Coming back from a meeting in Atlanta last September, I heard a story about St. Francis and a village priest. The priest was not living the life his priesthood demanded, and the villagers wanted Frances to do something about it They took him to the church, and when the visibly shaken priest emerged, Francis dropped to his knees, too the priest’s hands in his, kissed them, and said “All I know, and all I need to know is that these hands bring me Jesus.” Focus, after all, is everything....
I’m a good wife. That story immediately translated into a project for my amateur photographer husband. We’d go around the Archdiocese taking pictures of priests’ hands--showing in glorious black and white and color the ways these men bring Christ to us in daily life. We saw it as a labor of love and thanksgiving. Fortunately, the powers that be in the Archdiocese thought so too.
Spend every third weekend or so for nine months taking photos like that and you learn something about priests. For starters, they are a remarkably flexible lot. We’d show up, cameras in hand, and the conversation would go something like this.
“Oh, hi, welcome!”
“Hi Father. Do you know why we’re here?’
“You want to take pictures of .....my hands?” Responses ranged from incredulity to outright shyness, but they were all game, even if it initially was in a “humor the crazy lady” sort of sense. What mattered was that some total stranger had called on them for a piece of their time in order to do something for God, and they were willing to help, even when it was a bit inconvenient. Having undertaken a life of giving, this was just one more opportunity to serve for them.
From a layman-in-the-pew perspective, arranging photographs to reproduce parts of the mass can be a little intimidating. It required us to be about the altar, a holy space set apart, and to be giving orders to a priest (or bishop), both a bit out of the order of things. Setting and making adjustments to the scene was my job as the lovely assistant. To a man, when I apologized for bossing him around, the good Father would laugh in a friendly way at my discomfort, and reassure me. Several of them defused my anxiety by saying “That’s okay. I had 2 (3, 5...) older sisters. I’m used to taking orders...” And so they are.
To a man, I found their hands to be soft and warm and well cared for, for this is what the congregation sees every Sunday. Some mused that their hands were less than perfect, and almost embarrassed, wondered aloud what their congregations must think of them when the came to receive.
Many of us in modern America are hungry for truly loving touch, despite the boundary-less secular world in which we live. Posing those gentle, compliant hands for images reminded me how powerful the hand of a priest are when I receive the host, when he lays his hands on my head for a blessing, when shaking hands at the door of the church. Christ used HIs hands to communicate His strength and His love. It is a great sadness that we live in a day when our priests have to be cautious about extending their hands to us.
Talk would eventually get around to things ordinary and sometimes things personal. We heard stories of home and friends, of joy and sorrow, of good times and difficult, as one thing or another triggered memories and conversation. It is good to remember that these men are indeed, men first, with all the accomplishment and difficulty that implies.
I was struck by the stories of vocation that leaked out as we worked. There were parents who encouraged their sons, or a much-respected priest, or siblings or a family friend. It seems God’s voice, as it almost always does, takes human sound to be heard. There were those who heard the call immediately, and those who tried to avoid it. But here they all were, and sometime in the future they would all be somewhere else, bringing Jesus to the Catholic faithful, inside the liturgy and out.
They show us with their very lives the pattern that should be present in our own: Open to the possibility that God might be walking in the door in the guise of a peculiar stranger. Willing to interrupt plans for the needs of others, even when it isn’t entirely convenient. Ready to take direction when need be. Extending hands, whatever their condition, to others.
And always, no matter what, our priests bring us Jesus. Really, truly bring us Jesus. Let us receive Him from them and take Him into the world--and to return Him in full measure to the men who make Him present to us in the first place. And when we see those wonderful, ordinary hands, whatever their condition, let us give thanks for their presence among us.