When Your Priest Becomes Family

Our priests get a lot of open criticism, but the truth is that they sacrifice so much for us. In this warm letter, Amber VanVickle reminds us of the gifts and sacrifices they give to us so freely.

 (Photo: C. Gress)

(Photo: C. Gress)

By Amber VanVickle

Dear Father John,

We have lived next door to you for almost seven years now; this is a reality my children have known most of their lives, some, all of their lives. To them, to us, you are our family - not “like family”, but our family.  In six short months, you will be leaving us; you will be moving to a new parish. We sit here in denial, in disbelief that things won’t be as they always have, that you will always be next door, or in our living room, at our kitchen table. So, as our time as neighbors draws to a close, I had to tell you all you have been to us, to me, and all you have taught me about God’s great gift of the priesthood.

Father, you know you could do no wrong in my eyes, so imagine my surprise when my husband would come home and said that you had been a little, er, crabby. “Crabby?!” I exclaimed. “Father John! In persona Christi???!” How was it possible? And though I’ll never believe him, Father, you taught me that priests are human after all, who carry their own share of burdens, griefs and hard days. You have suffered many deaths of family members with seemingly little time to grieve and mourn as your flock always called you back to help them carry their own griefs and burdens.

You showed me that when you said "yes" to Christ many years ago, you surrendered your life, Father, for indeed it is not your own. As I see my children play at your feet and love you and accidentally call you “Papa,” I see the immense sacrifice you made to forsake having a family, a wife, children and grandchildren, and answered "yes" to an immense call that must have taken as much love, bravery and selflessness a man could muster. And I stand in awe and gratitude for it.

Many late nights, Father, you would leave our house. “Now you can go put your feet up, Father!” I would say. But no, you would be off to answer a hospital call or a funeral home. It was so late, and I would stand in the doorway wondering how you had the strength. But you always have. Your life is not your own, and as you remind me: “Amber, I haven’t had a vacation since 1982!” “Yes, Father, since the year I was born,” I smile back.

Father, you know we have had our share of griefs. As you once said, “You should own stock in Children’s Hospital.” It was a joke, of course, but that’s always how you are – you never descend into our grief and misery; you only bring us up. You sat with us so many nights in the hospital, and you wouldn’t let us fall into despair. Dave and I would be in the depths of agony and grief, and then you would walk through the doorway, your silhouette against machines and vapid hospital walls, signifying peace. I don’t know how many times Dave and I have said, “He saved us.” And you did.

I remember crying to you, Father. You were sitting with me after the news of Louisa’s diagnosis of Spina Bifida, and I asked you if we were cursed –“Three children, Father! How is it possible?” “No, Amber,” you said in your steady voice, “The more I pray, I know this is all for a reason.” And it gave me so much comfort, not only in what you said, but that you had been praying all along. You baptized her the day of her surgery, just a few hours old. We still have the small hospital Similac bottle of water you blessed, her baptismal water, where you made our daughter a child of God and sealed her for His kingdom, hours before the largest surgery of her life, our life.  I was sitting in a hospital bed, blocks away, and got the picture of you and Father Joe. I knew you would be there; I knew you would make sure she was baptized. And not long after you showed up to my hospital room and sat with me. What comfort you are and have always been.

This is only the most recent example, Father, but there are years of memories like this that proved to me that while yes, you are human, even more so you walk in the power of Christ. When Josie was one, as you remember, she had a stroke. You were her very favorite and she always carried around her “bun”, the bunny you got her for her birthday. The stroke left her temporarily without any movement in her left side. That is, until you arrived. She lit up and giggled when she saw you- the first giggle of a traumatic day of tests and prodding. You came to her, “Josie!” you exclaimed and tickled her left leg. And before our eyes, she kicked that leg up to you, which moments before had been lifeless. Before our eyes…in persona Christi.

How could we ever thank you enough for all that you are to us? How could I ever fully fathom that the “yes” you pronounced to God 45 years ago, would mean a love outpoured for all of us. To feel the weight of your impact on our life, I only have to imagine our life without you in it and what would be left – empty hospital chairs aside our grief, a missing piece in my children’s hearts, the absence of a leg brought back to life, one less seat at our dinner table, Christmas table, Easter table, birthday table…

I can only thank you for your yes, Father John, 45 years ago. I can only thank God over and over again, for setting you apart.