On the tenth anniversary of my ordination, I published a reflection on the priesthood, intending it as a challenge to the Catholic community to understand its priests more empathically. Maybe I’m more mature today, though perhaps the years have also blunted some of the courage and verve I had back then. So, twenty years later, I share again the words I wrote when I was still a very young priest:
“Ten years a priest! 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 people even as I have been helped by others. There have been too some incredibly special moments, depth moments clearly touched by transcendence, and I have also tasted sufficient agony. I’ve no regrets.
My initial fears on entering the seminary had centred around loneliness and boredom. These have been non-issues. The spectres of pressure, over-intensity, and burnout cast a much more threatening shadow.
And I’ve survived, and survived with enough enthusiasm to hoist a few drinks 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-a-vis its priests:
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 been given to preside at Eucharist and administer the sacraments. Partly because of this the priest is too easily cast in the role of the tribal medicine man. Like the medicine man, he is respected and revered because he is feared. But he is not genuinely loved, nor understood, because he is never perceived and accepted as being fully human like the rest of us. Too frequently, with all but our very closest friends, we are made to feel out-of-the-ordinary, medicine men.
More debilitating still is the Catholic community’s understanding of the priest as a sexual being. Bottomline, a priest is expected to act as if were not a being full of sexual complexity. Please do not misunderstand this: What I’m pleading for is not that the Catholic community invite or condone sexual weakness and irresponsibility in its priests. Nor should it invite a 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 that. The priest need not a be handed a license to be irresponsible, but he 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 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 about real life.
A priest generally finds himself in a no-win situation: If he seemingly understands life too clearly, including its earthier aspects of sex and sin, then he draws the suspicion of the Catholic community. Conversely, if he radiates the innocence and naivete the community wants of him, he is relegated to the realm of the insignificant, still allowed to do his magic, but no full-blooded person turns to him for genuine understanding and guidance.
It’s an interesting speculation as to why the Catholic community wants its priests to radiate naivete and non-complexity. I suspect it’s because, deep down, we’re all a little afraid our own complexity and somehow if father goes through life pretending that he has no shadow, we can also more easily pretend that we haven’t got one either.
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 that any truly sensitive person is: vulnerable, not always together, emotionally over-wrought, chronically over-extended, and prone to cry very needy tears at times. We demand instead someone who projects that all is well all the time and who bleeds only ichor.
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 timid 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 being cast in the clothing of senility while everyone is crying to be young, tired of being cast as eunuchs without real blood, sinew and passion.
Small wonder hardly anyone wants to join us!
We need, priests and community together, to risk some new directions. There are risks in this of course, but, as Goethe once put it; ‘The dangers of life are infinite and safety is among them’.”