It is Sunday evening and I have a melancholic feeling of not wanting the Sabbath to end, especially as it’s going to be (another) very busy week and I am recovering from jet lag. Time abroad, particularly the long hours in mid-air which so strangely ushers it in and out, affords an opportunity for a fresh perspective which always leaves me resolved to ration my commitments and have more Sabbath time for prayer and recreation. Sadly this resolve seldom outlasts the return, with its already accumulated jungle of tasks waiting to be cleared just to see the way forward.
I am hacking though the digital undergrowth of emails – variously declaring my order to be accepted, paid for, processed, soon to be despatched, now despatched, ready for delivery, delivered, and how do I rate the transaction? –when an e-mail arrives from a friend, saying, as old friends do, how he has been meaning to get in touch. He says he is on a train en route for meetings in Paris, and recalls that in seminary I once quoted a French prayer of a priest on a Sunday night (it was Michel Quoist’s prayer of that name). He says simply that he hopes that given all the current abuse crisis I am not feeling too burdened or lonely this Sunday night. Perhaps, he adds tactfully, it is because he is away from his own family tonight or just something to do with the wistfulness of autumn, but he just wants to assure me of his prayers and fellowship in the quiet of this evening.
He was the best of us from seminary days, and I would confidently have put a lot of money on his having a vocation to the priesthood. In fact, he left seminary after three years, having distinguished himself by his fidelity and integrity in formation and acquitting himself with new academic honours. For a while he worked as a lay chaplain and in the course of this work he met his future wife. They have been married for several years now, have beautiful children and he has a fulfilling career. He is the ideal of a Catholic layman.
‘‘What a great favour God does to those with whom he places the company of good people,’’ says St Teresa of Avila. I feel a surge of gratitude for this friendship and a kind of recognition of what it was I actually saw in seminary: not that he was supremely qualified to be a good priest, but that he was a good man, a man of God. It reminds me that priesthood is not the best choice in every case. It depends on correct discernment and the willingness to embrace the consequences of any call. To see my friend become more himself in his married vocation is a profound inspiration; it shows how the crisis in the priesthood will be overcome.
One of my tests of vocation was always a fairly instinctual one as to whether I could imagine that person having a ‘‘normal’’ life. When as a teenager I used to spend time with the Carmelites on discernment weekends it was borne upon me that the best of these priests would have made good fathers, good husbands, good friends, good professionals, interesting party guests, and had the capacity for all these things.
Before you can be a saint you must be a man, Thomas Merton wrote, and the same is true of being a priest. It is not a way for different or special men, it is a special way of being a man, so that someone who is a good priest, by definition, ought to have human virtues that would qualify him for other vocations. Clericalism, if by that one means recognising something distinctive about priesthood in terms of one’s comportment and behaviour, one’s whole sense of self, is not the problem. Narcissism, which confuses the dignity of the office with one’s own grandiose ideas of entitlement and lack of accountability, is the root of the abuse crisis among priests and bishops.
And I felt blessed by the fraternal love of someone who once wanted to be a priest but who, in becoming a husband and a father, retained his admiration for the vocation he once aspired to, and a sensitivity to its demands. And I pray for the grace to mirror him, in that I may grow in understanding and admiration for the gift of fatherhood and the responsibility, sacrifices and challenges which are proper to it, recognising in these not an opposite vocation to the gift God has given me, but its perfect complement in the divine and human order.
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