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Posted November 29, 2007

Once a Priest - Always a Priest

A Story I Heard and Will Never Forget
by Ron Hindle

There are so many wonderful stories I have heard about Pope John Paul II and his love of priests. He loved them for the good work they do, the sacrifices they make, and for their unceasing loyalty to Mother Church.

Although it has been a few years since we lost his leadership and his vision for the Church, I will never forget his funeral. It was a remarkable day as people were interviewed on the news about their greatest and fondest memory of him. One story in particular caught my attention and is forever etched in my memory.

It was told by a priest I'll call Father John. Father John had been sent to Rome on an assignment and he was taking the opportunity to enjoy all that there was to see while he was there. The old Churches and the artwork they contained filled his whole being with a wonderful sense of inspiration as he strolled through the streets of Rome, near the Vatican.

After a particularly long day, Father John returned to his room to rest before going out for dinner. The phone rang, and when he answered it the voice on the other end told him he had some urgent news and to expect a call from the Vatican.

His friends back in America had pulled some strings, and as a result Father John had been invited to a private audience with the Pope. Words can hardly describe his excitement as he hung up the phone and started looking forward to this once in a lifetime opportunity.

Now a private audience is different from a general audience in the numbers involved, but he knew he still wouldn't have much time with the Pope. He was expecting just enough time to kiss his ring, and express his heartfelt support for the Pope's work.

But what words would he say? He decided to go out for a quick walk around the Vatican and to leave his words to the Holy Spirit who would surely help him find the right things to say to the Holy Father. For Father John it would be enough just to have the memory of meeting the Pope, a memory he knew he would cherish for the rest of his life.

After a light dinner, Father John returned to his room and prepared to go to bed. His mind was racing and it was hard to relax as the thought of what would happen tomorrow kept playing over and over again in his head.

Needless to say, he didn't sleep much - or well. When he woke up the next morning he decided the best thing to do would be to go for a walk and visit some local churches as a preparation for his audience with the Pope.

He began to head up one of the local streets that he hadn't explored before when he came upon a small Church about halfway up the road. He examined the exterior for any signs as to who the Church was dedicated to when he noticed a homeless man standing outside begging for money.

It wasn't the first time he had seen someone who obviously had a sad story to tell since he arrived in Rome, but something about this man was different. In fact, he looked familiar for some reason.

He shook off the feeling and went into the Church and found himself lost in the old artwork and the craftsmanship that went into building the old Church. Every detail had the feel of the old master's hand that had created it and the statues and pews had the look and feel of old wood that had been carefully prepared and treated to stand the test of time.

All too soon it was time for him to leave, when, on the way out he again took notice of the homeless man. As he passed him, their eyes met and he again had that feeling that their lives had crossed paths before.

Something about it made Father John stop, go back and talk to the homeless man. He asked him for some details about his life and said that for some reason, he looked familiar to him.

That was impossible, said the homeless man, for his life had taken quite a turn since the days when an idealistic young man had studied hard and long to become a priest.

A seminarian? You were a seminarian? asked Father John.

Yes, he replied. I studied for many years at the seminary but when my study was complete, it just didn't work out for me as I expected. I encountered quite a few problems in my life, my faith was shaken and one day I just decided I couldn't be a priest anymore. My heart just wasn't in it.

Father John now realized why the man looked familiar. They had been at the same seminary and although they hadn't been friends, he remembered seeing him there.

After he had listened to his story, Father John wished him well and told him he was sorry he couldn't do more for him since he would be leaving for America in just a couple of days.

As Father John began to make his way to the Vatican his thoughts remained back at the Church with his friend from his seminary days, Father Francis. Then again, thought Father John, maybe I should just call him Francis since he's not a priest anymore.

Soon it was time for Father John's audience with the Pope, and, as he made his way through Vatican Square, and was escorted into the Chamber where he would meet the Pope, he noticed that the crowd was rather small - small for the Vatican, that is - waiting for the Pope to arrive. When he did, just the sight of Pope John Paul II filled his heart with an excitement and enthusiasm he had never known before.

The Pope was getting on in years, but the sight and sound of the crowd seemed to infuse him with the energy he needed to climb the stairs to his chair without assistance. Father John couldn't help but look at the Pope and wish there was some way he could stay forever young, forever active, and forever the head of the Church he loved.

With each step, as he drew closer to the Pope he began wondering what, if anything he should say to the pontiff. Every time he would decide on one phrase or sentence, something would tell him to think of something else.

For some reason, just as he reached the Pope, he remembered the words of Psalm 110 - you are a priest forever according to the line of Melchizedek.

When he did, his mind raced back to the Church, the homeless man who turned out to be Father Francis, and, well it all came together at once.

After he had kissed the Pope's ring, the Pope looked at him and smiled, asking him if he was enjoying his stay in Rome.

Yes, Holy Father, I am, but a friend of mine isn't doing so well.

Oh, said the Pope. And what is your friend's problem?

Here he was, his once in a lifetime visit to Rome and now an audience with the Pope, and he was using his time to tell the Pope about his friend, Father Francis. He's just a handful of blocks from here - he's a good man - he could have been a good priest if he hadn't lost his way -- and now, he spends his days begging for money in front of the Church just up the way.

As he turned to leave the Pope, he had one more thing to say. Your Holiness, Father Francis had quite a way with a sermon. We all thought he'd be the one with the words to really win over a congregation and help them find their way to Christ.

The Pope nodded his head, smiled, and said - We pray for each other - all of us.

Yes, Father John replied, we'll pray for each other and leave it all in God's hands.

Father John had almost made his way through the Chamber when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Looking around it was one of the Pope's secretaries, a young priest himself.

The Holy Father was very interested in your story about your friend, Father Francis. In fact, he wants you to come to his apartment for dinner tonight. You and your friend Father Francis - bring him along - and come to the side entrance at about 6. We will bring you upstairs and you will have a private dinner with His Holiness.

Father John was more than a little surprised and a little bewildered as to how this was all going to come together. He wasn't even sure that Father Francis would still be at the Church. He immediately began to worry - What will I do if I can't find him?

As he approached the old Church, he was relieved to see Father Francis standing at his post, asking for money so he could buy something to eat.

When Father Francis saw Father John, he immediately thought his dinner problem was solved. It was, but not in the way he thought.

Father John told him all about the Holy Father, and his request that they come over for dinner that evening.

No, said Father Francis. I can't go. I'm a mess. I don't even have a decent coat to wear. I can't go. Tell him I'm sorry. Bring me some dessert if you think of it - and he started to walk away.

Father John grabbed his arm and said, I'm not going alone. In all my life the Pope has given me one assignment and I'm going to see it through.

Don't worry about what you should wear. I'm staying at a seminary and someone will have something you can wear that will fit you. Just relax and trust me. Come back to my room, you can shower and shave and get ready. Then we'll see what the Holy Father wants to tell us.

After a quick round of the seminarians, they found someone who was a perfect match for Father Francis. And, after a shower, shave, and a haircut - courtesy of the seminary barber shop, he didn't look too bad at all.

And best of all, somehow they got all that done before they had to leave.

There are many wonderful sights all over the world, but there is none more beautiful than the Vatican when it is lit up at night. There is a thrill like none other when you see it and remember all that St. Peter's Basilica represents to Catholics all over the world.

As they stood at the side entrance and waited, suddenly the door opened and one of the Pope's assistants brought them up to the Pope's apartment.

The one thing Father John noticed immediately was the number of books that were scattered around the apartment in neat piles. There were books in every language, prayer books, books about Christ, books about religion, philosophy and so much more. Wherever does he find the time, Father John wondered.

Soon, the Holy Father came in, nodded, and gestured for them to sit at his dinner table and join him for a meal. Father John couldn't help but think about the significance of a meal in the philosophy of the Church and also in the day to day commerce of individual relationships. Somehow, nothing is quite like sitting down to break bread together for families, friends, and loved ones.

The dinner went all too quickly and what was served really didn't stick in Father John's memory too well. He kept telling himself how wonderful this was and how exciting it was to be with the Holy Father and to enjoy this wonderful experience. It was something he would never forget.

Then, when all that wonderful food had been consumed, the Pope asked Father John to please leave him and Father Francis alone for a moment.

Father John got up to leave, and when he looked at Father Francis he nodded and told him he would meet him outside.

When Father John had left, the Holy Father asked Father Francis to tell him his story.

The Pope listened attentively as Father Francis told him his story and nodded sympathetically as each detail was shared with him.

When he was finished, the Holy Father told him that the past was past and now he had to work on his future.

I have no future, said Father Francis.

Your future begins today, right now, with this moment we are sharing together.

A tear came to Father Francis' eye, and he could only hope.

The Pope continued, all good beginnings start with the sacraments and that is why to make your fresh start you need to begin with the Sacrament of Penance, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You need to be joined back together with Christ in your heart -- and your soul.

I will, said Father Francis.

First you will hear my confession. Then, I will hear yours, said the Pope.

I can't, said Father Francis. I'm not a priest anymore, I can't give you the sacraments. I need them from you!

The Holy Father smiled. You are once a priest - always a priest. You never forget the lessons you were taught as a young man in the seminary. What matters is what you carry in your heart. When you were sealed in the love of Christ, you were sealed forever. That seal will never be broken.

So, you hear my confession - and I will hear yours.

There were many tears shed during the moments that followed as Father Francis once again felt reunited with Mother Church and once again felt the call to the priesthood.

After the Holy Father heard his confession he felt renewed, refreshed and somehow - brand new.

Father Francis thanked the Pope for being so kind to him and wondered aloud what he should do next.

The people at the Church where you used to beg, they know you?, asked the Pope.

Yes, Father Francis laughed, they know me.

Then, that is where you should be. They need another priest, they are short of help. You go - be the other pair of hands and feet they need to serve the people of the parish. Will you do that?

Yes!, said Father Francis. I will!

I hear you are pretty good with a sermon. Now you will use your words, not to beg for food, but to beg for souls for Christ. And with those words, the Pope blessed him, embraced him, and sent him on to his new assignment.

That is the story of how the Pope took this one life, this one priest and brought his soul back to Christ. And when Father John heard the story, he couldn't help but think of the Good Shepherd, and the one that was lost that has now been found.

Today, Father Francis is still at his assigned Church, preaching the word of God. Now, the one who was himself lost, grateful for at long last being found, is likewise searching for more souls to bring to Christ.