In the old days when Italians still had children, the mother of any large family, if she was devout, would single out one of her sons and pray that someday he would become a priest. In this tradition, my grandmother chose the gentlest and most intelligent of her four sons and encouraged him to be an altar boy at the church down the street, where a good Irish priest taught him well, fostering his own hopes too.
Well, the Lord had other plans for my father, as it turned out, but he and my mother managed to raise four children through the mire of the 1960s and 1970s, without quite understanding the social upheaval we were living through, as nobody at the time did. All four of us now attend Mass on Sunday, though for each of us I think the road back to devotion has involved a few detours into a wasteland here or a slum there. Without taking anything away from my mother—who was a softening and straightening influence upon him—I can confidently say that we are where we are now in large part because of my father. St. Augustine once addressed the fathers of his congregation as his fellow bishops—the overseers and shepherds of their own small domestic churches. My father had no conscious idea of it, but a shepherd he was; and if the Lord had seen fit to lay the cross of the priesthood on his back, he would have carried it like a man and inspired his flock to follow in his path.
I think of my father a great deal now that I’ve reached the early age at which his health started to fail. I think of him while picking berries, that arduous and peaceful task that even when I was a boy nobody did anymore. My father had about him a dogged rightness, a sense that escaped words (he did not use a whole lot of words). You don’t use a rake to pick blueberries: It roughs up the bushes, snags twigs along with the fruit, and leaves no green or pink ones to ripen for people who come after. You sit up straight in church—and if you didn’t, you’d get one silent, sidelong look, enough to wise up my kid brother, one of those boys born with an extra engine or two. You go to your cousin’s wedding, no matter which cousin it is, because family is family. To tell a lie is a rottener thing than to steal: At least you can catch a thief in the act. You will neither tell nor carry a tale. You honor your wife and remain true to her, period; and if you’re in the company of men boasting about their petty conquests, you nod and smile to yourself and go find a newspaper.
My father would have made a good priest. When he died 14 years ago, I was a new father myself, but still at heart a son, a child. He’d been ill a long time, so I wasn’t shocked or even terribly distraught on the night of his death; we knew it was coming, we even knew the day, though not the hour. He was sitting in the living room, hardly able to speak, but still conscious and able to receive a visitor or two. Since he’d lost the ability to swallow, we knew that the liver cancer would very soon finish its dreadful destruction of his system. His last request of me and my brother was to go outside and shovel the snow off the driveway, in case somebody tried to make it up the hill. As I said, we knew it was coming.
What I didn’t know was how much I would miss him in the years that followed, and how his example would stand before me as a challenge. Our culture had already reduced fatherhood to a paycheck at best: Its mad rationalism, based on absolutely no observation of human nature, had drained the words “manhood” and “womanhood” of all their meaning, flattening them into “adulthood,” as drab as a vast stretch of asphalt before the gates of hell. Parishes had begun to close across the country, lacking the men, the fathers, to lead them. Even the truth that God is Father was smiled at, and those who were in the know—though from what hitherto unknown person of the Godhead they derived their information, they never troubled to reveal—referred to God as Mother, as they pleased. But I who now lacked a father found that there were still brave men toiling in the priesthood: fathers who showed by example—sinners though they were—the way to the Father, whence comes all authority in heaven and on earth.
I wish I could write an encomium on the good priest-fathers I’ve known, men whom anyone should be proud to obey. It would go on too long, and I’d embarrass them. There’s the old gentleman who told me to my face, kindly and matter-of-factly, that I was an apostate—and told me so in my own home, after supper. But brimstone was hardly his favorite seasoning. When, struggling out of a deep depression, half swimming and half drowning, I asked him what would happen to me after I died, he responded just as simply and even with a mocking humor at my expense. “Why, you’re going to heaven,” he said. “Didn’t you know? I’ve been praying for you.”
He wasn’t at all like another good father dear to my family’s hearts. About this man certain legends have made the rounds, including one involving a well-aimed right cross at the jaw of a fellow priest—a wicked perverter of the priesthood, a committer of spiritual incest, and at that one of the worst. I didn’t know the fist-thrower at that time, but later I was privileged to know him and to follow him when he was assigned to a local church. Within one week all the ugly and saccharine music had been swept away—for how can you sing it, when the hymnals are no longer in the pews? We now are given the happiness of singing the great hymns of the church, every week, always chosen by Father, who knows his Scripture and his music, and who, without lapsing for a moment into aestheticism, says Mass reverently and makes even the Novus Ordo in ordinary time a thing of beauty and devotion.
There are many more: a couple of ex-Marines who might have upstaged Teddy at San Juan Hill; a studious Korean fellow who one day decided there were too many skeet flying around with impunity, and took several students from my men’s group to go and shoot some of them; a former dude from California whose generosity and ebullient smile win people over, yet belie a most wise and cautious confessor; a man who gives his card to troubled students in the confessional as they struggle with the addicting sins of youth, telling them that they can call him at any time, even in the middle of the night, when they need support against temptation. And my friend the gentle giant, whose mind and heart make me think always of the Angelic Doctor, along with my friend the history teacher, soft-spoken, but a rock of integrity. And the three wise Frenchmen, in whose countenances shines the peace of Christ, patiently enduring the resistance of a stubborn people, who have long grown used to license and do not want to give it up.
Some of these men are shy, and some are bold; some would be no help in a street fight, while others once fought in the streets; some read Aquinas, and some play the piano and some shoot pool; some are fine baritones, and some sing no better than your average music director. All would have made admirable fathers of families—as all of them, in fact, are.
It occurs to me, then, that to talk about a “priest shortage” is to mistake the matter utterly—it is to reduce the priest to a functionary, someone who says the requisite words of consecration and is done with it. You can have a shortage of envelopes, and you can have a shortage of people who lick envelopes. But it makes no sense to talk about a shortage of priests, for every man alive has fatherhood as his deep vocation, and that is regardless of whether he is married or single, lay or religious. What we suffer is an attack upon fatherhood—in the family, in those paternal and protective institutions upon which we all rely, and in the priesthood.
It is crucial to recognize the attack and how deeply it has already compromised the priest’s paternal role. We Catholics talk about how we need to persuade more men to enter the priesthood, and that is a good thing, just as it is a good thing to persuade men to enter marriage and not live the adolescent dream of sleeping around, begetting children, and galloping off into the mountains. What we don’t talk about is what we have done to fatherhood—both at the altar and. at the pew—to make the priesthood (and marriage, for that matter) less attractive to men. It seems obvious enough: If you want more men to be priests, you need to allow priests to be men. You need to allow them to fulfill in the priesthood their natural and godly aspiration to fatherhood. Some congregations seem to want priests on condition that they not exercise the authority of fathers; it is like asking for fire that does not burn.
It is said that the Holy Spirit grants His Church the priests it deserves. If that is so, what does it imply about us in the pews? Think of the sins committed by those lecherous, doctrine-diluting, self-gratifying, worldly priests from whom we turn in aversion. For which of those sins have we laymen not made straight the path? For which sins have we not cried out, in the neon deserts of our own making, “Turn from the Lord, O man! Here is your salvation”? We have driven fathers from our midst, and are surprised to find castrati in the vestry?
But we need fathers. Man is made to obey, and the Father in His mercy has provided for us fathers whom we can see and hear and touch. They are sinners, no doubt; but so are we, and the alternative to obeying a father—in one manifestation or another—is obeying the merciless hater of fatherhood below. There is no third choice. Patriarchy— much despised now as naturally abusive or obsolete—is the Scriptural rule for order and peace on earth as it is in heaven. It does not mean bullying. Far from it: Among us human beings it is a compact that benefits all. The man agrees to allay his natural unruliness and curb his taste for danger, his yearning for a wild freedom, and instead concentrate those energies upon what will benefit his wife and children; for them he will spend his substance and, if need be, his life; his will be the responsibility if they fail. Because he loves his family—his small platoon, his domestic church—he will lead them, will naturally assume his role as their head, if God gives him the grace to measure up to so high a calling. In return, his family grants to him the authority of a father.
No matter how young he is, the priest has made sacrifices that the rest of us have not made, and perhaps could never make; and if he is sincere in his calling, he will be found at prayer minding the things of God when the rest of us have to mind the next stack of papers or the leaky roof. Those sacrifices claim our respect. If he is to be our father, that enjoins upon us the duty to obey him. It will not do to reply that some priests are not perfectly worthy of obedience. Which of us laymen is perfectly worthy of having a good priest to obey? I am not talking here about obedience in sin, rather, obedience in all those things that pertain to the priest’s just role as father.
What does that mean in practice? No mother dreams that one day her son will be stuck in a job that has lost all its honor, compassed by old biddies who badger him all day and do everything just as they like it, with his exasperated “approval.” What kind of fatherhood is that? Or what kind of father can your married son become, if his in-laws manage the money as they like, paint the walls as they like, raise the grandchild as they like, and threaten him with episcopal wrath if he once should assert his judgment?
Therefore, a priest should be allowed complete authority over what concerns him most nearly: the Mass. Again, I am not recommending capitulation to someone who is himself disobedient. But if the priest thinks it is a foolish (and faintly patronizing) thing to have altar girls, then the congregation should yield the point, which was won through disobedience in the first place anyway. If the priest wants the choristers in the loft where they cannot be seen, and thus where they cannot turn their gift into their vanity, let them go to the loft. I recognize the danger: What if Father wants to have people hold hands during the Our Father, a practice not exactly forbidden, even if it is awkward and effeminate? Well, I think it more important to obey a legitimate though stupid direction, than to disobey and undermine the very principle of authority, the priest’s and one’s own.
It should be clear within a few weeks (sometimes it is clear within a few minutes) whether or not Father is an orthodox Catholic. If he is, then I think he should be given a fairly free hand to choose, as he wishes, those lay subordinates with whom he must do some of the more mundane work of the parish. He should choose his teachers, if he needs them, and the books they will use. No doubt there will be in the congregation some people whose special expertise will be of use: accountants, builders, musicians, and the occasional singer who knows some other key besides C-minor. The parish may have some way of recommending them to the priest; such recommendations may even be elective. But let the final decision rest with the Father—who in many cases may sense in others a holiness that we in the world do not usually consider.
But neither the beauty of the Mass nor the soundness of the ledgers will mean anything if we do not allow Father to preach. It is a scandal when priests stand at the pulpit and, in ignorance or with malice aforethought, preach precisely what is condemned by the Church. It is also a scandal, unrecognized though far more common, when laymen work to stifle the preacher, either by letting him know (in friendship, of course!) that some subjects will not be tolerated, or by outflanking him with a couple of pawns and a bishop. If we want frank and manly preachers, we must be the sorts of obedient sons and daughters who want to hear frank and manly preaching. Oh, we all like to smell the sulfur and bitumen when other people’s sins are tossed in the flames; but the true Christian will pray to the Father, “Make me do Your will—and if I don’t want it, make me want it, and don’t spare my feelings. My feelings are part of the problem anyway!” We should pray thus—and we should encourage our preachers to be the messengers that such a loving and all-demanding Father would send.
Our fathers are human, after all. When was the last time we came up to one of them and said, “Father, I took what you said last week to heart. I’ve been doing wrong, and it has to stop—thank you”? They need that sign of obedience as encouragement; and I daresay that there is nothing more humbling for a good man than to feel that he is the unexpected conduit of grace for someone else, even for someone whose holiness he feels he himself has not attained.
What is the result of a priesthood without fathers? Parishes in which all the males over twelve are absent, reflecting neighborhoods without fathers, crime-ridden, loveless, desperate, dying. My own father I never loved as much as I loved my mother, but it was from my father, and not from my mother, that I drew my firm assurance that the universe was governed and not lawless, and that law itself is but one of the more patient faces of love. To him and to all those other fathers whom he taught me to heed I owe a debt I cannot repay—unless by giving the glory to Him, the Father of all fathers and mothers and daughters and sons; Father before time was, together with the Son, in the union of their Spirit of Love.