First Year Priest Reflects on “Unreal Times”
by Fr. Marc Bentley T’19
“This is so unreal,” my priest mentor said to me in early April 2020. “Plan on next year being your real first Holy Week.” By then, I knew my first Holy Week as a priest wasn’t going to be anything like I had dreamt it would be.
For six years in the seminary – and, in reality, for years before that – I looked forward to Holy Week in the parish. Every year that I served as a master of ceremony, I anxiously awaited presiding at a Holy Week liturgy. And this year, I was able to preside at the Good Friday liturgy – but to an empty church with only my pastor, our deacon, his wife and our pastoral associate in attendance. Unreal, indeed.
But this year has been full of unreal moments: the first confession I ever heard; the first time I anointed a sick person; my first weekend presiding at Masses at St. Michael’s in Paintsville, KY; and the growing realization that the bread and wine that I pick up I return to the altar as the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. The first year has been full of amazing firsts that, by God’s grace, I’ve been able to share with so many amazing brothers and sisters.
Saint Meinrad prepared me for those moments – those sacramental encounters where God gives grace to the world through my humble, human, fumbling ministerial efforts. But there have been unexpected graces for which Saint Meinrad prepared me outside the classroom. The sincere thanks given by someone who has received a free lunch; the connections created over parish dinners (back when we could have them); the beauty of a visit to a parishioner’s home for dinner; the joys and challenges of the parish’s Confirmation candidates’ catechetical preparation.
Yes, I experienced situations like these at Saint Meinrad through Wednesday and weekend ministry assignments, but there was something different about doing them in a community to which I am present as a priest day in, day out. The challenge, though, is being both intentional in reflecting while still taking what I learned in Southern Indiana and naturally applying it in Eastern Kentucky. It hasn’t always been seamless, but God’s grace has been at work nonetheless.
It’s been a year when I’ve tried to take what I learned both inside and outside the classroom and grow into a minister. At Saint Meinrad, our formators exposed us to various perspectives, devotions and liturgical styles. This year has been one of taking what I learned, trying different ways to grow and learn, keeping what works and discarding what doesn’t.
It’s like trying on various skins and discerning which one not only suits me, but also fits the needs of the community and is aligned with God’s will for myself and the community. It has been a year of trial and error, of grace – even painful grace – trusting that God is present even in failure, disappointment and self-doubt.
We’re living in unreal times. As I’m writing, we’re still unsure when life will get back to normal or even what will be “normal” in the future. The unreal increasingly is becoming the norm; old patterns have fallen away and new ones are on the horizon.
But the Church, along with the whole world, is ultimately governed by God. When he went to bed each night, Pope St. John XXIII would lie down and say, “I’ve done my best I could in your service this day, Oh Lord. I’m going to bed. It’s your Church. Take care of it!”
This first year – even before the pandemic – has indeed been an exercise in growing in that kind of abandonment to the divine will. As a minister prepared by Saint Meinrad, my eyes are on the crucifix, modeled on the one hanging in the seminary chapel, hanging on my office wall. In that glance, I pray that I trust in the God who loved us so much to guide us to the good things – all the truly real things – He has promised us.
Fr. Marc currently serves at St. Michael’s Parish in Paintsville, KY. He will begin a new assignment as parochial vicar at Holy Family Parish in Ashland, KY on July 1, 2020. He is a graduate of the Saint Meinrad Theology Class of 2019.