by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
In early June, I drove to St. Louis for the installation of Archbishop Robert Carlson, the new archbishop of St. Louis.
The next day, I needed to be in Chicago for a meeting of the Marriage and Family Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. My plan was to: 1) fly out of St. Louis early in the morning; 2) attend the Marriage and Family meeting at a location near the airport; 3) catch a late afternoon flight back to St. Louis; and 4) then drive back to Kansas City that night.
Everything was going perfectly according to plan until I arrived at the airport in the afternoon. On the departing flight schedule, I saw the word that every traveler fears: “delayed.” The estimate was that the flight would leave just an hour later than originally scheduled.
I went to the assigned gate to wait. After about 45 minutes, we were informed that not only our gate but our terminal had been changed. The new estimate for our departure time meant a two-hour delay. I trudged over to the new gate. After waiting there for another half-hour, we were informed that our gate had been changed again and the estimate of our departure had been pushed back yet another hour.
I was beginning to get anxious about the prospects of making it back to St. Louis, much less Kansas City, that night. After another 45-minute wait, a message appeared on the gate flight board monitor: “Flight 1099 cancelled.”
I made my way as quickly as possible to the airline service center to investigate the possibilities of getting to St. Louis that night. As a result of bad weather in various parts of the country, there were many delayed and cancelled flights. Thus, the line at the service center was very, very long.
At some point, the man directly in front of me totally lost it. He began screaming and even cursing. From what I could make out from his tirade, he had been in the airport for about 16 hours and he was not optimistic that he was going to make it out of Chicago that night. Somehow, I surmised he was not a good candidate for a conversation.
I noticed the young man standing behind me. I thought he had been at the same series of gates where I had been waiting. I inquired if he was going to St. Louis. He told me that he had been in Germany for three months working on a project for his employer. He had been granted a long weekend to spend with his family in St. Louis.
I could see the disappointment on his face as he realized his extended weekend was shrinking.
During the delays at the gates, I had been reading a book, entitled “You Shall Be My Witnesses: Lessons Beyond Dachau,” written by Archbishop Kazimierz Majdanski. The archbishop, as a seminarian, had been a prisoner at Dachau. The book told the story of hundreds of Polish priests who were prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps, many of whom died there.
In the course of the book, Archbishop Majdanski recounted the story of St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan whose feast is celebrated on Aug. 14. Maximilian Kolbe had been a prisoner at Auschwitz. Some infraction by one of the prisoners had infuriated the Nazis. Ten men had been selected randomly for execution to demonstrate the fatal consequences for noncompliance with the harsh prison rules.
Maximilian Kolbe was not one of those selected for execution. However, when one of the condemned men began to weep — for his children, who would be orphaned, and for his wife, who would become a widow — Maximilian Kolbe offered to take this man’s place.
The survivors of this event said they were frightened that the Nazis would execute 11 instead of 10. This would not have been out of character with their total disregard for human life. However, the Nazi commandant was so stunned by Father Kolbe’s offer that he accepted it and spared the married man’s life. Decades later, when Pope John Paul II canonized Maximilian Kolbe, the man whom he had saved was present with his family.
I began to think: What if I received the very last seat on the plane to St. Louis? Would I be willing to give up my seat so that this man could spend more time with his wife and children? Maximilian Kolbe gave up his life for a man and his family. Would I give up the chance to get home that night for this man and his family?
Fortunately, it did not come to that. We both made it on the last flight to St. Louis. However, the whole incident served as a good meditation for me about the nature and meaning of the priesthood.
Every priest is called to make heroic sacrifices for his people — not just to get them to some temporary destination in this world, but to help lead them to their eternal destination in heaven. Priests are called to strive to be shepherds after the heart of Jesus — the good shepherd who laid down his life for his flock. In a special way, priests are called to be at the service of married couples and parents, providing them with the spiritual wherewithal to love unconditionally their spouses and children.
Pope Benedict XVI has dedicated a year, beginning this past June 19 with the solemnity of the Sacred Heart, as a special year of prayer for priests. The Holy Father has asked the whole church to pray for priests, that we might have the generosity to become more and more shepherds after the heart of Jesus Christ.
I ask every member of the Archdiocese to make some special prayer commitment this year to intercede for the sanctification of all priests and, in particular, your own parish priests.