Letters from Seminary: Riley

Summer ministry offers taste of tougher side of priesthood

Published: July 27, 2019

By Ben Riley
Diocesan Seminarian

The rector of St. Meinrad Seminary, Father Denis Robinson, OSB, gives a talk to the new first-year theology students at the beginning of every year. Two years ago, when I was a first-year theology student, he gave that same talk to my class. He discussed the layout of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. He described the various courts of the temple starting from the outside working in, and he drew an illustration on the whiteboard as he spoke.

The outer court is the court of the gentiles, next comes the court of the women, then Israel’s court, the priest’s court and finally the Holy of Holies that contains the Ark of the Covenant. He drew the altar in the priest’s court, telling us about the four horns on each corner to tie down the animals for sacrifice. He then described the cleansing ritual of the priests, the different animals that would be sacrificed and the different reasons why.

Next, he told us about the different organs that had to be cut out by the priest and cast into the fiery incense. He told us about the trough running around the altar to collect the blood of the animals and how it must have smelled. He finally arrived at his point. He said: “Men, if you are not ready to smell the excrement and the blood, to put your hands into the open wounds of the people of God and help them cast their pain into the crucible of incense, you should not be here, and you should leave. I’ll pay for your gas. But if you are willing to suffer with your flock as a priest of God, welcome to St. Meinrad.”

Even though I never know what situation I am walking into, I know that the Lord is with me and the Holy Spirit is in that room even before I enter.

This summer, I have had the opportunity to experience a small taste of what he was telling us. As part of our seminary formation, third-year seminarians spend 10 weeks working as chaplains in the hospital. This summer, four of my brother seminarians and I have been working in Baptist Hospital in Little Rock as chaplains. Our Mondays are spent in class where we study the finer details of pastoral care. The rest of the time, we go to our assigned floors, knock on patients’ doors and offer ourselves for prayer, conversation and as a listening ear.

Hospital ministry is primarily a ministry of presence. And just like any ministry, there are good days and not-so-good days. I am on the oncology floor. The good days for me are when I am visiting with a patient whose cancer is in remission, who is going home earlier than expected or who is feeling better today when compared to how they were feeling yesterday. On those days, it is easy to knock on the doors and visit with patients.

Even though I never know what situation I am walking into, I know that the Lord is with me and the Holy Spirit is in that room even before I enter. The not-so-good days are when a family’s loved one is being taken off artificial life support, when the cancer has come back and has spread or when despite a person’s faith, despite their trust in God, they simply do not have much hope. Those are the days when it is hard to knock on the doors. And those are the days when I rely on all of you.

It is your prayer and your support that give me the strength to walk into a stranger’s hospital room and offer a prayer of hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. So thank you. Thank you for your prayers and support throughout my seminary formation. It is hard to believe that I will be ordained a transitional deacon in less than a year and a priest the year after. Please keep me in your prayers, and be assured of my prayers for you and your families.

Ben Riley, a member of Christ the King Church in Little Rock, is a diocesan seminarian, attending St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana. This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.