Recently I celebrated the 10th anniversary of my ordination. Ten years as a priest! A time for some reflection! I can say it out loud: They’ve been good years, full enough of giving and receiving. I have enjoyed the ministry and have been able to help some even as I have been helped by others. There have been too some incredibly special moments, depth moments clearly touched with transcendence, and I have also tasted sufficient agony. I’ve no regrets. My initial fears upon entering the seminary had centered around loneliness and boredom. Those two issues have been non-issues. The specters of pressure, over-intensity and burnout cast a much more threatening shadow. But I’ve survived, and survived with enough enthusiasm to hoist a few beers to celebrate the event and to look forward to the future. As I look ahead, I would like to offer a reflection to the Catholic community vis-à-vis its priests. Put quite simply it is this: Stop pressuring your priests to be less than fully human. Let me explain:
Roman Catholics still understand a priest too much in terms of his cultic role. There is undue significance given to the cultic powers a priest has to preside at Eucharist and other sacraments. Partly because of this the priest is too easily cast in the role of the tribal medicine man, the guy who can do magic and who has a ritual (‘hocus-pocus”) power which we do not understand and somehow fear. Like the medicine man he is respected and revered because he is, ultimately, feared. He is never genuinely loved, nor understood, because he is never perceived and accepted as being fully like us. Too frequently, with all but our very closest friends, we are made to feel out-of-the-ordinary, medicine men! More serious still is the Catholic community’s understanding of the priest as a relational sexual being. Bottom line, a priest is expected to act as if he were not a sexed male being full of erotic impulse and sexual complexity. Please do not misunderstand me here: What I am pleading for is not that the Catholic community invites or condones erotic weakness and irresponsibility in its priests. Nor should it invite its priest to be “simply one of the boys.” The issue is one of accepting a priest’s full humanity, including his sexuality and the necessary complexity that follows from this. The priest need not be handed a license to be irresponsible, but he desperately needs to be handed the feeling that he is understood and accepted fully as he is, including his complexities and sexuality.
Unfortunately that is rarely afforded to us and, consequently, we must pretend….pretend that we are eunuchs. No eunuch can preach effectively to the full-blooded. That is why we are politely listened to even as it is taken for granted that we have nothing vital to say. In this area, a priest often finds himself in a no-win situation. If he seemingly understands life too clearly, including its earthier aspects of sex, eros and sin, then he draws the wrath and suspicion of the Catholic community (witness Andrew Greeley). Conversely, if he radiates the innocence and naiveté that the community demands, he is relegated to the realm of the insignificant; still allowed to do his hocus-pocus, but no full-blooded person turns to him for a genuine understanding or guidance. It is an interesting speculation as to why the Catholic community wants its priests to radiate naiveté and non-complexity. I suspect that is because, deep down, we are all afraid of our own darker side, our complexity (our shadow, in the Jungian sense). We deny this darker side in us and, somehow, if father goes through life pretending that no shadow exists, we can also more easily pretend it does not exist in us.
Finally, we tend to leave no room for our priests to be weak. I am not speaking here of weak in the moral sense, but weak in the way Jesus was weak and in the way any truly compassionate person is: vulnerable, not always together, emotionally wounded, over-extended and prone to cry very needy tears at times. We demand instead someone who projects that all is well at all times and who bleeds only ichor. If a priest shows emotional weakness, shows his own needs, or gets too involved in the lives and loves of those he is friends with and ministers to, he is suspect. And so my plea is this: Please don’t, consciously or unconsciously, ask your priest to dress in medieval clothes, to stay in the sanctuary, and to be so timorous so as to be unable to dare the perilous task of living. Let him be himself…complex, weak, sexed, masculine, involved, needy, and free not to pretend. Priests are tired of dressing in the clothing (psychological and physical) of senility while everyone is crying to be young; tired of living as eunuchs with no blood, sinew and passion. Small wonder nobody wants to join us!
We need, priests and community together, to risk some new directions. There are dangers involved, but, as Goethe once put it: “The dangers of life are infinite and safety is among them.”