A priest is a man for all seasons just like all fathers and mothers

The view from the rectory window
By Fr. Ken Van Haverbeke

Growing up, James Herriot’s books about his experience as a veterinarian in post World War II England fascinated me. He made the daily slogging of a vet’s working life seem exciting. The various people and situations he wrote about almost made me want to become a veterinarian. The only real drawback I saw was being around sick animals so much of the time.
Reading Herriot’s series “All Creatures Great and Small,” helped me to realize that everyone, whether a vet or a cop, a teacher or a businessman, everyone has an intriguing story to tell.
Growing up as a Roman Catholic, I was surrounded by signs of my faith. Not the least being Catholic Priests. “What an interesting combination,” I thought, “combining James Herriot’s style of story telling of ordinary life of a vet with the stories a Catholic priest could tell.
At first I thought perhaps because of the many confidentialities a priest must keep, there would have no story to tell. But then remembering the classic “A Diary of a Country Priest,” and Brother Benoit’s “A view from the monastery,” I knew many events of a priest life could be told, and perhaps in doing so, others might understand what a priestly vocation is. Maybe a young man reading such stories might even be inspired to hear God’s call to become a priest, especially since sick animals are not a daily part of priesthood.
What follows are stories of the priesthood. Ordinary, mundane, even boring stories of everyday events: ordinary to a priest that is, but may very be fascinating to someone who does not live in a collar of black and white. Names, dates, and locations have often been changed or altered to protect the privacy of individuals, but join me in looking at the world from a view from the rectory window.


Questions.
He was a small boy. A pug nose that was running. His eyes were watery and red. Silently he walked into the sacristy, a variable holy of holies where priests change into their vestments for the Mass. Once the sacristy was a “male only” domain, but now a grand central station for various people, male and female, altar servers, Eucharistic Ministers, musicians, ushers, and sometimes a lost soul looking for confession or a bathroom. It was into this sacred space Thad came, looking forlorn, as if he had lost his best friend.
In fact, he did.
He had only one question. A question that will shake the very depths of any priest worth his salt. A question that requires an answer, but in answering this question, a priest sets his theological foot into murky and sometimes frightening waters. A question of which there is no “right” answers, only an ocean of grey of which the priest is piloting…
With a deep breath, he exhales his question in breath: “Do dogs go to heaven?”
I knew I was on wobbly ground. It seems the most deeply theological questions are asked of me 30 seconds before Mass as I am preparing for the entrance procession. Questions that most certainly deserve an answer, but not in the allotted time given.
What should I do? Tell him of the different souls Saint Thomas Aquinas taught: the ‘vegetative soul,’ the ‘sensitive soul,’ and the ‘rational soul?’ How Saint Thomas would say only humans have a rational soul that will go to heaven, while the other souls will be fulfilled in the beatific vision hence we will have no need for a companion of a pet in heaven because God will fulfill this purpose completely?
Looking beyond Thad, I see my Associate: a good, hardworking, young priest, silently shaking his head “no.” He and I have already had this discussion. He emphatically believes only rational beings experience the beatific vision of our Lord and I suspect Thad has already gone to my Associate, and now is coming to me, the pastor, to receive ex-cathedra, the definitive answer to his question.
In the seminary, a place of formation and education for the priesthood, I remember having conversations at lunch about such questions as whether animals are in heaven.
We would discuss many, many things in the seminary, especially at lunch. Being young, in our twenties, we found these questions fun and stimulating to talk about. A real way of putting to use the theology and philosophy we were ingesting at class.
We discussed questions such as: When did Jesus fully understand He was God? ‘Would Jesus have had a belly-ache?’ for insofar as He is God, He would have known the fish was old and should have thrown it out, but insofar as He is human, He would not.
‘What did the Blessed Virgin Mother know and understand?’ was always a good topic of table conversation. Was she the only woman God asked to be the Mother of God? What if God asked Meltilda the next block over in Nazareth first, and she said “no.” Being conceived without sin did not mean Mary was required to say yes. How did free will come into play in her fiat or yes?
Depending upon a seminarian’s view of such questions, we could easily place him in either a “liberal” or “conservative” camp. This was always important distinction to make. From this knowledge we could speculate who would be selected as a bishop from our class, and whether we would want to serve under him or not. (Secretly every seminarian thinks he could be made bishop someday and in fact every young priest does too!) We were so very young.
Thad did not go away. His demeanor told me he was staying until he got an answer that he understood. Mass would have to wait.
As priests we are expected to know many things: Christology, scripture, canon law, spiritual theology, philosophy, finances, public speaking, good business practices and school or education administration. Our personal and public lives are intertwined having a private life that is public, and a public life that is unique and very knowledgeable in a variety of subjects.
We are expected to give deep, yet pithy homilies while maintaining an engaging liturgical style that would please both readers of the National Catholic Reporter and The Wanderer. A priest is man for all seasons, for all peoples, all the time. The expectations are diverse, and yet with time comes wisdom and the realization that our job description is no different than any parent, for in fact that is what we are, a parent…a father.
Looking directly into Thad’s watery eyes, I answered as only a parent can: “Yes, Thad, your dog is in heaven with God. All of God’s creatures, great and small, return to the loving God that created them, especially those creatures that God created who never sinned against Him.”
With a ‘humph!’ of satisfaction, Thad wheeled out of the sacristy to go to Mass. Following him, I looked up to meet the eyes of my associate.  I knew it would be an interesting dinner conversation tonight.