Remembering the legacy of a priest’s dream

“A Priest’s Dream” is included in “One Priest’s Dream: Reflections,” a collection of columns and other writing by Msgr. Thomas J. McIntyre.

The aging seminary professor was customarily stern, even though he was a champion in being able to share the deposit of the faith with the next generation. He was used to speaking intently, yet on this occasion he breathed a sigh of relief and seemed to cast aside his usual temperament.

With piercing eyes, he narrowed his gaze on the young men before him, paused, and calmly shared his own spiritual insight into God’s forgiveness and mercy.

“In the final analysis,” he said with deliberation, “don’t be afraid to err on the side of compassion.”

Thinking back to the timing of the particular class, his direction was that much more remarkable. The sacramental effects of the Second Vatican Council had not yet taken hold. We were still years to go for the new emphasis in the sacrament of reconciliation that would see a judgmental-like, ritualized approach in individual confession replaced by more a conversation-like experience of what it means to share in God’s redeeming love.

Gone would be the “laundry lists’ and an excessive, unhealthy sense of individual sinfulness and the fear with which it was associated. Yet to come would be the more wholesome approach that would see redemption much more tied to God’s prerogative and gift. Humanity’s responsibility and cooperation with divine grace would focus more on an outgoing and pervasive choice of God’s ways, or not. With this comes a revived consciousness of community impact.

But the time was still 1962, and memories abounded of a harsher experience. Years later, we would laugh about a more innocent time. Do you remember the confession lines and how the longest usually indicated who the church militant were who tried to avoid becoming the church suffering? We know by their lines who the compassionate confessors were.

“The Lord’s way was to welcome sinners,” the prof recounted, undoubtedly reflecting on his own human weakness. Jesus did just that, I thought. His intent was clear from his behavior and the parables he preached. Mary Magdalen, the prodigal son, the lost sheep and the good thief will always be examples for sinful people who wander from the fold but who have enough sense to eventually turn back to God’s redeeming hand. Not so the attitudinally pure: the scribes, the Pharisees and an older brother of the prodigal who forever typify the real danger of a religiously haughty lifestyle. “The amount of sinfulness, the number of years, don’t make any difference as long as the sinner has returned.” Years later I would be amazed at the workings of the Lord in conversion.

After 30 years or more, some returned for reconciliation. As the confessor, I could only count my participation in that event as the blessing of sharing in God’s mercy.

The class I have referred to had that effect on more than myself. “Whatever you do, be kind,” is a recollection that many of my classmates still talk about. The old prof is gone, as are the long lines, but his spirit still lives, a spirit that is as real as Jesus’ own intent in dying on the cross.

“Imagine standing on the doorstep to eternity and discovering that your judgment of people has been more severe than God’s.” How often our greatest failure as individuals is just that.

Years before we would emphasize God’s constant love for us and change our sacramental training of the young with motivational approaches of love rather than fear, a graying priest saw it all.

A meditative spirit does wonders, at times, in remembering the best of the past. Maybe this is the Lent the Lord will use in bringing more of us home through reconciliation. One priest’s dream had more of an impact than he ever realized. We witnessed his finest hour.

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