A few weeks ago, I was asked to give a morning of recollection to seventh- and eighth-grade students at one of our elementary schools in the upper counties. The principal told me that the theme this year is “in a world where you can be anything, be kind.” It was a great opportunity for me to speak to these young people about how important their role is as leaders in their school and how they are the ones who would set the tone for the younger students by setting a good example for them. This example would best be shown by their acts and words of kindness. It seems that this is a value that is seriously lacking in our society today. There is an anger that so many people struggle with and despite the fact that the world is more connected than ever before through the internet and social media, one of the greatest difficulties is loneliness. To open our hearts more to the enduring value of kindness is so essential as we seek to bring the light and love of Christ to the world around us.
The importance of kindness is even more essential for priests and those who are in seminary aspiring to the priesthood. During his 16 years as archbishop of New York, the late John Cardinal O’Connor would speak about this often. He would constantly and consistently say to the men who were in their final year of seminary preparing for ordination that above all else they must be kind to the people. This may at first glance seem like rather simple or uninspiring advice for men about to be ordained, but for anyone who has spent any time in ministry we know that it is critical and wise counsel. It is easy sometimes to forget how much trust the people of God place in those of us in ministry, whether ordained or as brothers and sisters. They truly believe they can bear their soul to us and will receive a listening ear and compassionate heart. The reality of this trust placed in us is what makes the scandals we have seen these last couple of years so devastating. The betrayal of the very people that we have been called to serve is painful for those of us who are faithful in our work and is of course unimaginably painful for those who have been victimized. Nevertheless, the people rightly still believe that they can come to us with what is troubling them and they will receive empathy and understanding.
It is critical for we who are ordained to remember what a privilege it is to serve God’s people and that they often come to us when they are at their lowest and most vulnerable. I have often said that no one calls the rectory to speak with a priest because everything is great and life is wonderful. More times than not, the call is made through tears or exasperation with the struggles they are facing. How often I have sat down with someone who will begin with the words, “Father, I have never told anyone else this but….” They come to us because they are seeking an encounter with Jesus, they come to us because they know it is only in the merciful heart of the Lord that they will find the peace they long for. We must never forget how important a kind and compassionate response is to show them that love and mercy.
In my work with men who are discerning the priesthood, it is always good when I hear that they are involved in parish outreach or ministry to the underprivileged. In moments and experiences such as those, the Lord tills the soil of our heart so that we can love the people with His. As we encounter a world damaged by sin, the sage advice of Cardinal O’Connor still rings true, “Above all else, be kind to the people.”