"I became a priest to help one person."
When the priest told me this, I scoffed, immediately rejected his opinion, and thought him a loon. How, I reasoned, could one become a priest only to strive to help one person. What a waste of a life! You do something angels can't do yet you only want to help one person? Ridiculous.
However, his words, like many sayings at which I have initially scoffed and completely rejected, have had a profound impact on my life. In fact, those words have stuck with me for well over a decade now and form the basis of my pastoral vision and ministry. Let me explain.
In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus clearly lays out his pastoral mission for the Church, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19-20) As clear as this great commission is, it can seem impossible to live out. Some, figuring they simply don't have the time, energy, or talents, excuse themselves from the missionary work and leave it to the priests and religious. Others, figuring they have all of the time, energy, and talents, try and convert every single soul they encounter and run the risk of burnout. Moreover, at this time in the life of the Church in the United States, the work of making disciples seems pointless as so many young people are fleeing the Church and rejecting her teachings and place in their lives. To put it bluntly, Jesus's mission is clear and simple; living it is a great challenge; succeeding, according to worldly standards, is nigh near impossible.
So, how does the priest's comment about being a priest for one person make any sense?
This past week I was joined in Chicago by 23 Hoosier Catholics, our five FOCUS missionaries, and 8000 of our Catholic friends for SLS18, a five-day conference to help each of us grow deeper in Christ and deeper in mission. Throughout the week, each keynote speaker and many of the impact session leaders stressed a simple truth of evangelization and the great commission often lost in mission and ministry: Disciples are made one at a time.
You see that priest was really onto something. Instead of getting caught up in numbers and programs, he was concerned with being Christ to the person in front of him. He saw his job as being faithful. The Lord, and only the Lord, would make it fruitful. That wonderfully simple priest introduced me to evangelization and making disciples before I even knew what either of those things meant. His message was simple: Be simple. Be faithful. Be in love with Jesus Christ and His Church. God will work through that.
As maddening as it may be, the simplest answer is the best. I'm not at IU to change the world. I'm at IU to go deep into prayer, deep into union with Christ and to bring that into whatever relationship or community I am blessed to be.
More than a decade later and well into my first year working with FOCUS missionaries and fresh off of SLS, I see the proof in the pudding. As our students, with the help, inspiration (and, oftentimes, prodding) of the missionaries have committed themselves to daily prayer, weekly Holy Hours of Eucharistic Adoration, frequent Confession, making it to daily Mass when they can, our ministry has grown and the relationships among our Hoosier Catholics have deepened.
By loving the person the Lord puts into our lives, by inviting him or her to a deeper connection to Christ, by walking with them in their valleys and inviting them to run with us to the mountaintop, we are making disciples, building the Church, and making the world a better place one soul at a time.
I wasn't mature (of humble) enough when I entered the novitiate to say I was there to help one person, but I thank God each day now for the chance to help that one person He puts into my life become the beloved son or daughter of God they were made to be.