A few weeks ago, I had a very encouraging experience as I flew on an overnight trip to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. For the first time in many years, in my service as an Air Force Reserve Chaplain, I was on a commercial airline in military uniform. I was inspired and humbled by the thanks offered to me throughout the trip by total strangers. At Logan Airport, for example, as I headed to the baggage claim area, I heard someone calling out to me, "Excuse me, sir." I turned around, thinking perhaps I had dropped something, to be greeted by a young woman, with her hand extended to shake my hand, saying, "I just want to thank you for your service to our country."
The people who greeted me did not know me personally; it was seeing the uniform that I was wearing that prompted them to offer their words of support and gratitude. Consistently, I am struck how strongly the people of the United States support and encourage our troops who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the country. Indeed, in numerous churches, liturgies and parish bulletins, prayers of support and care are offered regularly for our young men and women serving overseas. Vietnam veterans will tell you this was not always the case. I am delighted that we make a special effort today to express our gratitude to veterans who were not often thanked during the time of their service. Thankfully, our Veterans Day honors all veterans.
When I travel in priestly clothing the usual reaction I experience is significantly different. If I am lucky I might hear a polite "hello, Father." Sometimes people avert their eyes or turn away. The most common response is distance and reserve. In today's culture and circumstances, strangers do not often stop and thank priests for their service.
A priest does not search for thanks or for praise from others; his source of strength is in the Lord. For me, to be a priest remains a humbling and enormously privileged experience. People invite the priest into the most personal and challenging moments of their lives, times of great joy and deep sorrow. Yet, while the life of a priest is profoundly fulfilling, there are some challenging and difficult times.