Common Wisdom: The Priestly Mystique

I never subscribed to the notion that priests are just like everyone else. Anyone who makes God his first priority is not to be confused with the rest of us.

Rank has nothing to do with it. If he is an unobtrusive curate or a well-publicized bishop, I regard him with equal esteem. Status or lack of it is not the significant factor. His original decision is. Whether he meets or fails the challenge is irrelevant. He has my abiding respect that he dared to try.

I hope the chorus will not weigh in with protestations about the commensurate nobility of the marital state (my choice), the single life, or women religious. Each commends itself to the Lord. But I am not dissuaded: the man who determines to emulate the pattern lived by Jesus Christ, Himself a man, elicits from me something approaching awe.

Which is not to say I fall slack-jawed and adulatory in the presence of clergy. There are distinctions between a man’s vocation and a man’s identity. Clearly, there are priests I find difficult, colorless, or otherwise unappealing. But my admiration survives. I weathered the Hawaiian-shirted “call me Larry” types in the late 1960s and early 1970s undeterred by such trendy, uninvited familiarity because I never failed to see the Roman collar through the palm trees. There are priests who celebrate Mass so dispassionately that I attend other services. I am sensitive to reverence and mourn a listless Mass; God deserves better. Nevertheless, I understand those Masses to be just as valid, the Host just as consecrated. Mass does not depend on the personal charisma of the celebrant, nor a vote of approbation from the pew.

When I review my Rolodex under “priests,” a montage of images crowds memory. Priests come in all sizes, shapes, and dispositions. Forced to conjure up a symbolic priest, I see no particular face. I see a chasuble, I see candlelight on an altar, and, above all, I see hands. Hands extended in the invitational gesture of orate fratres, hands palms down over the chalice, hands holding and giving sacred bread, hands inscribing crosses in the air. If this reads like the rambling of a romantic, let me quickly infuse reality. Among clergy I have known, the tally of pragmatic versus ascetic leans lopsidedly to the former. Always, there is the human element, some recollections bordering on hilarious.

My earliest contact in fact was with a crusty Monsignor who reigned (I use the term advisedly) as my pastor for what seemed an interminable tenure. He was Irish, cantankerous, and today would be banished to a rehab facility geared to making him a kinder, gentler man. He specialized in glowering, and his appearance in the schoolyard caused peanut butter sandwiches to cleave to our palates and nuns nervously to finger their veils while seeking a convenient wrongdoer grinding gum into the swing, all the better to demonstrate Whose Side She Was On.

Monsignor did not confine his scowling to children. During Mass he shook his head from the pulpit at late arrivals and insisted they come down to fill the front pews, understandably vacant. It required only one march down that center aisle, to the piteous if smug gaze of pew sitters, to persuade the marchee against future tardiness. It is said of Sir Thomas Beecham that he frequently halted the London Philharmonic cold until someone in the audience afflicted with a hacking cough left voluntarily or was borne out by ushers. During Monsignor’s sermons, one strangled rather than cough, and potential sneezes remained unconsummated.

In stunning contrast to this earthy, dictatorial prelate was one of his associate pastors, an ascetic soul who looked as if he wore a hairshirt and would genuinely welcome the stigmata. Tall, rail thin, he gave wrenching sermons that affected him as much if not more than the congregation. We worried he might swoon into spiritual ecstasy right there at the lectern. I can only speculate on the difficult rapport at rectory dinners between himself and the pastor. They were the original odd couple before Neil Simon conceived the term.

Then there was the good-looking priest who knew it and enjoyed being an outrageous flirt, all the while confident in his vocation. One summer at the New Jersey shore, where he was assigned, I was co-conspirator in a terrible prank played on my visiting Protestant friend. She spotted the priest on the beach, tanned and holding court with his usual harem. Making a beeline for him, she caught his eye and, so she thought, his amorous interest. No one gave him away, nor did the miraculous medal he wore, commonly hung on many a Catholic neck. I promised her that if she would accompany me to Mass the next day she would see him. She could hardly wait. The cognoscenti, of course, were bursting to catch her reaction, and, when he emerged as the celebrant, we weren’t disappointed. I hope by now she has recovered, and forgiven. If I can impose a redeeming lesson on the exercise, I would say it served to disabuse her of the fiction that only plain, humorless men enter the seminary. Moreover, that priests need not function in airtight, womanless vacuums. Christ didn’t.

Not long ago I teased a priest friend about his being handsome, to which he shrugged and replied, “Well, if it helps bring some people to God….” He didn’t deny the obvious, he accepted it. But he wanted to put it in service to his vocation. It was a graceful and incisive response.

One noticeable change among parish priests has been the increasing diversity in their nationality. The priests of my childhood all had Irish, Italian, or German surnames. The parish of my adult years has seen men from Ghana, England, the Philippines, and Poland, to name a few. Perhaps my proximity to three universities accounts for the phenomenon here, but the precipitous decline in American seminaries in the past 20 years (some polls now show a slow recuperation), combined with an influx of refugees many of whom are Catholic, implies that we are destined to acquire vocations from men who do not sound like Tom Brokaw. Whether they serve our parish as transients or as new citizens, I welcome Mass celebrated in accents not my own. Nothing demonstrates so dramatically the universality of my faith.

If there is a negative to be recorded about parish priests—or priests in general—I suppose the rather common lack of connectivity (to employ a favorite contemporary word) comes to mind. Granting they do not choose the persons with whom they live—unlike us spouses—it sometimes jars to hear homilies preached about community when one observes that priests themselves seem to be in orbits which do not often intersect. One perceives in them a certain guardedness, an intense privacy. They do not so much live together, as side by side.

A Jesuit once instructed me, with undisguised exasperation, “Priests’ lives are different.” Indeed. But what they hold in common ultimately eclipses their differences. They are united by a bond greater, I believe, than any contract human to human. Maybe it is the magnitude of what they are about that makes them resist in so many instances camaraderie among themselves. That said, I do know that although in a sense disconnected, they are sensitive to each other’s pain, especially as it concerns vocation. In a telephone conversation with a priest friend I mentioned another priest who had given me grief in the past and subsequently left the priesthood. Up to this point, our conversation about the ex-priest had been casual and lighthearted. But when I mentioned the abandoned vocation the voice on the phone grew suddenly quiet, and grave. “Poor man,” he said. I have never heard compassion so compact. This, for a man he does not know.

It is impossible to conclude even a brief essay on priests of the Roman rite, the one I know, without adverting to celibacy, a topic which provokes bewilderment in the populace and figures routinely in novels, movies, and TV. The modern mind struggles: how can they do without sex? From my experience those most bothered about celibacy are not those who are celibate. The secular mind reels at the difficulty and discipline required to achieve and maintain it, but this analysis and dissection is infinitely more fascinating to the laity than to priests themselves. One 45-year-old priest said to me, “It doesn’t get easier. It gets harder.” But he said this matter-of-factly, non-obsessively. He deals with it, he has his focus, he is resolute. Surely, there are failures. Some struggle, fall, seek forgiveness and renew commitment. The model is Christ Who, fully human as a man, moved in his society among many women. He was followed by them, he visited them, he was fond of and loved by them. Still, he chose not to marry. This was Christ’s way, it is theirs. They ask and receive His help. Speculations aside, that is the heart of the matter. It is simple, it is complicated, and will forever remain grist for the writer’s mill.

Somewhere, in the life of each priest, there came a moment when the appeal of family, position, wealth, and possessions lost luster. What overshadowed all was a sense of God touching him, calling him. God became his priority. In recorded history, there are perhaps no more memorable words than those spoken by St. Thomas More, friend to King Henry VIII, with all the perks that implies. When it came to the ultimate choice, Thomas stood unequivocally against his king. He would lose his head in preference to his soul. Refusing to bow to pressure, he uttered that great affirmation, “I am the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Down the centuries after Thomas, countless men have put aside other loyalties, other attractions, and other goals, giving primacy in their lives to serving the Lord. They are called priests. To this Catholic, no one else is quite their equal.


B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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