Fifty years ago, on an overcast, cold, fall day in the gymnasium of the local public high school, I was ordained to the priesthood. Beyond the grey sky, another thing marked the event. This was a tender season for my family and me. Both our parents had died (and died young) within a year and a half just prior to this and we were still somewhat fragile of heart. In that setting, I was ordained a priest.
Within the few words allowed in a short column, what do I most want to say as I mark the fiftieth anniversary of that day? I will borrow from the novelist Morris West, who begins his autobiography this way: When you reach the age of seventy-five, there should only be three phrases left in your vocabulary, thank you, thank you, and thank you! I just turned 75 and reflecting on 50 years of priesthood, many thoughts and feelings come to mind; life after all has its seasons. However, the feeling that overrides all others is that of gratitude, thank you, thank you, and thank you! Thank you to God, to grace, to the church, to my family, to the Oblates, to the many friends who have loved and supported me, to the wonderful schools I have taught in, and to the thousands of people I have encountered in those 50 years of ministry.
My initial call to the priesthood and the Oblate congregation was not the stuff of romance. I didn’t enter religious life and the seminary because I was attracted to it. The opposite. This was not what I wanted. But, I felt called, strongly and clearly, and at the tender age of 17 made the decision to enter religious life. Today, people may well raise questions about the wisdom and freedom of such a decision at age 17, but looking back all these years later, I can honestly say that this is the clearest, purest, and most unselfish decision that I have yet made in my life. I have no regrets. I wouldn’t have chosen this life except for a strong call that I initially tried to resist; and, knowing myself as I do, it is by far the most life-giving choice that I possibly could have made. I say this because, knowing myself and knowing my wounds, I know too that I would not have been nearly as generative (nor as happy) in any other state in life. I nurse some deep wounds, not moral ones, but wounds of the heart, and those very wounds have been, thanks to the grace of God, a source of fruitfulness in my ministry.
Moreover, I have been blessed in the ministries that have been assigned to me. As a seminarian, I dreamed of being a parish priest, but that was never to be. Immediately after ordination, I was sent to do graduate studies in theology and then taught theology at various seminaries and theology schools for most of these 50 years, save for 12 years that I served as a provincial superior of my local Oblate community and on the Oblate General Council in Rome. I loved teaching! I was meant to be a religious teacher and religious writer and so my ministry, all of it, has been very satisfying. My hope is that it has been generative for others.
In addition, I have been blessed by the Oblate communities within which I lived. My ministry usually had me living in larger Oblate communities and through these 50 years, I estimate that I have lived in community with well over 300 different men. That’s a rich experience. Moreover, I have always lived in healthy, robust, caring, supportive, and intellectually challenging communities that gave me the spiritual and human family I needed. There were tensions at times, but those tensions were never not life giving. Religious community is unique, sui generis. It isn’t family in the emotional or psychosexual sense, but family that is rooted in something deeper than biology and attraction – faith.
There have been struggles of course, not least with the emotional issues around celibacy and living inside a loneliness which (as Merton once said) God, himself, condemned. It is not good for someone to be alone! It is here too where my Oblate religious community has been an anchor. Vowed celibacy can be lived and can be fruitful, though not without community support.
Let me end with a comment that I once heard from a priest who was celebrating his 85th birthday and his 60th anniversary of ordination. Asked how he felt about it all, he said, “It wasn’t always easy! There were some bitter, lonely times. Everyone in my ordination class left the priesthood, every one of them, and I was tempted too. But I stayed and, now, looking back after 60 years, I’m pretty happy with the way my life turned out!”
That sums up my feelings too after 50 years – I’m pretty happy with the way it has turned out – and deeply, deeply grateful.
-Rev. Ron Rolheiser, O.M.I. is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. Before taking his current position he taught for many years at Newman Theological College.