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Heart of a Priest, Mind of a Child

Testimony of Fr. William
by Nikolas Sternhagen, LC | Source: Catholic.net

In our fast-paced society dominated by commotion and productivity, quiet examples of peaceful fidelity can often pass us by, unnoticed and unappreciated. Fr William, who lives here at our seminary in Rome, is a case in point. Externally he isn’t the type that would attract your attention. He is eighty-three years old, very short, practically bald, and walks with small, slow steps, his head slightly inclined and his hands firmly folded. Fr William has Alzheimer’s disease, and doesn’t remember very much.

Not long ago he remarked in passing to a visiting priest, who came to preach a series of retreats: “Isn’t that nice of you to come give us these classes! I used to give classes too, but now I’m forgetting a few things.” And yet it seems that there are some things that one never forgets. On another occasion he said to another priest: “I don’t remember anything. I don’t remember anyone. All I know is that I’m praying for everyone.”

How is it possible that Fr William can ask you the same question five times in five minutes, and yet prays his breviary at the right time, on the right day, without fail?
How is possible that Fr William can greet priests he has known for decades as if it were the first time, saying “So nice to meet you, Father”, and yet he genuflects so calmly, slowly, devoutly, and meaningfully?
How is it possible that Fr William can call everything liquid “milk” and everything solid “papers,” and yet he celebrates his mass (with the help of an acolyte to show him which words to read), with such reverence, intensity, and devotion?

The only reason I can see, is that deeper than his memory, deeper than his very presence of self, is his priesthood. Fr William may not remember who he is, but he remembers what he is; a priest forever.

“My work is done,” he commented cheerfully one day to one of the seminarians he was talking with. “I’m here to pray for all of you.”

And that he does, and so much more. He loves his priesthood, even if he’s not sure what that means. What he loves to do best is to bless people; anyone, everyone, anywhere, everywhere. He goes for little walks around the seminary, and everyone he meets gets a cheerful laugh and a warm blessing, with the invariable phrase: “May almighty God bless you with great fervor; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Congratulations, eh? I’m praying for everyone.”

At meals, whenever he can, he makes his way through the dining room, table by table, blessing everyone. He makes sure everyone at the table is looking, and then gives his blessing, ending with a laugh and a thumbs-up. Sometimes he mixes his phrases and says things like: “Enjoy your meal, with great fervor,” but we all understand.

When we go in bus to parks or on hikes, he blesses every single car we pass by: “May almighty God bless you...” Then he earnestly asks the seminarian next to him:
“Did they see me?”
“Yes, Father, they saw you.”
“Were they happy?”
“Yes, Father, very happy.”

Another car passes by: “May almighty God bless you...”
“Did they see me? Were they happy?”

And that over and over again, forty or fifty times before we reach our destination.

Sometimes the brothers helping him “introduce” him to a random brother they meet: “Oh look, Father, this brother is new here,” and Fr William will laugh, and bless him. Or other times they tell him: “This brother is not behaving himself,” and Fr William will bless him, and even sometimes begin a spontaneous prayer, saying something like: “Heavenly Father, look with kindness upon this brother, and give him the grace and strength to behave himself! Cheer up, Brother! Be good! I’m praying for everyone.”

The thing that always strikes me most about Fr William is that he is perfectly happy as he is, and so cheerful, kind, and joyful. After a lifetime living for others, there is no rancour, impatience, bitterness, or grumpiness left in him. He is like a little child with the powers of a priest. He is happy, ultimately, because at least he knows that he has fulfilled his mission. He has given every last drop of himself, to the point of his own memory.

I like to make the following reflection: when I am eighty three, when I lose my memory, what will I have left? What habits will I have formed so well that they last longer than my very nature? When I lose everything else, will I have my own priesthood so firmly rooted in my soul, that I will bear it with me, to the very end? The time to form those habits is now, for all of us. Who knows how long each of us has left?

Fr William is as happy as a child, and you could say that he is more in heaven than on earth. And yet, before he takes the final steps that will bring him to his eternal reward, he walks among us with his smile and his laughter, waving to everyone and blessing everyone: “I’m praying for everyone! So nice to meet you!” 

Nikolas Sternhagen, LC studies for the priesthood in Rome.

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