Last week I was at the funeral for the father of a dear family friend. Because my friend is a priest, about 25 priests were in attendance at the Mass, as well as Archbishop Dolan. After the Mass and reception, eight-year-old Jacob, five-year-old Liam and I approached our friend to say goodbye and offer our final condolences. The Archbishop happened to be standing nearby, and he greeted my sons warmly, asking them where they went to school (they were in their tell-tale Catholic school uniform of navy pants and light blue shirts.) As the Archbishop shook my sons’ hands, he smiled and said, “We have two future priests here, don’t we?” He chuckled, looked at me and added that he was getting older, wouldn’t be around forever, and would someday need a replacement.
And my hands, which up to that point had been resting lightly on the shoulders of each of my sons, tightened on their own accord. While I smiled back and nodded slightly, “no,” was the only word in my mind.
No. You cannot have my sons.
I am not proud of my reaction. But it was honest and true, and I suspect that I am not alone. A priest friend of mine once explained the current priest shortage this way: “Mothers are not giving their sons to the Church anymore.” He said in years past, when Catholic families had six or eight children, parents were more likely to encourage one of the boys to enter the priesthood. Now, with fewer children in a family, parents (and mothers in particular) are reluctant to “lose” a son to the priesthood.
As I drove home, I thought over my reaction to the Archbishop’s gentle suggestion that my boys become priests. It bothered me that my immediate response was a negative one. I am a lifelong Catholic and consider myself very active in the Church. Why would I not want my sons to be priests? I had priests to thank for much of my own spiritual development. The poetry, music and homilies of Fr. Bob Purcell at Marquette University sent me looking for God in all things as a young adult. Fr. Jack Kern’s commitment to care for the poor and oppressed and his Jesus-like countenance were a source of weekly inspiration to my husband and me when we were newlyweds at Saints Peter and Paul Parish. And a succession of Fr. Bryan Massingale’s powerful “live the Gospel, don’t just talk about it” homilies actually spurred us on to become foster parents. Why would I not want my sons to become priests like these men?
Part of it is simply because there are so few young men choosing the priesthood these days. The men who do are left without peers in their vocation; all their brother priests are a generation or two older. In the past, the potential loneliness of being a priest was mitigated by larger numbers that gave priests a sense of community or brotherhood. Now, candidates for the priesthood are being asked not only to forsake the opportunity for a wife and children, but to go without a community of peers as well.
What also distresses me as I consider the question of either Jacob or Liam becoming a priest is the fact that my Church is eager to receive my sons, but shows little interest in my daughter. I have four women friends who would make incredible priests — spiritual, caring people, adept at counseling, knowledgeable in theology and excellent public speakers. It troubles me that the Church will look past these women, as well as equally well-qualified married men, in order to maintain the tradition of celibate males leading the flock.
And the recent scandals only add to my hesitation. While great strides have been made in the past two years in righting the wrongs of the past, the Church is still in its infancy in learning to take responsibility for its institutional sins.
And yet, amid all these problems, there is so much I love about the Catholic Church that I understand why young men respond to the call of the priesthood. Each time I receive Eucharist, join hands at the Our Father or am moved into action by a homily, I realize I am one of the many beneficiaries of one person’s decision to respond positively to the challenging call of the priesthood. And even as some of the Church’s mistakes get in the way of what I’d like the Church to be, I recognize that it is a human organization, made up of human beings who are striving —however imperfectly — to follow Jesus. I recognize that it has been the Church’s priests and bishops, along with lay leaders, who have historically brought about change in the Church, and who will continue to do so in the future.
Liam told me the other day that when he grows up, he wants to be a builder because, in his words, “I want to love people and take care of them and make sure they have a place to live.”And in the end, if Liam takes this philosophy into his career or vocation, that will be enough for me. The Catholic Church needs good builders (and re-builders), too.