Last week I made melancholy tribute to the shrinking cadre of men who heed the call to serve Christ’s Church as priests, and tried to think of ways we can offer them human support while they go about God’s business. Whenever I think about the question of calling, I’m reminded of my own brush with the grave issues faced by young men discerning God’s will. This is the part of my story that makes my friends gasp over their omelets.
In the bleakness of my post-Catholic high school in the 1980s, one teacher fought for the Faith. I owe a thank-you note to Miss Gertrude Best, a slim and ascetic middle-aged lady who taught us in history class about the Communist persecutions of the Church — even as down the hall the jaded nuns showed us Sandinista propaganda films. I and my friend became her acolytes, starved as we were for facts about our Faith.
To offer us some protein, Miss Best was kind enough to drive us every week to sit in on the theology classes she was taking with Rev. John Hardon, S.J., at St. John’s University. While the man was brilliant, the classes were dull — based as they were on impenetrable phenomenological addresses by Pope John Paul II. But I made the most of the question periods, probing that saintly priest with all the Faith-testing, Jesuitical questions that 16-year-old smart alecks are driven to ask. And Father Hardon parried them brilliantly, as Jesuits have done for centuries. He shot down in flames every doubt my personal Screwtape had whispered in my ear, and built up in my mind solid habits of faithful reasoning. I will be grateful to him in eternity, I hope.
When my high school friend (not I) expressed an interest in the priesthood, Father Hardon offered advice: “I wish that I could recommend you apply to the Society of Jesus,” he said in his careful way. “I love the order, and wish it could be saved. But I cannot in good conscience send any young man into its seminaries. The closest thing today . . .” And that was how Father Hardon sent my friend and me to visit the Legionaries of Christ.
We attended what promised to be an ordinary retreat and were deeply impressed at the hordes of healthy, energetic young men wearing cassocks and playing soccer. The Mass was slow and reverent, though the chapel was modern and hideous. (I’d come to learn later that they built things this way on purpose, which still puzzles me.) Then the high-ranking 40-something priest came out to address us in the chapel, and I had what some worried friends still call my “James Joyce moment.” Perhaps it was his starkly military bearing, the solid jut of his jaw, or his metallic Dublin accent, but that talk in the chapel really does seem in retrospect like a snippet from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I’ll do my best, at a distance of 30 years, to reproduce the heart of the rector’s remarks, and my silent responses.
Before the Lord God created the material universe, He knew one thing. Would you like to hear what it was? He knew the names of every man He would call to serve Him as a holy priest at the altar. He had them written down, if you will, in the Book of Life. He knew that He would create them for that one purpose, and that purpose alone.
Wow . . . I never thought of it that way. Cool!
Now imagine that you’re a potter, and you’re working with a piece of lowly clay, trying to make it into a coffee cup. That is the purpose for which you got the clay in the first place. You try to shape it to serve its purpose, but this clay says, “I will not serve!” It resists your hand, and insists on turning into an ashtray. Tell me, what are you, the potter, going to do with that rebellious lump of clay?
Um, use it as an ashtray?
You’re going to throw it into the everlasting fire, where it will burn up and be utterly forgotten. Then you’ll take up a new piece of clay that will be obedient to your wishes, and form that into the coffee cup that you wanted.
Now, I’m not saying that each and every one of you here today is called to serve God as one of His holy priests at the altar. I would not presume to know. But ask yourselves in prayer, in the solitude of your room tonight, why else would God have brought you to this very special vocations retreat?
With that, the priest crossed himself, dipped to the floor in a mechanically perfect genuflection to the tabernacle (which was made, I think, out of Legos), and marched out of the room. And I felt as if the soccer-playing priest had punched me straight in the solar plexus. My rational mind, which Father Hardon had helped me hone, shut down like a busted TV. In its place, I was ruled by my gut, which was twisting the way it did when my father wielded his belt: Maybe I have to become a priest or . . . go to Hell.
I hadn’t known this was a vocations retreat. And yet here I was. Did that fact prove that God’s hand had moved me here like a chess pawn? (As a teenager I was unusually superstitious.) I had never for one moment been attracted to the priesthood. I’d hated serving as an altar boy, knocking over candlesticks and burning up with self-consciousness every moment I stood in the sanctuary . . . sure on some primal level I don’t belong up here. As much as I loved some of the priests in my parish, and feared the others, the thought of living in a house full of other men repelled me. The prospect of lifelong celibacy seemed implausible and appalling. Indeed, there wasn’t a single aspect of the priesthood that appealed to me, except the prospect of delivering angry sermons that no one would dare to interrupt.
But maybe what I wanted, on any level and with any part of my soul, was completely beside the point. (I would later learn from former students at Legionary high schools that their priests said precisely this, that any repugnance at the prospect of the priesthood was entirely irrelevant to the question of their vocations — and might even be proof of a calling.) The clay that wanted to be an ashtray hadn’t been consulted about its wishes, but when it rebelled it paid the price. If I refused this evident call, if not from God then from one of His holy priests, would I be saying, with Satan, “Non serviam“? I thought of the Lake of Fire, the Second Death, the Worm that does not die, and it was in this spirit of calm reflection that I explored the question of my vocation.
Through my next panicked week, I read every Catholic book I could get my hands on. I raced through St. Augustine’s Confessions, wondering if my resistance to the rector’s speech was akin to the young Augustine’s vicious theft of figs. I did my best to understand St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, taking from it only a sense of the solemn demands made by the vocation that loomed like a .38 at my ear. I lost sleep, spent hours agonizing before the Blessed Sacrament, and walked through the day as if on a tightrope over the leaping flames of Hell. Oddly, it never occurred to me to talk to anyone, priest or layman, about my dilemma. A priest had already spoken to me, and God awaited my answer.
And then it came to me, almost all at once: If an apparition of the Sacred Heart came to me, and told me I was called to the priesthood, I know what I would say. I would say “No.”
All at once, I felt light and free. Surely, I reasoned, part of any vocation to the priesthood must be a basic willingness to pursue that vocation, especially if it came in the form of a divine apparition. Having searched myself, I didn’t have that docility. Not one tiny speck of it. Thank God! I kept my Faith, decided I was called someday to marriage, and went on with my life, now free of terrors.
Some of my friends have found this story troubling — not that any of them ever thought I was meant to be a priest. (The best priests I’ve known have cracked up laughing at that notion.) Still, wasn’t my reaction a little bit . . . Luciferian? Wasn’t I warning God not to put me to a test I planned to fail?
No, not a bit. My reaction was the right one, and I’m ready to answer for it on judgment day.
I wasn’t saying no to God but to a callously manipulative man, who was threatening earnest teenagers with hellfire the better to pad his recruitment numbers. His account of God was ill-suited to Christianity but ideal for Islam, and like their Allah, this priest had no more respect for human dignity than he would for a lump of burning clay. The more I’ve learned since then about Rev. Marcial Maciel’s idea of “docility” — perfect conformity to the will of the Founder — the more thankful I am I fought off this moment of cult-style recruitment. It wasn’t Satan moving me to refuse. It was my guardian angel, stirring my natural Celtic cussedness and wholesome self-respect to warn me away from a group whose founder saw baptized Christians as Play-Doh to be twisted at the whims of human superiors.
I was always repelled by the cult of idolatrous human obedience that I learned of from friends in the Legionaries or Regnum Christi. I winced at stories of young men kept in the seminary for eight, ten, or twelve years — then summoned to hear the news that they “weren’t called” to the priesthood but to marriage. And here was a nice, low-paying job working for one of R.C.’s many ministries . . .
I know one laywoman who’d slaved for a year in an R.C. job she hated, who told her spiritual director that she was sliding into depression. He rebuked her for elevating her own wishes over the will of God, as expressed in the decrees of her superiors. The misery she was feeling was the residue of her selfishness being burned away in the crucible of holy suffering. Left aside was the other possibility: that she was suffering because she was in an abusive situation, which the mind the good God gave her was screaming at her to flee. (She did flee, and is now a happily married, faithful mom.)
It’s not surprising to me that, in an age where bishops, clergy, and teachers were making up the Faith as they went along, earnest, well-meaning Catholics would cluster around a seemingly solid order staffed with outwardly well-formed priests. I remember daydreaming myself about the Restoration these cassocked athletes would someday lead. What has confused me was why orthodox Catholics would embrace a System that so disregarded, even despised, the natural goods of Creation — such as the psyches, talents, and freedom of the people recruited by this System. Perhaps it was simply a case of the Theological virtues, falsely conceived, eating the Natural ones.
I was shocked by the callous way in which the System disposed of seminarians and laymen, treating them like cannon fodder sent to fill the trenches. Of course, it was all in the service of holy and supernatural goods — which would somehow, one had to take on faith, benefit someone’s soul at some point. Such rationales also soothed the consciences of bishops who covered up abuses; it’s all too easy to glibly conflate one’s personal or institutional interest with noble, even eternal motives. That is the heart, I think, of what makes a man a Pharisee. This temptation is certainly not limited to the leadership of an order that is now disgraced by its founder’s hypocrisy.
It is interesting to think: What would make a man like Father Maciel come up with such a system, one designed to hammer and break the human will under the blows of icy obedience? What kind of man would come up with such spiritual Bolshevism? An outright sociopath who craved the power to micromanage souls — and also perhaps a man who knew his own soul to be deeply, almost irredeemably corrupt. Projecting his own sordid state onto the innocents he recruited, he imposed on them the kind of grinding discipline he himself would have required — if he were actually trying to crush his pedophile tendencies. He left his cancerous soul to canker and prescribed chemotherapy to the healthy. He invented a mechanism for taming sex abusers and applied it to everyone but himself.
Back to my James Joyce moment. Some friends have chuckled at the story, then raised the nervous objection: “But what if an apparition had come and said you had a vocation? I mean, the Sacred Heart . . .” At this point they’d wince, afraid of blasphemy. I haven’t always known just what to say, sure in my gut that I was right but uncertain about the arguments.
Then I did more reading on the nature of apparitions and the Church’s rules for discerning spirits. And now I have the answer: If that priest’s talk had been followed by an apparition, it would have been a false one. St. John of the Cross warns us (and the Church agrees) that most of them are false — the products either of hysteria or the devil. I hadn’t learned all this by age 16, of course. Still, I had the good sense to stay away from shrines like “Our Lady of the Roses” in Bayside, Queens — where a whacked-out Catholic housewife claimed that Our Lady showed up each week to condemn documents of Vatican II and individual rock-n-roll albums. These Marian updates had begun at my sister’s parish, St. Robert Bellarmine, but at the pastor’s request, Our Lady had graciously relocated to the Vatican Pavilion of the 1964 World’s Fair. The blessed rose petals from this shrine were a hot item among those seeking miracles in Queens; the Baysiders’ radio show was full of testimonials from housewives whose urethral infections had been mysteriously cured . . .
Father Hardon himself was sent by the local diocese out to Flushing Meadow Park to investigate this apparition (whose followers still flock to Latin Masses in New York City wearing trademark blue berets). He reported to our class, “These phenomena are not merely hysterical or fraudulent. What I saw there was diabolical.” Maybe the formation I’d received from priests like Father Hardon had taught me to sniff out brimstone. That’s one thing real priests, with real vocations, are called to do.