Lots of folks — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — have a hard time imagining the choice a priest makes to remain celibate his entire life. Some are amazed; some view it as impossible; some are simply grateful they weren’t called to such a life. Boy, I couldn’t do it, they say. Better them than me.
A few months back, our associate pastor, Father G, joined a group of us at an event for married couples. He spoke about what a beautiful vocation marriage is, then said, “I’m glad I wasn’t called to it.”
As you might expect, that got quite a laugh from the couples in attendance — like, if it’s so great a calling, why are you so happy not to be married?
I laughed, too. Later, as I talked to a friend, he pointed out that no one thinks twice about a married man saying, “I’m glad I wasn’t called to the priesthood.” The Catholic Church views both vocations as lifelong, life-giving commitments, in one case, to your spouse; in the other case, to the Church. So just as I feel I am meant to be a husband and father, so Father G feels he is meant to be a priest.
You might argue that the reason one’s easier to swallow for most people than the other is that taking a mate and giving birth to children seems somehow more natural. And in a way, that makes sense — in a “taking a mate and giving birth” sort of way. But in terms of a lifelong commitment to marriage and raising a family, come what may, the differences are less apparent. Would I leave Jodi if a tragic accident made it necessary for us to spend the rest of our days celibate? No. Would I stay married and cheat? Of course not. My “I do” a dozen years ago was more than a mere one-time choice — it’s a daily commitment and lifelong vocation. It’s a calling.
I bring this up because for the past couple of years, our middle son, Gabriel, has been talking about becoming a priest. When he first told our priest, Father M began to call Gabe “Father Gabriel” — and it bugged him at first, because he was worried that we might hold him to a lifelong decision made at age seven. “What if I don’t become a priest?” he asked.
But his comfort with the idea seems to be deepening, and he talks to Father M and Father G whenever he gets the chance. When we start poking fun at the kids about girls and boys and who they might marry, Gabe says matter-of-factly, “I’m marrying the church.”
Puberty may tweak his thinking, but for now, he seems to be serious.
When my mom first heard this, she was saddened, despite herself. She’s Catholic, too, and knows we need priests, but she also dreams of seeing countless great-grandchildren from each of her grandkids. Our oldest, Brendan, wants to go the Naval Academy, then become an officer in the Marine Corps. I mentioned this to another friend of mine, who said, “Well, at least you’ve got time to talk him out of that!”
I understand these feelings, but I wouldn’t dream of it — first, because a kid deserves his or her dreams, and second, because I am so deeply proud to have two boys who are willing to entertain lives of service and sacrifice at their young age. Even if they don’t become what they aspire to today, that willingness to serve will be a great asset to our future.
Some of you read about the special gift given to Gabe by Father M a few weeks back — a stole, chalice and paten (pictured above) with which to practice the Mass. Gabe made him a thank-you card and has been looking for an opportunity to give it to him. In the meantime, last Saturday we visited our friend Deacon Tyler (from the Future Priests of the Third Millennium blog) at the St. Paul Seminary. (He will be ordained a priest in Rapid City this June, and yeah, we’ll be there.) He showed us all around: the chapel, the dorms, the lounge, the grounds. He explained that the higher floors of the residence hall have the best view of the Mississippi River below, and that the priests who teach at the seminary get those rooms.
While we were in St. Paul, we stopped by one of my favorite used bookstores, Sixth Chamber, to pick up a copy of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which Deacon Tyler, Jacqui of Jacqui’s Room, and Matt “Hubba” Trask of Hubba’s House turned me onto. I had discussed it briefly with Father M and discovered that he hadn’t read it, so we thought we would get a copy to thank him for his thoughtfulness toward Gabe.
He was not the presiding priest at the Mass we attending on Sunday, but appeared just before the end to make a bombshell announcement: he will leaving our parish this summer — the archbishop has asked him to teach at the seminary.
Through my own tears, I looked at Brendan. He was crying softly; he and Father M had bonded over military history during numerous conversations. Gabe was quiet, unflinching.
After Mass, we made a beeline across the church with Gabe’s card and the book. We hugged Father M and told him it was coincidental, but we had something for him. It was a bittersweet moment — then Gabe piped up that he had been to the seminary the day before, and that Father would live on the upper floors, overlooking the river …
Later, I asked Gabe how he felt to hear that Father was leaving for the seminary. His eyes grew wide and glassy, but he didn’t speak.
I told him that I noticed he didn’t cry like Bren and I did. He told me he was sad, too — but a little excited that he might have Father M for a teacher one day.
He is eight, but this appears to be no distant calling.