I tend to clam up around priests. Most often, I find myself at a loss for words, even with priests I like, priests I find personable and interesting. Alcohol helps lubricate the social machinery, but I rarely get a chance to mix priests and alcohol. One chance I did get came about ten years back—an old Irish priest had paid a visit to my hometown parish, and my parents invited him to our home for Sunday dinner. Before we got to the part of the conversation where he mentioned his opinion that women should be allowed into the priesthood (my poor mother; I could hear her thinking, "Oh, Father..."), my sister-in-law asked him how he came to discern his vocation.
"I didn't want to leave school," was his mild, matter-of-fact reply. "If I wanted to keep going to school, I had to enter the seminary."
Presumably, God's will entered into the matter somewhere, and there was the fact that he had remained a priest for decades to consider, but the answer he gave was perfectly worldly. I was hesitant to criticize it. I imagined that many a man had given similar reasons throughout history—especially in those days when the Church was the chief preserver of the intellectual life. And such men had served the Church—some well, others surely less well, but still they served.
So now there's a poster going around featuring a young Catholic priest in cassock and sunglasses, doing his very best impression of Neo from The Matrix. He looks terribly cool, even if the poster idea borders on silly in some eyes. The priest who designed it says, "Today's seminarian is engaged with the world, but is also committed to orthodoxy, like John Paul II," and, "People love heroes. The poster personifies the priest as hero." If it is silly, it's easy to forgive. I don't agree with the criticism I'm running into here and there— that what we need are good men, not (ahem) poster-boys—men committed to the service of Christ, not men concerned with looking countercultural and hip. Is that really a danger? Is it really so likely that someone would endure years of seminary formation and embrace a lifetime of celibacy because of a poster designed to turn youthful heads?
Would someone embrace a lifetime of celibacy because of a poster designed to turn youthful heads?
Gone, or at very least faded, are the days depicted in the short fiction of J.F. Powers—when the priest's power in the community was awesome, when crossing the priest could have serious consequences. As far as I can tell, few men these days are signing up for the seminary so that they can lord it over the rest of us. Gone are many of the worldly trappings—for every priest with a summer house on Long Island, there's another like my former classmate who says, "I have lots of women who cook for me: Betty Crocker, Marie Callender, Mrs. Stouffer. And I'm very good with a microwave." And in this country at least, there are easier ways to get a college education. Even the boys' club of the altar servers is gone. Is it so terrible to use a cultural icon to make a valid point: that the priest is a special sort of someone, a Chosen One called to a special sort of service? More generally, must we reject any admixture of worldly interest in our priestly aspirants?
But back to me and priests. When my grandmother died this spring, we discovered a priest in the family—he presided at her burial. My parents were delighted with him— young, easygoing, Irish-American. They flew him out from New York to join our family for a few days during our annual summer gathering. I liked him immensely, and not just because he praised my selection of Italian wines (he had spent part of his seminary formation in Rome). I got over my usually tied tongue. Here was a regular guy, despite his somewhat irregular life—wry and friendly, capable of both the light touch and the thoughtful counsel.
Few men these days are signing up for the seminary so they can lord it over the rest of us.
I suspect he was "committed to orthodoxy"—he showed us a vitamin bottle marked B-Orthodox Pills (a supplement for the spine, naturally)—but there was nothing harsh or dogmatic about him. I talked to him about his attempts to provide real pastoral care to people stopping by for sacraments—co-habitators seeking weddings, would-be godparents who didn't attend Mass, etc. I joked with him about the state of the Church. And I knelt before him—four feet of kitchen table-turned-altar between us—as he celebrated the Mass in my living room. As he vested before Mass, he explained each garment, each step, each prayer. My boys watched him closely. It was marvelous.