When Jesuit Deacon Tek Raj Paudel, the only Christian in Tarkerabari village in Nepal’s Okhaldhunga district, made the fateful decision to be configured in Christ through holy orders, he offered up his own life to serve, nourish and protect his sheep, just as the Good Shepherd offered up his body and blood for his flock (John 10:15-18).
On April 25, a half hour after Father Paudel’s ordination ceremony ended, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck his impoverished homeland, where the majority of people are Hindu, and Christian proselyting is banned. An estimated 8,000 Nepalese died, but the villagers of Tarkerabari were spared. Gathered elsewhere for the ordination, they were not harmed by the devastation that toppled 90 homes and damaged hundreds more in the village. (See story on page one.)
Natural and man-made disasters can humble, as well as frighten, us. On 9/11, New Yorkers flocked to churches seeking spiritual shelter.
On the day Nepal was battered by the earthquake, Father Paudel offered his own response to such questions. During the sacrament of holy orders, he lay prostrate before the Blessed Sacrament, in testimony to his own faith, love and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.
During the time of year when Catholic dioceses celebrate ordinations of new priests, Father Paudel’s story offers a singular reminder of the extraordinary gift of the priesthood.
“For Christ was sent by the Father, and he in turn sent the apostles into the world, so that through them and their successors, the bishops, he might continue to exercise his office of teacher, priest and shepherd,” said Pope Francis in his homily, published in the Pontificale Romanum for the ordination of priests, on April 24, 2013.
“In being configured to Christ, the eternal High Priest, and joined to the priesthood of the bishops, they will be consecrated as true priests of the New Testament, to preach the Gospel, to shepherd God’s people and to celebrate the sacred liturgy, especially the Lord’s sacrifice,” Pope Francis continued.
In his homily, the Holy Father told the ordinands that their flocks extend beyond the Church, and they must serve the entire world: “Remember, then, that you are taken from among men and appointed on their behalf for those things that pertain to God.”
Doubtless, such words resonate in a deeper way for a priest like Father Paudel, who has already graced so many lives. But his story also reminds us that priests constantly witness to God’s providence and the power of the sacraments, and this experience fuels a great sense of joy, whether they are performing the more mundane tasks of their vocation or are facilitating life-changing actions. “You will administer the sacrament of reconciliation,” Pope St. John Paul II reminded the ordinands at a 2003 ceremony. “How many miracles and wonders worked by God’s mercy will you witness in the confessional!”
This year, as noted in our page-3 story on ordinations, an estimated 595 young men in the U.S. will hear such words spoken as they take part in the sacrament of holy orders. The number marks a promising increase in priestly vocations, according to data compiled by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate’s (CARA) 2015 survey.
The Georgetown researchers asked men who would be ordained this year to pinpoint the individuals and practices that inspired their vocation, and the respondents said that encouragement from their parish priests was the No. 1 factor.
In the Archdiocese of Chicago, where the largest number of men will be ordained this year, among the dioceses that responded to the CARA survey, Father Robert Barron, the rector of the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, confirmed the importance of pastors and university chaplains in sharing the joy of priestly life with young men in their midst.
But the CARA study also featured some disturbing findings. Researchers reported that an average of two people had discouraged the respondents from pursuing a priestly vocation. While peers are the most likely people to question that path, one in 10 parents also raised the issue — often because of ongoing concerns about the clergy-abuse scandals.
The recent uptick in vocations suggests there is cause for hope: Young Catholic men are prepared to brave the skepticism and, in some cases, the scorn of their peers and even their relatives to follow the path of the Good Shepherd.
Those who challenge this decision might take a moment to ponder the mysterious events surrounding Father Paudel’s ordination in Nepal and the villagers’ belief that a man’s decision to lose his life for a higher calling protected their own lives.
Do we experience that same gratitude for the priests in our midst and look for opportunities to encourage more recruits to be shepherds of men?
For this is a most worthy vocation. As St. John Vianney, patron of priests, said: “Without the priest, the passion and death of Our Lord would be of no avail. It is the priest who continues the work of redemption here on earth. ... The priest holds the key to the treasures of heaven: It is he who opens the door; he is the steward of the good Lord. … The priest is not a priest for himself — he is a priest for you.”