We all remember and know great priests who have touched our lives in a way that allows them a sense of immortality - living on in us and still having an influence on not just our own family, but so many more within each parish to which they are assigned.

They are there at the happiest of times for a family: celebrating weddings and baptisms...helping those who are suffering with guilt, shame or fear of sin by acting as an intermediary between us and Christ...granting God's endless love and forgiveness through the sacrament of reconciliation.

They are there during the saddest of times when we lose a loved one, being that constant support we can rely on to help hold us up and hold our families together. They are there to walk with us through our entire lives: celebrating the good and the bad; living not for themselves, but for each parishioner's family.

Our Church has been in the spotlight for the past decade with the clergy abuse scandal that has rocked everything but the Church's foundation, which is Christ. Its response was anything but the greatest in filtering out those who have harmed the innocent in unforgiveable ways.

In light of this crisis, I would think that the vocation response would have increased in an attempt to not just fill the void of the clergy shortage, but to overwhelm the Church with men who are of the greatest moral character - men such as those who continue to minister as priests for all of our needs.

These same men, however, have undeservedly been marked with the stigma brought on by the few who have actually done wrong.

When someone has hurt another person in a school system, our response is to remove that person, to bring them to justice. We move to replace them with someone who is held to a much higher standard: someone who can attempt to mend wounds brought on by their predecessor, a person who is there to help bring us back to the state of trust we should have had all along.

Are we to begin to doubt all the other teachers in the educational system, labeling them as suspected abusers, as we have allowed to happen to the priests within our own Church?

Too many good priests have had to suffer the dishonor brought on by those who have shamed the title and office of priest. Instead of fighting for our priests, we respond by saying things like, "I don't think Father X is like that," or, "I haven't seen anything, but who knows, because of what [another priest] did."

It's about time that we stand up and defend our faith - and, more importantly, the men who have been faithful to their promises to the Bishop, upholding the faith and walking with us through life as true disciples of Christ.

We have the right to free speech in this country, and this right should be upheld and defended. However, this right has been used to an extreme against Catholicism, and specifically against the priests who have devoted their lives to living out that faith. A person is free to ridicule our faith publicly and we, rather than interject, allow this to continue to happen.

Priests have given their lives to God - not for their own gain, but to serve us, His people. The projected statistic for eight years from now is 39 active priests to serve 133 parishes in the Albany Diocese.

Bishop Hubbard has called upon priests who have "retired" to continue to minister, ensuring that we receive the sacraments - and they have done so without hesitation. I cannot imagine the majority of us continuing to work not because we need to in order to survive, but because someone else needs us.

We as a Diocese need to begin to encourage vocations to the priesthood, because these men will not be around forever.

The running joke among priests years ago when these projections first came out was, "What county do you think you'll be assigned to?" instead of, "What parish would you be happiest at?" That joke isn't so funny anymore, now that it's becoming more of a reality each time a priest passes away.

It's only fitting for us to thank our parish priests who have taken up so much more than they ever imagined when they first began to discern their calling - those who have always been there for us in the past, present and, hopefully, for our future.

These men have always thought of us first, so maybe it's time that we begin to do the same.

(Brian Kelly is a seminarian studying for the priesthood for the Albany Diocese at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois. A native of Newtonville, he was formerly business manager at Holy Trinity parish in Cohoes.)