Panoply of Priests

Ordination, Nicolas Poussin

I’m not sure if it got started in the late 1960s, but that’s when I remember family-friends and relatives beginning to express the opinion that it was better to roam from parish to parish in order to find a priest who satisfied one’s personal taste, than to stay in the parish assigned to you by your diocese. So some of my relatives started frequenting the parish where the priests were also professional theologians. Ordinary sermons didn’t satisfy their erudite tastes. Some friends only wanted to hear from the priest who passed out a paper bag at every Mass, in order to take up a special collection for the homeless men and women living on the Philadelphia streets. Gospel teaching without direct action wouldn’t do for them. Whenever and however this kind of picking and choosing got started, I recollect distinctly that my parents felt it to be an insidious development.

I didn’t really understand the strength of their feelings on this. My mother would try to explain: “these are holy men of God,” she would remind me. God has done the choosing, and these men have bravely and sacrificially done the responding. Besides, she would say, it’s just not charitable to assume the general posture that our job as parishioners is to take and to criticize. A better posture would be to thank God for what the priests do and bring to us.

True to my parents’ words, they invited a string of very diverse priests into our house and our life. There were the exceedingly pastoral priests, whose kindness and gentleness my parents just couldn’t bid goodbye after they had moved on to another parish. There was the priest who had stuck by my parents and one of my siblings after the latter had gone through some tough times in high school. There was our former pastor who we used to visit in the retirement home for priests long after he could no longer make it over for dinner. At some point during our visit, he would start glancing around his room, determined to find gifts he could present to me and to my sister – out of the few possessions he owned – so that we never went home empty-handed. There were also the priests who elicited respect, if not the warm fuzzies. They came to dinner too. There was the pastor whom I feared to meet in confession when I was a little girl, and the priest-essayist whose opinions on defense spending did not mesh with my father’s at all, but who was welcome to dinner at our house anyway, not only for the childhood memories he shared with my parents, but also due to my parents’ steady respect for his holiness, his erudition, and the courage of his convictions. No matter the variety of priests I met, the “takeaway” message I got over time was that we were privileged as a family to have the friendship and the instruction they never failed to give. They were kindness and intelligence wrapped up into a very nice package.

What a perfect preparation this proved to be for my work as an adult! When I attended graduate school in Theology, there were four women and about twenty seminarians and priests in my class. Together, we crammed for our comprehensive exams, celebrated our passage, ate many meals, and attended Mass. When I traveled the United States on behalf of the American Catholic bishops for more than ten years, I met an endless variety of holy, ordained men. I met priests who had emerged from families where there had been divorce, or disabilities – and who had become uniquely gifted bearers of Christ’s message of healing and bearing with suffering. I met quiet contemplatives, loquacious professors, and monks who operated tractors and movie cameras…all in the same day. I met priests who had prayed outside abortion clinics until the personnel inside quit because the Spirit had changed them, and priests living side by side with the homeless. I met priests whose prayer lives were so rich that they could see lucidly, what I was doing and what I ought to be doing, better than I could see while on the treadmill that was my life. The more time I spent with them (and the older I got), I could actually see how their particular gifts served the particular needs surrounding them.

In short, I came to see – and won’t my parents be happy when I tell them – that my parents’ instincts were right on. God has called a great variety of men to live, work, and speak to this infinitely variable world.

Helen Alvaré is the mother of three children and resides with her husband in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. She is presently a professor of family law and law and religion at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, and previously worked in the pro-life office of the USCCB for ten years. Professor Alvaré is also a consultor for the Pontifical Council for the Laity.


In Persona Christi

In persona Christi is a term frequently used to describe a priest. The universal patron of priests, St. John Vianney once said, “The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus.”

Throughout my life, God has sent an abundance of faithful priests to guide me in unexpected ways. Each played a distinct role in my spiritual growth. Just like me, each possessed unique gifts and struggled with daily challenges and human failings. Yet these men worked together seamlessly for the betterment of my soul. In most cases they were unaware of guidance others had given. Yet, they were remarkably consistent in their teaching. How can this be?

I believe the Holy Spirit inspires God’s faithful priests through prayer. If a priest is to transform lives through his example of holiness and celebrate Mass worthily, he must regularly place himself in God’s presence for spiritual nourishment. In order to touch people’s souls in the Sacrament of Confession, he must have one ear open to the penitent, and one to the Holy Spirit.

I am a physician who returned to the faith 13 years ago and later joined the Tepeyac Family Center, a completely pro-life obstetrics and gynecology practice in Fairfax, Virginia. I have come to consider working in this holy place as my vocation, and I have learned much about how to practice there…from priests.

It amazes me to see the similarities between faithful doctors and priests. We both care for the whole person, but the emphasis varies. I often refer patients to priests. One particular priest sends patients to me when their spiritual difficulties seem to stem from medical illness; he had studied pre-med before he entered the seminary. That is continuity of care at its best!

On a personal level, priests were present at my baptism and throughout my life. They helped me as I grew in my faith and later when I questioned it. When I stepped away from the Church for a while, they continued to treat me with the love and compassion Christ has for his children. When I was ready to return, a priest was there to lead me back home.

At the time, I was practicing medicine in a way which was not in keeping with Church teaching. A faithful priest guided me through the difficult period of spiritual growth which followed. With each passing day, I felt God stretching my heart to fill it with grace. It was painful, but it was a good pain. I hungered to receive the sacraments, but I couldn’t until I eliminated my objectionable practices. The priest and many other people prayed for me in earnest. What a blessing it was to experience the relief of having the burden of sin lifted from my shoulders in the confessional where Christ was waiting for me, veiled as the priest. All I had to do was come to him in humility.
After joining the Tepeyac Family Center, I learned that obstetrics is one of God’s best classrooms. We cannot control the challenges of pregnancy, labor, and delivery, but priests can help us respond to these challenges in persona Christi.

In 2004, our 25 year old daughter died suddenly in a motor vehicle accident. Needless to say, I was devastated. Numerous priests came forward to help me. Eight of them literally dropped everything to concelebrate her funeral Mass. Together, they transformed my crushing pain and suffering into an incredible opportunity for holiness. Throughout my life, and particularly on this occasion, I have truly experienced the “love of the Heart of Jesus” through God’s faithful priests.

Marie Anderson, M.D., F.A.C.O.G. is Medical Director of the Tepeyac Family Center in Fairfax, Virginia. Marie and her husband Dave have three children.


Who is a Priest?

A priest is a man, clothed in tenderness, who speaks of God’s mercy, who prophetically pronounces the truth, unpleasant though it might be and who reflects God’s love to a hurting world. Sometimes he is shoring up souls and sometimes he is breaking up concrete. He’s comforting the grieving and challenging the young. He’s soothing the dying and blessing the newborn.

In the 25 years since I founded Project Rachel, the post-abortion healing ministry of the Church, I have witnessed firsthand the gift that priests are to the world. I have seen the heart of the priest repeatedly. It is generous, compassionate, willing to sacrifice for others.

At the inception of Project Rachel, when some thought post-abortion ministry was a hare-brained idea, the priests here in Milwaukee supported it as did my bishop. As I was planning the training, one priest told me not to be disappointed because he didn’t think any priests were going to come, but 60 priests came and generously embraced this new ministry of mercy. And 25 years later, those priests are still involved in the work. If there is anything I need, they are immediately willing to help.

Across the country many priests actively keep me and the ministry in prayer, recognizing that prayer is powerful and protective.

Several times I have received calls on our referral line from elderly women somewhere in the U.S. looking to reconcile an abortion loss from 40 or 50 years ago. They have said to me “I can’t ask my children to take me to confession because they will say “Ma, you are old. What could you possibly need to confess?” And in every case, I was able to find a priest who would make a house call to ease the fears of an old woman preparing to die.

A priest who was preparing to leave the priesthood received a Project Rachel call the night before submitting his resignation to the bishop. But as he spoke with the woman, he knew he couldn’t leave the priesthood until he had seen this process through with her. When he finished it, he tore up the letter because, he said, he had rediscovered the meaning of his priesthood in this sacramental encounter that set the woman free.

A delayed vocation seminarian I met through a God appointment asked me what the most difficult part of my ministry was and I responded “raising money.” This former businessman supported my ministry for several years while divesting himself of his earthly riches before ordination. How many lives were touched because of his incredible generosity?

It was the pastoral awareness of the bishops of this country, who, as confessors, recognized the pain of women who had had abortions, and called for a ministry of post-abortion healing in the first Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, issued shortly after abortion became the law of the land. And it is this pastoral heart that motivated bishops to personally call me after the founding of the ministry to ask how they could make it happen in their diocese.

A woman who had been convinced by her doctor to abort a child with severe anomalies called me after the hospital had released her dead baby to her, as she and her husband were grieving profoundly over this loss. The hospital had referred her to a chaplain, but he had been of little use, refusing to help them bury their child. I called an experienced Project Rachel priest and explained the circumstances to him. He was a canon lawyer with years of post-abortion experience. He went to the family, held them as they wept, gave their child a proper burial and soothed the wounds left by the insensitive chaplain, keeping them in the Church. She called to tell me what a gift he had been to them as he came into my office to thank me for the opportunity to minister to them.

A woman will often call after speaking to a priest she has been referred to, to tell me of her profound experience of God’s love and mercy brought to her through the priest. She will say “Please tell the priests how grateful we are to them for what they have said and been … the mercy and love of God made manifest, the wisdom of the Spirit speaking to our souls, indeed Father was Jesus with skin for me! Alter Christus made manifest!”

To the many Project Rachel priests in the this country and to the multitudes of confessors who soothe a woman’s terror, confront her despair, set her free of her sin and bring her home to the Lord and her lost children: Thank you from the depths of my heart. Without you, this ministry of Project Rachel would not exist! And on behalf of the multitudes of people who have touched: THANK YOU! You change the world, one heart and soul at a time.

Written by Vicki Thorn, the founder of Project Rachel Post-Abortion Ministry. She is also the founder and ongoing director of the National Office of Post-Abortion Reconciliation and Healing based in Milwaukee. Mrs. Thorn is an internationally renowned author and speaker on healing and reconciliation in the aftermath of abortion.