Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)

As a seminarian, I tend to get caught up in the idea of perfection. As I prepare for the priesthood, there always seems to be something more I need to learn or something essential I need to grow in.

Thinking back to all the conversations I’ve had with others about the priesthood, I’ve found that there seems to be a reoccurring list of expectations and it usually goes like this:

“A priest should be thoroughly trained in theology and apologetics…
…proficient in scripture
…and church history
…and finance
…and psychology
…and religious dialogue
…he should be funny
…and smart
…give good homilies
…and be punctual
…he needs to be perfect”

These conversations were followed by many stressful years in seminary in which I did whatever I could to become this perfect priest that would somehow be enough for his parishioners. But as hard as I tried, I kept tripping over my own shortcomings.

Eventually, my potential as a priest seemed so small compared to the list of my failures. Any failed test, any meeting I was late to, any question about the faith that I couldn’t answer only seemed to confirm this. The further I fell from perfection, the more I believed I could never be a good priest.

This was constantly on my mind as I arrived in Denver to do a year of mission work. Once the street ministry began, I quickly found myself again striving for this idea of perfection.

I put so much emphasis on needing to say the right words to my new friends on the street. If religious dialogue ever came up, I would do my best to transform into a human catechism and correct any misunderstandings they had.

But it wasn’t long until I realized my interactions were so superficial.

What were my words if they were only a chance for self-satisfaction in saying the “right thing”? What was the point of citing doctrine if I failed to notice another’s personal wounds that would prevent them from trusting God in the first place?

I finally realized I wasn’t living out of love, I was living out of fear.

With the help of others in my community and my formators, I was able to stop worrying about what I was doing right or wrong, about how I could fix homelessness, and about whether people were better off for meeting me or not.

I’ve realized that my time with Christ in the City isn’t meant to make me perfect. Rather, it’s a precious time to learn how to meet others where they are and simply be with them there.

I can’t free my homeless friend from addiction, or convert the one who blames God for his misfortune in life. I can’t erase the guilt from a fatal car accident that’s plaguing another, nor can I tell him that there’s any true moving on from that.

I know I cannot remove the pain, or even offer the perfect words.

What I can do is acknowledge their agony, and be wounded with them. I can remind each person that he or she is not alone, and I can allow God’s Love to enter into that place.

I can’t take away their suffering, but I can be with them in it…

I often think of the two thieves at the crucifixion alongside Jesus. I wonder their final thoughts after a life of crime. And I marvel at the fact that Jesus came to earth, endured scrutiny, betrayal, and condemnation, just so that he could carry His cross to the side of the wicked thief and be crucified with Him. Not because the thief was perfect, but so that despite all the sin and all the failures, that man in his greatest loneliness would not be alone.

It’s here, with the help of my friends on the street and my fellow Christ in the City missionaries, that I’ve been able to find the heart of the priesthood; not in being perfect, but in being present.

I think it’s simply the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ being with His people.

I’ve learned that perfection isn’t punctuality. It’s living so that Jesus can be with people.  

Max is a year-long missionary and a seminarian for the Diocese of Sioux Falls, SD. He enjoys hacky sack, rock hounding, watching classic movies, and going on every sort of adventure.