Continued from last week…
You are aspiring to be a priest, a word derived from a Greek word, presbyter, which means someone who is older. I imagine you are somewhere around 20 years old. I can’t even remember 20, but it was the sixties after all. People will get all excited about your decision to study for the priesthood, and not always in a supportive way. I suspect that some of the elements are different; some are the same as when I was thinking about the priesthood at that young age. You are living in what may be a post-Christian world. I have heard from some of my former seminary students that when they announced their intention to study for the priesthood people would say, “Why? You’re not gay.” I have heard of grandmothers who become angry when their 1.8 grandchildren talk about a religious vocation. “What? Will I have no great-grandchildren?” They were not generous enough to have large families, nor were their children. So the weight of their dreams falls on you. Believe me; people will try to dissuade you from even thinking about the priesthood.
I remember standing in the street outside the parish church with a young girl who I suspect had no interest in me except as a grade school acquaintance, tried to reason with me about how foolish it was to go to seminary. My own godmother took me aside and actually said, “You know, you don’t have to do this.” People tried to dissuade me for religious reasons. I was involved in the beginnings of the Catholic charismatic renewal when I was just 18 and participated in a wonderful ecumenical prayer group. One day a very important member of the group who hated Catholicism came up to me and said, “Thus says the Lord: you will not do this thing!”
I said, “You mean the priesthood?”
She said, “Yes!” I left the group. Apparently, she was a false prophet.
When I was in graduate school we had a pastoral quarter – a time in which we served in different ministries in a kind of internship. The program was very heavy on psychology and group analysis. The director of the program in which I was enrolled was a liberal Protestant minister, very respected. He believed deeply in marriage. He was on his second or third try at it. His end of the year counsel for me was “…to shack up with some girl in Sandburg Village” for a year before I continued on to ordination. Why Sandburg Village? I have no idea. I did not take his sage advice.
Every one of these helpful people could not imagine why a person in his late teens or early twenties would consider the possibility of celibacy. Why would a normal young man even contemplate denying himself what they regarded as the greatest of pleasures and normal relationships for a chimera, and illusion like the Kingdom of God? Now it’s almost humorous to contemplate from the perch of my old age.
The life of pleasure and possessions eludes most of the people who try for it. That Methodist minister, who encouraged me to commit adultery for a year for my own good, never seemed to find the happiness and permanence he sought in repeated marriages. Perhaps it worked out for him eventually. I don’t know.
People tried to keep me from wasting my life. They could not conceive that life might have some purpose beyond the acquisition of property and sexual relationships. Faithful marriage and family life are certainly among the greatest blessings that God gives, but the people who urged me to give up the fantasy of the priesthood were pursuing fantasies far less real. I wonder how many of them ever found what they were looking for.
An old priest who was my pastor during my diaconate year called me down to the office. He said there was someone in the office who wanted to see me. I walked into the small reception room and there I saw a defeated looking middle-aged man in a drab suit coat. He tried to sell me insurance or stock or something. I listened to his spiel and took his brochures and solemnly promised to read them, assuring him I would call him if I were interested. I went back into the rectory hallway and Father Casey told me, “He used to be a priest.” He had left the priesthood looking for a “normal” life. Remember that normal is just a setting on the dryer. People will tell you that being a priest is not normal. They are absolutely correct. The priesthood is larger than life. All those people who try to convince you to live a normal life don’t live normal lives themselves because there is no such thing.
To hear God calling and to answer is the surest path to happiness I know. I have met a lot of unhappy priests. Don’t think I am saying that priesthood is the path to happiness. Hearing God is the path to happiness. The priest who doesn’t have a real spiritual life is an unhappy priest. He is not hearing God.
The priesthood is not an easy life. But then again, no life worth living is easy. The priesthood is a sacrificial life. Marriage and family are also sacrificial, if you do them right. The people who urged me to give up the idea of priesthood had seen too many Doris Day movies and happily-ever-after sit-coms. To think that a worthy life is not sacrificial is just asking for trouble. The path to happiness is sacrifice, as Jesus taught us, “There is more happiness in giving than in receiving.” (Acts 20:35)
The question is what sacrifice is the Lord asking you to make? Don’t fool yourself. To marry when you are not called to marry, or to marry someone whom God has not given you is surely a prescription for misery. The world is full of divorce lawyers and the people who pay them. You don’t choose a vocation. It chooses you. The Lord says, “You have not chosen me. I have chosen you.” (John 15:16) That applies to every one of us.
More on elder-ness next week.