As I reflect on my vocation as a Vincentian priest, a prescient passage from the ordination rite comes to mind: “Receive the book of the Gospel whose herald you have become. Believe what you read. Teach what you believe. Practice what you teach.” This instruction has stirred me to service, challenged me to greater depth in my prayer life, and pushed me to practice these principles in daily life. Taken together, they anchor my spiritual and ministerial life.
At anniversary time, it is tempting to portray priesthood as a succession of assignments, anecdotes, and accomplishments. And I am not immune from that way of thinking. In forty years, I have had the good fortune to serve as a high school teacher, hospital chaplain, college administrator, social worker, journal editor, vocation director, campus minister, and now, a religious superior. My life, while trying at times, has been a rich, rewarding one.
But to capture the true meaning of this anniversary, I recall a Scripture passage given me to reflect on as I entered the Vincentian novitiate in summer 1976. Our retreat director urged the ten of us to focus on these words of John the Baptist, as he prepared the way for the Messiah and came face to face with Jesus. John said: “He must increase and I must decrease.” (Jn.3:30) When he met the Lord in person, John did not seek special status or privileges for himself. His life’s work was to proclaim Christ’s coming. He did so with faith and humility, offering us a sterling lesson: For true discipleship, Jesus comes first in one’s life.
This is a hard-learned lesson, but thankfully, the Lord is more patient with me than I am with myself. It helps to realize our founder St. Vincent de Paul also had to learn to allow Jesus to increase in his life and decrease his own needs and wants. In his writings I saw it wasn’t easy for Vincent. Nor is it a straight path forward for me.
But over the years, I found many lived examples of how to increase in Christ and decrease in one’s wants and needs. It began with my parents, Mary and John Maher. Their quiet, firm faith first showed me the way of Christ. It continues in my Vincentian brothers. They inspire me by their grace and goodness, and zeal to serve. Their lives provide a master class in living those three key words of the ordination rite: Believe. Teach. Practice.
Life changes; ministries evolve and dissolve; community life has its ups and downs. Yet, in the midst of it is the Lord Jesus, who bids me to increase my love and trust in Him so my worries and fears may decrease. In closing, I offer a prayer from my ordination card, words of Pope John XXIII. It expresses how I try to live the life God called me to: “Lord, let my life be such that all will say, ‘If this be God’s servant, how good must the Master be!’”
Fr. John T. Maher, CM, is a priest in the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians) of the Eastern Province, who currently serves in Philadelphia, PA. For more information on the Eastern Province Vincentians, visits www.VincentiansUSA.org.