little worms were looking down at the ground, crying away in sorrow about the "death" of Mister Worm who went away, never to come back. Mister Worm was flying directly above them, yelling and telling them to look up, but they could not hear him, and they remained in their sadness and depression. I told the nice lady that this is how the Resurrection would be.

Well, my story went over like a lead balloon, and I was escorted out of the house on account of my lack of "tact" and "pastoral sensitivity." My long drive back to the Church was a sad one. The next day I received a phone call at about noon, and my buddy who owns the gun store asked me to go back to the house of the dying man. I told him, "No way!" Well... God knows what He does.

I was persuaded and convinced to go back to the home of the lady who hated my story, and it was a long drive to her house. I was assured that this time, our hunter friend was either passing away or maybe already deceased. I knocked, and the intimidating lady of four feet eleven inches opened the door. I was shocked at her huge smile and beaming eyes! She looked like she was happy to see me! She looked at me as if I was her long lost son! I was bewildered. The lady whose husband had passed away twenty minutes earlier wanted to tell me an interesting, but true, story. She took me to the empty deathbed, and the story began.

She told me that an hour and a half earlier, the vital signs of her husband were going way down. At that point, the wife knelt at the bedside with hands on her husband's body, weeping and crying with an inability to accept what was happening. Just then, a butterfly sat on the ledge of the window and stayed there for a few minutes, showing off its wings in slow motion. This episode of the butterfly calmed her down, and then the butterfly flew away. Twenty minutes later, her husband passed away, and in her fit of sadness and crying, she was again silenced and soothed by the return of the butterfly, which did the same thing all over again. For the second time, she was consoled and calmed; then the butterfly flew away.

Another twenty or so minutes went by, and this time it was the people who would transport his body from the deathbed to the funeral home. The dear wife, again, went into a great frenzy of sorrow, protesting and begging that they leave the body a bit longer. And then, the butterfly came a third time. Little Mister Butterfly did the same thing, a third time, and again, she was at peace. She asked the people to take the body, and she had a smile on her face. "Father, the first time could have been a coincidence, but probably not the second, and surely not the third. After all, the butterfly was strangely decorated and it could not have been a coincidence. I know that 'three' represents the Blessed Trinity, and I know that 'three' represents the day our Lord Jesus resurrected from the dead on Easter Sunday. But Father, why was the butterfly so ugly?"

I responded with apprehension, afraid that I might be unable to explain: "Well, please describe it to me." She then told me that the butterfly was colored with a very bright white, contrasted with a dark and somber black, nothing else. I agreed that, while not a student of butterflies, I had never heard of a black and white butterfly. Then I continued: "I think that God was trying to tell you through the black, that, on one level this is indeed a time of sadness and sorrow. At the funeral in a few days you will see many people dressed in black. On another level, white represents the Resurrection, and it is the color which priests wear at Easter time, the time of the Resurrection. You will also see lots of white at the funeral service." I think the sweet lady with the German accent decided I wasn't such a bad messenger after all. God knows what He does.

There are dozens upon dozens of more anecdotes and reflections which I would like to share with you, but these will do for now. I can only say: "Thank you Dear Jesus for inviting and calling me to be one of your unworthy priests. This is a beautiful and action-packed life which is infinitely more exciting and wonderful than I could have ever expected. Thank you. You used mud as the vehicle by which to do your miracle and cure the blind man, you use your priests as vehicles by which the miraculous and life-giving sacraments are administered. Thank you, Jesus, for letting me be your mud, and have mercy on me, your unworthy servant. Amen."

Father J. Patrick Serna is pastor of Saint Michael the Archangel Parish in the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas. When not celebrating the sacraments or carrying out priestly duties, he may be found hunting tasty creatures with personally hand-loaded bullets, or he might be found chopping huisache trees at his Dad's ranch with a STIHL chainsaw. Please pray for priests and priestly vocations. "A voice said to him: 'Get up Peter! Kill, then eat.'" Acts 10:13



A traditional Catholic friend of mine, Susan E. Gorski who is, in many respects, wiser than yours truly often shares her thoughts through her e-mail list. This one is particularly good:

    'We all have dreams, do we act on them? Sometimes they pass us by, and sometimes, reality sinks in and we know we won't win the lotto. I love being successful at something when I am, that is (who doesn't?). I love being a girl. I love life. I love romantic stories. I love animals, but not more than people (born and pre-born) and I love being an American. I love tending my garden, building libraries, helping others and teaching. I love common sense. I love my family and my friends, even those I haven't met yet. There are many things I love, but none more than truth.

    'Truth:

    'Jesus Christ is my Lord and my God. I will have no other God.

    'Holy Scripture is His Word.

    'My Church is His Home on earth, as is my heart.

    'There is no grey area between right and wrong if it was wrong before, it's still wrong, even if everyone else is doing it now.

    'Worldly success in life does not equate to success in the afterlife.

    'Helping the needy is not a one time thing; people aren't hungry or homeless just one day a year.

    'St. Paul was right: Faith without works is dead.

    'Is your opinion of me more important to me than God's? If so, I have a big problem.

    'No matter how much money I make, I will never need it as much as I truly need God's mercy.

    'When God gives us gifts, He expects us to use them for His purposes, not our own.

    'Many things we think of as curses turn out to be blessings in disguise.

    'No matter what happens to us here on earth, if we do our best to live God's way, we will have less to be ashamed of when we stand before Him.

    'Stand up for what you believe and no one can take it from you. They can take your life, but not your beliefs.

    'Sir Edmund Burke was right: All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing so do something.

    'The greatest and best of dreams is the one where our Lord is smiling at me when I come to the gates. God willing, no matter what anyone else thinks, I will live my life well enough to see Him smile at me someday.

    'God loves you!'

© Matt C. Abbott

 

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He's been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.


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