The Power of a Priest and a lot of Grace

October 8, 2014

The Catholic chaplaincy at the University of Maryland has thrived in recent years. A series of good chaplains have faithfully brought the Gospel to the campus and invigorate the spiritual lives of many “Catholic Terps.” A large number of individuals who have received vocations to the priesthood and religious life, including five Dominicans, as well as many men and women who have entered into good and holy marriages owe thanks to the Lord for pouring out His graces during those formative years of college. Many of these Catholic alumni acknowledge the formative influence of Fr. Bill Byrne, an alumnus of the Angelicum in Rome, who was chaplain for about a decade. His outgoing personality and dynamic preaching were instrumental in helping so many Catholic Terps to be attentive to the Lord’s call during those years. At a recent reunion of the Catholic Terps, this was strikingly clear. With a number of former students, now ordained as priests, and tons of babies and young children running around, it was clear that the Gospel had borne fruit. There is something to be said about the power a priest can have over his flock. In his Commentary on the Sentences, St. Thomas describes the priest as a “dispenser of the sacraments.” At first glance, this might seem to relegate him to being nothing more than a sacramental vending machine. The priest is more than that. But when we consider St. Thomas’s description more carefully, we realize that the idea of the priest as a “dispenser of the sacraments” is strikingly powerful. As one who confects the sacraments, the priest is the minister of God who in turn uses him as an instrument, a means to pour out His graces upon His people. When you add a good example of holy living and great generosity to the mix, this recipe yields abundant fruit, and the people of God thrive. College chaplains have a particularly important role in this regard. The college years are some of the most formative for young people in today’s culture. Students are searching for the truth of who they are and are deeply influenced by all that is around them. This can have disastrous effects if they get caught in the wrong crowd. At the same time, it can have astounding effects if they encounter the Lord, and their hearts are open to His grace. During these years, college chaplains can be instrumental in aiding holy vocations. Among other things, if the priest’s preaching is authentically founded on the Truth, if he celebrates the sacraments reverently, and if his door is always open for confession, he can be instrumental in reaching the minds and hearts of students just when they are primed to be painted with the faith of the Church. There is an astonishing power in the simple celebration of the sacraments. Ultimately, though, all these graces come from the Lord. In the passage from St. Thomas quoted above, Aquinas describes God as the efficient cause of grace. God is the one who provides the graces communicated to us in the sacraments. Thus, the Lord is the principal one to whom thanks is owed. God is the one who brings about the conversion of sinners, and it is through His grace that the priest’s work is fruitful. The sacraments communicate these graces, but the Lord is the one who opens the hearts and minds of college students and everyone else. The priest, then, is the instrument in the hands of a loving God. Many thanks are owed to good college chaplains around the country, such as Fr. Byrne, but even greater thanks are owed to God. The effects of grace are vast. As the Catholic Terps alumni recently saw, it wasn’t just the priests celebrating the Eucharist who were offering thanks. It was also all the children who, in their own way, were singing out during the whole of Mass with their holy cacophony of cries, giggles, and gurgles. — Fr. Peter Martyr Yungwirth, O.P. Fr. Peter Martyr  graduated from the University of Maryland in 2006. This past May he was ordained to the priesthood alongside his fellow Catholic Terp Fr. Leo Checkai, O.P.

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