Hopes for Priestly Life: Credibility, Friendship, Honesty

In less than a week, I will be ordained a Catholic priest.

For the love of God, a priest.

You may be wondering what sort of superhuman strength priests possess that other mortals do not.  I’d like to know the same. For the life of me, I have not yet found it – whatever it is – and I do not have much hope of discovering it in the next few days. To be clear: I trust in the graces of the sacrament of Holy Orders — that God will strengthen us to live joyfully the life to which God has called us.  The ordination rite draws on Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “May God, who has begun a good work in you, bring it to completion.” But priests are not superhuman. They have human aspirations and desires. Here, I’d like to list three rather human hopes I have for life as a priest.  

1. Credibility. Can I offer a piercing glimpse of the obvious? Like any person, priests can get tired and worn down. They can be cranky and petty; brusque and backbiting. But at their best, priests can be even-keeled and magnanimous; kind and utterly uninterested in others’ peccadillos. Priests are human, and they deserve the same scrutiny – and patience – as anyone who gives their life in the service of others. Like members of any professional group, priests inherit both the benefits – and the sins – associated with their guild.  

So much of our opinion of professional, clerical classes – doctors, lawyers, priests – is colored by our personal experiences and unconscious typecasting. A thought experiment: If I say lawyer, what is your first thought? You may think of a sleazy ambulance chaser…or of the woman who helped your mom fight asbestos companies, as dad lay dying of mesothelioma.

When I say police you may think of racial profiling…or of the high-school-athlete-turn-officer, who tries to keep up with teens on the basketball court in the park.

If I say priest, you may think of an aloof bachelor…or maybe you remember your well-seasoned pastor, who has been there for all your family’s baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Every profession – priests included – has in its ranks those who improve, and those who tarnish, the reputation of the collective. There are those who add credibility to the clergy, and those who drag it down.  

Among things devoutly to be wished: that all the priests ordained this summer be good ones, who add credibility to the Catholic Church in the 21st century.  How to do this?  With the help of…

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Unidentified man in white excited to meet Fr. Jim Gartland, SJ.

2. Life-Long Friendships. Our superior in Boston, Fr. Jim Gartland, is a joyful, generous priest. He laughs easily and loves broadly. He is quick with a kind word or an encouraging pat on the back. He speaks easily of his relationship with Jesus, and his life testifies to that relationship. Fr. Jim reminds us 75 young Jesuits in his charge of the importance of regular prayer and transparency; of good friendships and closeness with the poor. He is a model priest and Jesuit. Fr. Jim gives and receives affection and love — appropriate to his vocation — as well as any married person I know. Like any healthy adult, priests rely on good friendships inside their profession and without; they know men and women who love them even on their worst days, and who respect their priestly life commitments.

Looking back over eleven years of Jesuit formation, I think of several close friends who know me well — and they have stuck around anyway. I have college roommates who predicted I’d join the Jesuits, long before I would admit it to myself. I have brother Jesuits who can loving point out my inconsistencies, and who challenge my hasty conclusions or querulous presumptions.

Good friends are like seasoned doctors: they recognize the ailments that afflict our soul, through different seasons of life. They know when to offer a word of challenge, and when to apply a soothing balm. They know when we’re being crazy, and when we are on to something. These friends help us put words to budding desires, and they know how to rein in our prideful ambitionings. Good friends — in religious life or not – do not just accompany us; they help reveal us to ourselves, and give us the room to grow over time.

Among things devoutly to be wished in priesthood: life-long friendships. But how to achieve life-long friendships?  Through…

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3. Honesty and Candor.  Chekhov writes, “If you are afraid of loneliness, don’t marry.” To this I would add, “If you are afraid of people, don’t become a priest.”  Some priests are introverted; some are extroverts. There remains a book to be written about how each camp eyes the other with suspicion.  Introverts, it is said, are energized by solitude. As an extrovert, I have had a hard time understanding how people interested in priesthood find other people exhausting. In turn, my introverted brothers wonder how one can have any spiritual depth, when your pool of friends is a mile wide.  From years of religious life in community, we learn from one another’s best practices: introverts cultivate a small, tight circle of trustworthy friends. And recovering extroverts learn to encounter God in silence, and to ignore the yammering FOMO Monster1 that keeps us from enjoying the pleasure of solitude.

To introvert and extrovert alike, Fr. Jim would ask, Who knows you well? Who can you be totally honest with? Who can you turn to when you’re frustrated, angry, worn down, lonesome, or in desolation? These are good questions for everyone: whether you’re aiming for priesthood, marriage, or single life. If we all need a reliable friend or three in life, Who could you call, right now, knowing they would happily listen to you?  And who could call you, in return?  

Among things devoutly to be wished: honesty and candor in life-long friendships.

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I will be ordained in less than a week. And by the grace of God, I am not alone – thirteen Jesuits are getting ordained in the Midwest this June. Gesu Church in Milwaukee will be packed to the rafters.  We’ll be surrounded by family, friends, fellow Jesuits, mentors, and former students who travel near and far to be present.  And we will have others who will be there in spirit.  I marvel at the kind, encouraging notes that people have sent these past few months.  

But a sly voice within whispers, “If they knew all your foibles and limitations, they would not spend one minute with you!” Who of us doesn’t feel unworthy of our friendships? Unworthy of those good people who support us, in spite of ourselves?  We want to shoo them away – no really, go find better friends! But like Lassie, they return, faithfully by our side even when we have done nothing to earn their love. I take it as a good sign when both parties in a friendship feel like they’re getting the better deal. Wow, to be blessed with terrific friends.

It takes nothing away from the grace of Holy Orders to say that terrific friends are a welcome support. Whether to marriage or priesthood, med school or the marines, life’s liminal moments touch on our fears and uncertainties: No really, we protest, go find a better candidate! And that sly voice of discouragement again whispers, “who do you think you are, coming forward for the priesthood?  If only they knew all your foibles and limitations…” Who of us doesn’t feel a little…unworthy of what we feel called by God to do? Especially when many thoughtful, prayerful people feel drawn to ordained ministry, but cannot be. People of good will — who are not remotely interested in tearing apart the Church they love — find an all-male, celibate priesthood to be…a curiosity….a vestige from a different time…a source of pain. To hear their curiosity or anguish, and to let it unsettle us, is to stand where the tectonic plates of ancient faith and contemporary culture grind against each other. To labor as credible priests in our world today carries the added responsibility of exercising the priesthood worthily, humbly, and well — attentive to where our culture and Church chafe.

Priests are not superhuman; nor are doctors or religious sisters, policemen or parents. But any group committed to serving others is challenged to heroic living. As a person of faith – an unabashed, peccable, Catholic — I count on the graces of the sacrament to make me and my brother Jesuits good priests. I also rely on the sustaining friendships that have brought us thus far — friendships that God has planted along the way, to make our vocational commitments possible and life-giving.  

For the love of God, these qualities — credibility, friendship, honesty — are devoutly to be wished. Good things for priests, yes; and good for anyone trying to live out God’s call in life. Godspeed, friends.  

And if you can spare a minute, say a little prayer for good priests.

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“Meditate on the law of God. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and put into practice what you teach.”

– From the old Rite of Ordination of Priests

Editor’s Note: Throughout June, 30 young Jesuits in North America will be ordained Catholic priests.  For more details on the mission of the Society of Jesus in the US and Canada, visit here. If you know of someone considering a vocation to the Jesuits, visit here.  

For more information on mesothelioma cancer, click here.

Midwest Ordinations, June 2015

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Featured Image, “Ordination” from Flickr user Saint Joseph, is available online here.

  1. ”fear of missing out”

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