Today marks the feast of St. John Vianney, the patron of parish priests, and I am reminded of some remarks I made a few years ago at my parish when we celebrated World Priest Day. Below is part of the homily I offered for the occasion.  

When we need it most, they touch our lives with grace.

At moments when we are broken, we are made whole.

At times when we are separated from God, we are reconciled with Him.

At the high point of the Mass, the greatest sacrifice is offered again and again and again, and Christ is made present — and he becomes, once again, a part of us.

At these moments in our lives, we encounter the perfect God through the imperfect hands of another human being. The created brings to us our Creator.

And it happens only through the hands of the priest.

It’s astonishing to consider. I think that God has given us the priesthood so He can continue to give us himself. It is another sign of his boundless love for us.

Before I was ordained, I was talking with a classmate of mine, who said his pastor had some very simple advice about preaching. “Just remember,” he told him, “to tell the people that God loves them.”

I try to remember that myself every time I climb into this pulpit. But when you think of priests do, what they bring to us, I think they do it even more powerfully and more profoundly.

And they don’t necessarily do it with words.

Every absolution says: “God loves you.” Every anointing says: “God loves you.” Every elevation of the consecrated host at that altar says: “God loves you.”

It is a message we are hungry to hear. Especially now, with so much that is uncertain, when it is so easy to lose sight of what matters.

The beautiful Gospel we just heard tells us what matters: to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The greatest example of that, of course, is Jesus. Nobody did that better.

But the one who witnesses to that, every day of his life, is the priest.

One of the arguments that is frequently made against a married priesthood is that the priest would find it impossible to devote time to both the Church and his family. As someone who struggles with that now, I can say: it ain’t easy. One of my colleagues at CBS, Lesley Stahl, once used a wonderful analogy to describe the difficulties of being a working mother. “When you’re juggling all those balls,” she said, “you need to remember which ones are rubber…and which ones are glass.”

But very often, in the life of a priest, they are all glass.

The great work of his life is caring for the most fragile thing of all: the human soul.

The priest is the only one who is there at all the critical moments of life…from the very beginning, to the very end, and so many of the mileposts in between. He isn’t there just to bless rosaries or pose for pictures. He is there to make God present, and make that presence real. He is there to walk with us on the journey.

It is a journey he himself makes, for the most part, alone.

I don’t know what compels a man to want to do that – it is a calling, just as some of us are called to be husbands or fathers or deacons. But it is also a journey. One of faith, and courage.

There’s a beautiful book on the priesthood by Fr. Michael Heher, from the Diocese of Orange, in California. It’s called “The Lost Art of Walking on Water.” And near the end, he compares the mission of the Church to that moment when St. Peter stepped out of the boat and for one miraculous moment walked on water.

We all need to follow Peter’s example, Fr. Heher says – and we can only do it by keeping our eyes fixed on Christ. The message is clear: the waters may be turbulent. The wind may howl. But get out of the boat. With Jesus as your lifeguard, you can do the impossible.

Peter did it. Priests, in their way, do it, too. They have summoned the courage to leave what is safe and secure and give their lives over to a miracle. A miracle that says again and again, “God loves you.”

Priests spend so much of their lives reminding us of that. This day, we pause to remind THEM of that, too — and to express our gratitude, appreciation, and love.

To all those priests who have walked with us on the journey…to those who have prayed with us, celebrated with us, wept with us, forgiven us, uplifted us, hoped with us…to those who have told us again and again, “God loves you,” we can only whisper those words back, along with two more:

“Thank you.”