Part 6 in a series on priestly experiences and insights, published on Thursdays in the Year for Priests.
Priests, like everyone else, need good role models – courageous, holy, and strong men who show the world what it means to serve God authentically and joyfully.
Fr Michael Sliney, LC, counts it a special grace that his path to the priesthood was marked with several shining beacons of priestly holiness—especially in the person of Pope John Paul II, whom he met 7 times before and after his ordination.
“He will be a priest!”
One of his most meaningful encounters with Pope John Paul II took place in 1990, while he was a seminarian at the Legion’s Center for Higher Studies in Rome. That May, his parents visited from Michigan and they went together to the public rosary that the Pope held on the first Saturday of every month. Thanks to the help of Fr John Hopkins, LC, the Sliney family had great seats right along the barricade where the Pope would pass by.
After the rosary, as Pope John Paul II walked by, Mrs. Sliney asked, “Holy Father, could you please give us your blessing?”
The Holy Father’s eyes lit up with a smile as he said, “Sure!” He blessed the two parents and then turned to their son Michael.
Putting his hand on the young seminarian’s forehead, he turned to Mrs. Sliney and asked, “Is your son a priest?”
“Not yet, Holy Father,” she answered.
The Pope looked into the then Brother Michael’s eyes for a good 3 or 4 seconds and said, “He will be a priest!”
Looking back, Fr Michael says, “This was an incredible experience for me. I felt like I had tasted a bit of heaven. Needless to say, I have never doubted my vocation after hearing those powerful words.”
The way a man of God prays
Five years later in 1995—again in the month of May—another opportunity arose. Still a seminarian at the time, Br Michael was attending a private Mass with the Holy Father, accompanied by his mother and his aunt. His father had passed away a year before.
As they entered the private chapel at 6:45 a.m., they were escorted to the front pew just a few feet away from the Pope, who was still immersed in prayer.
The experience of witnessing a man of God in prayer was one that Fr Michael will not easily forget.
“He had his fists tightly clenched and his eyes were completely shut,” he said. “I was amazed to see the Pope truly ‘battle’ in prayer. His hands were pounding against the kneeler and it seemed like he was really grappling with an issue.”
After celebrating the Mass, the Holy Father went back to his kneeler, where he remained for 45 more minutes of prayer.
“When he finally came out to meet everyone in the reception parlor, there was a visible light and glow around his face, like Moses coming down from the mountain,” Fr Michael said. “He radiated so much peace and joy with his smile and his kind words. When I looked into his eyes, I could only see the goodness and gentleness of Christ.”
“I talk to Him and He talks to me.”
Witnessing that kind of prayer was a reminder of why he himself had followed the call to the priesthood. As a vocation, the priesthood truly is a calling—a personal invitation from the Friend above all friends.
When Fr Michael was a 19-year-old Michigan State University student considering the priesthood, there was another priest whose own evident friendship with Christ had “a massive impact” on his life’s decision. That priest was Fr Lorenzo Gomez, LC.
“He was first and foremost a ‘man of God’,” said Fr Michael. “I often saw him praying his breviary or his rosary or simply making a visit in the chapel. I was so impressed by his fervor in celebrating Mass, and he had a peace that I could not find in anyone else.”
One day, he had to ask the question he had been carrying around with him for some time.
“Fr Gomez,” he said, “I think that Christ is calling me to the priesthood, but I need to know one thing. I have seen you praying in the chapel for over 7 years now, and you seem to have a really strong friendship with Christ. Is Christ really your best friend? Does he talk to you?”
Fr Gomez smiled at him and said, “Yes, Mike, Christ is my best friend. I talk to him and he talks to me, and it is really beautiful. But this takes some time.”
“That was all I needed to hear,” says Fr Michael.
The Christmas gift
After almost 14 years of preparation, a newly ordained priest’s first Mass is certainly a climactic moment full of a whole range of personal thoughts and emotions. In some cases, it can also be a moment that sums up the past and prefigures the future.
As Fr Michael went into the sacristy to vest, an older priest nearing 90 years of age suddenly appeared and helped him put on his vestments. He then asked if he could assist at Fr Michael’s Mass. For Fr Michael, the gesture seemed symbolic, like the passing of the baton from one generation to the next.
As he came out of the sacristy, his whole family rose from the pews. It was a moment of realization: after years of attending Mass, he now found himself on the other side of the altar. Now it was his turn.
But more importantly, it was Christ’s turn.
“I realized for the first time that I was the main celebrant, and that soon I would be lifting up Christ in my hands,” he said. “After an emotional homily and offertory, the special moment finally came. Thirteen and a half years of preparation for this incredible moment. Now my words became sacred: ‘Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my body, which will be given up for you.’”
It was Christmas Day of 1998 when the Friend he had come to love so much was born in his hands for the very first time.
“As I lifted up that pure and immaculate host, I could not contain the tears. I was holding Christ, my best friend, my faithful friend, in my hands. And in that moment, I was truly ‘Alter Christus’… another Christ.”
Giving a friendship
As “another Christ,” a priest builds his ministry around his prayer, especially his communion with Christ in the Eucharist. His external mission can take many forms, but at its essence, it is about connecting people to the Lord: teaching them to pray, helping them to understand and value the life of grace, and showing them how to imbue their other relationships with the spirit of the Gospel. In a world full of materialism, relativism, and hedonism, this is not always an easy task.
“The greatest challenge of my priesthood is to have such a treasure in my heart and soul, and not to be able to convince others to see the beauty of this gift,” says Fr Michael.
But many are open, especially the youth. For Fr Michael, working with boys and young men has become a fruitful way to share the treasure he has found in his friendship with Christ. And after leading youth to five consecutive World Youth Days, it has been also a way to help them experience that same contagious enthusiasm for the Holy Father and the universal Church.
On those trips, the boys have an active role to play in partnership with Fr Michael and other priests. During the last World Youth Day in Sydney, for example, over 50 boys fanned out through the crowd with a specific objective: to promote confessions. Thanks to their efforts, thousands of souls benefited from the sacrament and a dozen priests were kept very busy.
A legacy of light
For Fr Michael, these “Tabor moments”—from the exhilaration of World Youth Days to the joy of bringing a soul back to the life of grace after 55 years—are a constant reminder that Christ is fulfilling his own mission through him.
“I have always considered myself to be an instrument of Christ’s love and I try to be very attentive to when, where, and how he wants me to ‘cast out the nets,’” he says. From Peter on the shore to the present day pastor, those nets continue to be cast, thanks to the “yes” of each generation’s priests.
Every century has its priestly heroes who given the world a glimpse of Christ, the only High Priest. As the old generations return to the Father’s house, the new generations take up the baton and carry the mission forward, enriched by the witness of the role models they have known.
And that legacy lives on in them, guiding them as they take their place behind the altar. Now it’s their turn to give the world a glimpse of Christ, and to shed his light on the world.
Father Michael Sliney was ordained a priest in Rome on December 24, 1998. He studied mechanical engineering at Michigan State University for two years before entering the Legion. As a seminarian he earned a bachelors in philosophy from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas and a masters degrees in philosophy and bachelors in theology from the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum College in Rome. He worked with youth groups in the Washington D.C. Area for 19 years and is now the Lumen chaplain in Greenwich, Ct. and Manhattan.
Note: Fr Michael also sends out brief daily reflections and formative resources via e-mail to a mailing list of friends and acquaintances. If you would like to subscribe, send him an e-mail at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the word “subscribe” in the subject line.