Thanking and encouraging those who serve

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.

Your expressions of gratitude can encourage priests in good times and in challenging times. Think of the ways a priest may have touched your life recently: by officiating at the marriage of a family member, celebrating the baptism of a new grandchild, bringing the Holy Eucharist to a family member in a hospital or nursing home, teaching the faith to the next generation of young Catholics, witnessing faith and joy through the reverent celebration of Mass and the preaching of the Gospel in your parish. Many priests who have served you in the past continue to pray for you today. There is much to be grateful for in the service of our priests who offer their lives to lead everyone to the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ.

Recently, as I was watching our excellent CatholicTV show "This Is the Day," I heard reference to a newly established website whose mission is to encourage priests in their ministry: I invite you to visit this website and to explore their suggestions on ways to express your gratitude to the priests who have generously served you and others in God's family.

The 13th century Dominican Meister Eckhardt wrote, "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough." As we honor our veterans this week, and express our deep appreciation to them, we also thank those who selflessly serve us in the Church: priests, deacons, consecrated religious, lay ecclesial ministers, volunteer lay women and men. Our faith lives are enriched because of you! To those who serve our country and to those who serve our Church: thank you.

Father Erikson is Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia of the Archdiocese of Boston.