Advice to Graduating Seminarians & New Priests

For the purpose of this, I tried to think of things that I wouldn’t typically find elsewhere. I could write a whole article about how important it is to celebrate the Mass with reverence, so that older casual Catholics can see your sincere devotion as a witness to the love of Christ. I am assuming that you have had decent spiritual direction to help you keep Christ as your focus, and what that entails. So my focus wavers between Spiritual, and practical.IMG_6556 - Copy

I also desired to be as complete as possible, realizing that listed pieces of advice may be less critical. Since I wanted to dig up as many things as I could that nobody told me, I hope my readers will find some surprises.

  1. Love the Church: During my first few years of campus ministry at an all boys school, the image of the Church as the Bride of Christ wasn’t very helpful. However, what can I say about love? To some extent, as a young priest, you should be very concerned with befriending others, showing them the charity of Christ, to your best ability. You will have lay Catholic leaders in your parish who have been doing their best to follow Christ since before you were born. They will be happy to welcome you, but you are also a shepherd, and you must show them hospitality. If being with adolescents has taught me anything, unless you can prove to them that you care, they will not care about anything you say. Love the Church, before you speak to them.
  2. The honeymoon: I was told that the people of God would be so happy to have a new priest, that they tolerate countless small human mistakes. However, in my case in a school, as for a teacher, adolescents magnify their new teacher’s imperfections. Sometimes parishioners do thoughtful things, often boys mean well but the best of them aren’t too thoughtful. When I say masses at parishes, the people can’t get enough of me, and seemed to think that they own me. It was often a ridiculous contrast. Priests and other leaders might refer to the honeymoon, but that isn’t why you became a priest. As someone who didn’t necessarily experience it, despite what people tell you, the honeymoon might be disappointing.
  3. Get into a classroom: It is unlikely that you will be assigned as a teacher as a new priest. Being in a classroom enhances your ability to notice how quickly people lose interest in you when you are talking. Being in a classroom, helps you give more structured engaging presentations, and eventually to the point homilies. If there is a parish school, approach the 7th & 8th grade teachers, and offer to engage their students 2 or 3 times in the Fall Semester. I have seen way too many priests that turn their congregation into a classroom. They should quit doing that, and instead go into a classroom.
  4. Change Nothing, Change Everything! 15 years ago there was a stereotype of the “Young Conservative Seminarian” wanting to “rescue” the Church from V II. Hence, I received generic advice: “Please do not steamroll through a Church community.” Steamrolling meant being insensitive about making changes. Erring on the side of caution to the status quo. On the contrary, my experience on a high school campus lead me to believe that they expected me to make quick and decisive changes. The church-going faithful are interested in a fresh take on things, certainly more than I was told, even if they will take some time to get behind those changes.
  5. Say No, Say Yes. The tendency of a young man to put himself at the service of the Church, desires to do more rather than less. I was often warned to not over commit. Ironically, some people received the impression that I was not a generous person. Sometimes you have to find ways to say no, leaving open a possible yes in the future. Sometimes, people will accept a yes (Father, I get it, you’re busy), and others who need more of an explanation. If you are cautious, take the risk and immerse yourself, if you are a workoholic, learn to set boundaries.
  6. Your Boss and Colleagues are not your Spiritual Director or Formation Staff. I found that my formation directors wanted me to be acutely self-aware, candid about weaknesses and shortcomings, and emotionally vulnerable. Your Superiors, Boss, and often colleagues have no interest in your own human and spiritual growth. If you made a rookie mistake in a ministry scenario, and meet your Formator to discuss openly, you are doing well. If you make a rookie mistake as a priest, your boss (Pastor) is interested in a positive report. If your mistake is noticeable, he probably needs a report on your plan of action to overcome that in the future. This is a very necessary professional boundary that you need.
  7. Pick your battles: When entering a new professional community, one has to pick their battles. Anyplace you work, in and outside of the church, will be fraught with disagreements. Picking your battles is a caution of making too many enemies. Be prudent when you must stand your ground, however, as a newcomer you will need to be ready to concede on many things. When you can work with others, people will be more interested in hearing you out when you do not want to compromise on something. Be sure to not allow yourself to be taken advantage of, and avoid making a case to get out of responsibilities.
  8. Reach out to the local Catholic High School: If there is a Catholic High School within 10 to 15 miles of your parish, call them up, let them know you are just ordained, and would like to be scheduled for one Mass during the year. You will find a campus minister, who repeatedly receives declines from local priests. If you want to do extra, meet the campus minister in advance for a quick tour of the school. Boys schools seem to have no difficulty with Mass, however, many girls schools, and sometimes co-ed schools, cancel Masses because of a lack of priests.
  9. Stay connected to Priests: Priests talk a lot about their day off to each other. It is rare that they actually go and do fun things with other priests on their days off. During your first assignment, a family of parishioners will probably adopt you and become a very healthy support system. However, if you quickly play favorites, you will alienate members of the community. In your first year, it would be more prudent to keep connected to other priests, and nearby family or longtime friends.
  10. Your Pastor / Boss might also be nervous around you. He might be 30-40 years older than you. You might be the only 20-30 something that he talks to on a regular basis. He won’t want to be your best buddy, he may have had difficult working relations with other associates in the past. Yes, your role is to defer to him. He may imagine you to be judging him. Tell him some jokes and funny stories. Let him ramble about things that he thinks are important. You will learn a thing or two if you let him ramble. Humility is key. How many years did Jesus spend with Joseph, or with rabbis without causing a stir?
  11. Volunteering for middle aged adults vs. young adults: I find that older generations of Catholics relied on a few people to do all the things. Young Adults are over extended, and over committed. If you expect the same reliability you will set yourself up for disappointment. I believe, for young adults, instead of expecting a few of them to do all the things, expect a lot of adults to do a few of the things each. Young Adults want involvement, but if they are expected to give every morning of their weekend (their free time), especially holidays, they will be resentful.
  12. Awkward adults: Although people will be incredibly happy that you gave yourself to the Church, there will be Church-going Catholics and unchurched peers alike who will feel awkward around you. You will meet these people through friends. You will meet these people at the Parish School or at Funerals. You are a living contradiction to everything they know about life. I have been told repeatedly by middle aged Catholic women that I am too young to be a priest. Although comfortable with a white haired old priest, they have a hard time accepting a young man who gives up marriage or sex. They can never conceive how anybody would be happy if they weren’t married. Celibate Chastity, living like the angels, according to Jesus, won’t make sense to some.

Twelve rounds up too exhaustive of a list. I imagine that some of these will be relevant to others. I wanted to be very complete. In your first month, many of these might not make much sense. So, I do recommend, that if you are a new priest, to return to this within your first year. If you know a priest within the first 18-24 months of his ministry, this may also be worthwhile sharing.

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Ordination Registry: like a wedding registry, but for Catholic Priests

During my immediate preparation for Ordination 5 years ago, Many priests told me to discourage gifts of Rosaries and Crucifixes. Some priests were considerate by gifting a useful Ritual Item from the Church Supply Store. However, many Catholics are understandably clueless on what sort of useful gifts to give priests, or where to find them.

So I steered people in the direction of Restaurant Gift Cards. I received a Gift Certificate to a local Church supply store from a leader in one of our parishes. I attempted to purchase useful items for priestly ministry. One person wanted to purchase a Chasuble, but relented upon discovering the average pricetag of $500+. Another person desired I have a Travel Mass kit, but was shocked to find them upwards of $600.

In 2013, I used Amazon to only purchase text books, Blu Ray movies or electronic supplies. It would not have occured to me to search Amazon for Clergy or Church supplies. In my quest to construct a Travel Mass kit, I scoured the internet, and shocked to find so much available on Amazon. It was no surprise to find Ritual Books, but to find Holy Water Sprinklers, Chasubles, Stoles, Holy Oil Stocks, and even Statues was a novelty. I realized that I could have created an Amazon wishlist like an Ordination Registry. Often, these items are third-party vendors, that are able to sell merchandise through Amazon, so you may actually be supporting small Christian business throughout the country.

Within a year of my ordination, I created a Wishlist that would include some of these items. I also received a donation to create my own custom Travel Mass Kit, merely by assembling it piece by piece by Amazon. Generous donors would receive a private Mass offered for their intentions.

Only recently had I noticed Idea Lists on Amazon, that is a list for sharing rather than wishing. I created one as a Sample Ordination Registry for Seminarians and young clergy on Amazon. They could use it as something to send out to family and friends. I also created it with the lay faithful in mind. Some might have a friend in the seminary, or are always wondering what is a useful gift to give their pastor. In glancing at this Idea List for an Ordination Registry, I thought a few things could use further explanation.

Click Here to View the Ordination Idea List on Amazon

Chalice & Paten; Priestly Vestments

There is an ancient tradition, that the parents gift a Chalice & Paten upon the Ordination of their son. Although, every parish likely owns a set, the Priest may prefer his set, or may use it for his private Masses. Several months before my ordination, My father and I visited a large Church supply store to make a special order. Unless you are immediately related to him, I would discourage this purchase.

The same might go for priestly vestments. There is no similar tradition regarding Priestly vestments. Because of formation they would probably have an Alb (White Inner Robe). If they are looking for a Chasuble (Colored Outer Robe), you should purchase this in consultation. Their assigned parish may have a large supply of old vestments. If you are happy to spend over $100, look no further. Most people will want to look at other items on this list.

Catholic Art

Despite our nuptial theology of the priesthood, the priest’s daily personal life is still that of an unmarried man living in a bachelor pad. Catholic Artwork, Framed Prints, Icons, Statues and other similar items may help keep his space from looking a tattered mess. On a more profound level art attunes the soul to the presence of God in daily life, particularly through the Saints. Catholic Art reminds us that God is near. They may like to have a personal prayer space, including Icons, a crucifix, a Nativity scene.

It may incredibly thoughtful of you to find non-religious artwork. I swear I have been in many priest’s personal spaces, and all the walls are blank. If you know the Priest or Seminarian well, you might have a sense of what they will like. They may dislike cluttered rooms of heavy ostentatious artwork. I avoided this for my Registry List, but thought it worth mentioning.

Holy Water, Holy Oil & Communion

The Ritual for Anointing of the Sick can include the Sprinkling with Holy Water or Giving Communion. It must including Anointing them with the Oil of the Sick. ‘Last Rites,’ or the Commendation of the Dying usually includes Sprinkling & Communion, but doesn’t include Anointing. Particularly when visiting others a portable stole and small Ritual Book is essential.

For the Ritual of the Final Commendation at the Grave Site, the priest would need a special ritual book, but also a Holy Water Sprinkler (especially at a non-Catholic Cemetery). The Church Sacristy should have all the ritual books, yet an Associate Priest may need an additional copy for a day with multiple Funerals and Services.

In proximity of a Major Metropolitan Hospital, I take Sick Calls multiple times a week. Many people request Anointing of the Sick prior to Operations or Procedures. When I go, it helps the hospital staff to identify my car when I have to park in the short term parking outside the emergency room. I often have to run in and out of hospital rooms, with Sick Call items conveniently at my disposal. During my time as a campus minister, these rituals were so rare, that I made time to prepare. Preparation is a luxury many new priests will not have, so having the items together is a great help.

Ritual Books

As the Associate Pastor will typically be his first assignment, he will be involved in a variety of Rituals in the Parish. The Parish Sacristy should have all the Ritual Books. For his proximate preparation, he may need a personal copy in his office. However, during his time in the Seminary, he may have acquired some ritual books.

The Pastor will assign him a funeral soon after his ordination. The Funeral usually includes three parts: 1) Vigil, commonly with a Rosary, 2) Funeral Mass or Funeral Liturgy of the Word, 3) Final Commendation at the Grave. The new priest will probably preside at all three. Many Catholics never attend their parish, will call the Vigil Rosary ‘Mass,’ will fling the kids up to do all the Readings at the Funeral Liturgy. If Catholics, who regularly don’t attend Mass were defensive enough around religion, the funeral only makes them in desperate need of guidance and pastoral care. The least you can do to support your priest is make sure he has a Book or Holy Water Sprinkler.

The Marriage Ritual Book includes a ritual for blessing a couple on an Anniversary. This might be useful for a formal Blessing at an Anniversary celebration held outside of the Church.

Sometimes Other Rituals & Blessings will need to be included within a Sunday Mass. The Pastor may feel comfortable winging it, and making up prayers on the fly. As a young priest, I hated this. Since there were Ritual Prayers & Blessings available, I would defer to these. I often found the Ritual Books too massive. Having them when necessary, printed and copied in a ceremonial binder was my preference.

Being Organized & Having a Personal Life

Having been in a boys high school, and having lived with men in community, I know even good men are not organized or tidy. Young men do not immediately acquire items to assist them in organizing. The parish secretary might keep notepads, pens, tacs, folders, sticky notes, and other handy office supplies. There may even be a staff or volunteer cleaner. What they won’t do is organize a priest’s desktop. The pastor isn’t going to help the new priest with this, but will expect him to be on top of things. Although the Sacramental Life of the priest may be enlivening, the crucial office work may not be as exciting. I think that planners, small office boards, and desktop organizers are essential to helping me stay on top of things, prioritize, and remind myself of the plethora of menial tasks. I even included Priest collar tabs, because in the messiness of our life, being a guy, these things always disappear.

I needed a personal tool kit, to assemble furniture or hang pictures. Our basement, like many parishes, had a disheveled tool cabinet. Since my brother had some construction experience, I requested a birthday present of a personal tool kit. He said he could get one at Target. Your priest friend won’t be doing major repairs, but he shouldn’t have to call a repair man to assemble furniture or hang pictures.

I have included other things that will be more beneficial to a priest on a personal and spiritual level. A portable bible for instance. I keep a New Testament & Psalms in the Confessional, as well for Confessions or Counseling at Retreats. A Journal or planner with stuff from our Catholic Tradition is a bonus. A set of thank you cards will leave him without an excuse to thank people. A shoulder bag will remind him that the faithful expect him to take care of himself by going to the gym or getting away on his day off.

Treating your priest to Restaurants & Membership Passes

For one year, as I was assigned to a small town parish, there were plenty of welcoming people around. They frequently gifted cakes, pastries, sweets, and deserts. Consumables are always wonderful for anyone. However, As many parish priests get swept up in the demands of ministry, they neglect their health. Someone might stop at the grocery store on their drive from work, the priest doesn’t drive home from work. If people swarm his kitchen with unhealthy food, he may end up subsisting on coffee and junk food because he’s too busy to get fresh food. The priest may have too many evening meetings for you to take him out for dinner. A gift card to a restaurant is always appreciated. It allows him to use it at his convenience. If he lives far away, this sort of gift card may be the best option.

An Annual Membership Pass to a museum or Botanical Garden might help him break the routine. A new priest will probably be in survival mode. Trying to get to know everyone, make a good impression, prepare homilies, drop everything to for someone in a crisis… His day off suddenly blindsides him, and he will do nothing but sleep in, bum around, and watch the game. When a married father is challenged to be creative in entertaining his wife and kids. He may even find amusement in these sorts of family outings. The priest is often not challenged to be creative with leisure time and will settle for doing nothing. Get him to a museum or a beautiful garden. Let him experience some culture, and set him up for a show. Who knows his local art museum may have some nice Catholic Art.

Housewares

Since most Wedding Registries consist primarily of Housewares, A few things should be said about this. Since a new priest will most likely be assigned as Associate Pastor, he will certainly arrive in an Apartment and Office that is nearly fully furnished. There is a possibility that the kitchen is fully stocked, and a part time cook prepares meals. There is something heartfelt about donating a waffle iron to a new couple, therefore, every time they have waffles, they will think of you. I would personally discourage these sorts of gifts for a new priest. If he does not already regularly make waffles, he probably won’t start during this new transition.

Since I moved into a religious community, Housewares were perhaps the most irrelevant thing. My only purchase during this time was bed linens and towels. It would therefore be helpful if you were to gift linens, or a card for Bed Bath & Beyond or Target.

Asking the priest what they want

I can guarantee, that if you want to give a priest a gift of what they want, they will have no answer for you. The fact that you want to express your appreciation will warm their heart. They also may have difficulty in receiving, not wanting to come across as too greedy.

If, however, you were to be more specific, you might narrow it down. For instance, “Father, or soon-to-be-Father, I was thinking of gifting you a Marriage Ritual, but wanted to know if you needed the bilingual edition or the english edition. (Wondering if they will be doing ministry in a hispanic setting).” Another instance, “Father, I found these reasonably inexpensive vestments, and was trying to decide between one of two to give as a gift for you.” You should make them choose between two or three specific things. This means that they can’t default to humility and decline, while wanting to choose the more useful of the two. Apply this scenario to buying a sweater, a gift card, or anything else described above.

As a conclusion, I have already acquired almost everything on this list, or some variation of each item. This wishlist is not for me, but for seminarians planning their ordination, and people looking for a gift for their favorite priest. I am currently preparing a similar idea list for those entering Religious Life (or perhaps making vows), that I plan on releasing in the early summer.

If I were married, I would have a sad, lonely, unhappy wife: A reflection on priestly celibacy.

Over the next few weeks, I have numerous posts about the priesthood. This is perhaps the most difficult one, and it has been challenging to post it. It has waited among my drafts for over a year. The following posts won’t be as difficult. Take this as a warning.

I was ordained in June of 2013. In a hypothetical scenario, were I not ordained, but married a woman at that time, would perhaps present a case for priestly celibacy. Let us imagine that every other aspect of my life mirrored my life save the priesthood.

My position of campus ministry is not specifically a priest position. I manage a budget. I book retreats and event centers. I book catering. I train student leaders for retreats. I manage programs, resources, supplies. I say mass at these retreats. Except for a Mass at a retreat, there was literally nothing about my actual job description that required a priest (Saying Mass at a retreat is not in this description, I could book a priest). I am held accountable by well qualified lay people who run the school.

For the sake of this reflection: I finish grad school, move across the country to San Diego, get married, and begin the same campus ministry job. My mom is deceased. My dad lives ~130 mi North in Los Angeles. My younger brother eventually get’s engaged. My sister is an artist, student, bartender and waitress. Instead of saying Mass in local parishes, I find a local parish to get involved in (helping youth ministry, lectoring etc). All normal things for a 30 year old to do after being hired as a full time 9-5 minister in a school.

My first school year goes somewhat well. I am held closely accountable with a great amount of practical support from numerous colleagues. Occasionally, I have 10 hr days. I have over a dozen overnights away from home. I typically feel unsatisfied with my job, yet have many new ideas for improvement. I have new teacher blues: no lesson plans, too much grading, uncooperative students, needing years of experience to earn respect, being an outsider.

In real life, I never finished sending out thank you cards for my ordination. I moved out, planned a big ceremony, and immediately traveled around the world to Rio 2013 World Youth Day. Were I to conjecture this episode, I would spend months moving in, and not attending Rio 2013 (The Order sent me. Neither the Order or the school would have sponsored a brand new staffmember). My poor wife would take the lead on sending out thank you cards, as I am still transitioning from moving and taking a new job.

A 20-something new wife would be uncharacteristically patient, perhaps on an emotional honeymoon. She would reason excuses for her tired overworked husband who ministers at an all boys school, with a campus ministry team made up entirely of men. It is not uncommon for women to put up with a husband’s work-load this early in the marriage. Like any normal woman, she could stretch this to a point. I would leave for work before 7am, return between 4p-5p. Spend a few hours grading, organizing files etc, want to veg in front of  a tv screen, and soon crash. On a good day, I would be so overwhelmed from all the sensory stimulation and socializing I couldn’t even talk. In my first year, I went to bed at 9am, then woke up at 5am.

I ended the first year looking forward to a greater degree of control. I knew that I was to be held accountable and expected to improve. That goes with any professional career. I was only successful in surviving, not in thriving. The most exciting thing about the beginning of my second year would be to put the new ideas into effect. Perhaps some of this cheer and summer availability would bring a second wind to my marriage.

I would find myself immediately challenged in my second year. After 14 months in San Diego, I still had not settled in. The old priest’s in my community were not interested in meddling with my possessions. A wife would have had some ownership, but perhaps found it difficult to deal with my inability to smooth everything out. The rubber meets the road, the free ride of feelings screeches to slow down for the expectations of life.

In September, two days before my birthday, my dad is brought to the hospital. He remains in and out, near coma for almost a month. After two weeks of trips to LA, I discover that my dad has West Nile Virus. He will need a feeding tube. He will need a few months of rehab. It is possible that he may never fully recover. I cancel several of my scheduled commitments at a local parish. I cancel my birthday plans. The staff at my school is reasonably frustrated that a lackluster employee is 130 miles from his office, unable to get his job done.

The next month and a half does not see my dad return to normal. My newly engaged brother gets stuck with my dad, as I have no more time away from work to get help my dad with this ongoing crisis. I cancelled all weekend volunteering over the next month, in this scenario, I cancel all commitments outside of my job. Everyone sickly imagines that my bedridden feeding tube, medicine wired dad is magically going to return to normal while I frantically catch up on my workload. No substitute is available. If I am not there, the retreats cannot happen.

Perhaps this unpleasant birthday might rally my wife behind me. I did receive a lot of support from the friars. They weren’t the one’s disappointed in my job performance. Eventually my brothers asked about my dad, without asking about me. The hope of my dad’s recovery diminished each day. I suppose my wife might have been more perceptive to my feelings. She would have had to put up with me, yet again, having ten hr days at work, an inability to contribute around the house, weekend trips to Los Angeles, returning every time more beat up than the year before. She would watch my absence, as I was too psychologically exhausted to give her attention. The support I received from the friars did not leave them feeling rejected. I imagine it would take a greater toll on her. This absence might mirror the local Priest who could no longer book me for any Masses. I could not take a weekday off, as the school did not require me on the weekends. All my parish commitments get cancelled. Perhaps my wife would see that I was not the cause of her loneliness, but it would take a toll on her during this second year of my job.

My spring and summer would be consumed with cleaning and selling my dad’s house in Los Angeles, moving him to an assisted living facility, organizing his possessions, trying to find rehab after insurance gave up on him. I finished my year, as all my colleagues convinced that my dad’s situation settled quickly after it began, and believed every flaw in my job was not connected to my dad loosing everything overnight. Perhaps they would be more frustrated, that I was the only second year male teacher at an all boy’s school that couldn’t coach sports. I had less and less to offer the school, and I don’t know that this current situation can sustain itself at work, let alone motivate me to want to continue. Would the school even want me to continue?

Everything in my life was precarious, who is to say that my wife would even want to stay with me? I would certainly sympathize with her. Concretely, being married to me would not be of benefit to her. Catholic marriage is about more than personal benefit. It would be a lot of work for her for three years, only for things to spiral downward for her husband and his family.

Things improved much my third year, but I still felt that I needed more concrete support than I received. I still had to cease doing weekend ministry in parishes, in this case, I could not take any commitment outside of my job description. Now, in my third year of ordination, I was receiving more pleas from parishes in need of priestly support. I repeatedly said no. My dad was still stuck in wheelchair in LA, asking me daily about my next visit. Sometimes I had to say no, so I could get some sleep after chasing insomniac kids at a retreat, after waking up at 5am regularly to setup for other retreats. I was saying no to the parishes, I was saying no to my dad, I probably would have been saying no to my wife when she asked for a favor. My Campus Ministry intern was doing a spectacular job. My colleagues were probably not thrilled about my lack of involvement. However, My Campus Ministry student leaders were willing to do a lot more work, and probably had a lot more respect for me than the previous two classes.

The obliviousness, however, continued. During Christmas and Summer, all my colleagues would ask me if I was going “home?” For one, just because I am not married doesn’t mean that I am a college student who needs to spend weeks at a parent’s house for Christmas, and secondly, My parent lived in a facility. No such idyllic “home” existed.

I do not know the situation in a parish. When my mother was sick, I found the parish rally behind me. However, as I learned being a priest in a school, that many people cannot conceive of a priest having anything less than a perfect personal life. What is the new priest supposed to do? Take a leave, as rumors of crimes and scandals abound? West Nile Virus is rarer than scandals in this church.

Perhaps the wife of this reflection becomes a sad and lonely woman who has to dig deep for a reason to stay with this husband of hers. Disappointment. She would be much better off without him. Three years of her life tied down to a man that was incapable of offering anything to her.

Perhaps this should give us something to think about when we see a priest leave in their first five years. A new employee out of his depth is not disimilar. There are plenty of workoholic men, who learned to sell out the risk of being vulnerable and affectionate at home, and letting the demands of work consume them. Divorce is rampant in our western consumer culture, so why is a sad, unhappy lonely marriage a bad analogy for a new priest’s ministry?

When I try to use the image of marriage for my first three years of priesthood, I find it circle right back to celibacy. Many lay people, who are not called to celibacy, often accept the priesthood simply as a marriage to the Church, or to God. They also accept religious life as marriage to Christ. I found that my marriage, from a purely legal perspective, was more of a marriage to the Order, rather than the Church, per se. Yet, even with all the similarities, there are so many differences. I lived with a group of men, I worked at a boys school, The image of Christ’s marriage to the Church was very unhelpful for me in my first few years of ordination. This image did not help me as a priest to love or serve the Church that I was ordained to serve. In fact, this image was more of an obstacle, and were I to stick with this image, the only place for me would be is divorce, and subsequently quitting the priesthood.

Perhaps the image of marriage bears more relevance to the assembly of the people of God in the Church. In this, they can expect service and support from their priest, but also realize that they have a responsibility of service to the Church alongside the priest. Perhaps there are other images that may inspire lay-persons to respond to God’s call to follow Jesus Christ in discipleship and service.

As I wrap up this reflection, I do not propose a full alternative to this overused nuptial image that I have found unhelpful. I realize that there may come a day when not-only protestant converts can be married and ordained, but the reality and challenges of ministry should allow us the thoughtfulness to look critically at proposals to dismiss celibacy. Although lay Catholics may be comfortable with the idea of a married priest, the practical reality would require every single priest’s wife to have the holiness and resolve of the Mother of God herself. Perhaps the major takeaway is the indispensability of priestly celibacy.

For those who do not read this blog, I have done plenty of personal updates elsewhere, like here, here, here, here, and here. My dad stabilized years ago, but can never live on his own again. My dad’s permanent condition, in addition to my place in the school effected my discernment to leave. I found sources of support, almost entirely outside of my ministry. That is what every young adult needs to learn. I found stories and images from Scripture and Tradition that motivated me. I dug into my past experiences of God’s work in my life to continue to inspire me. But this post is not about how I got through this, or had to get out of it. This post is about how naive it is to discredit celibacy amidst a divorce addicted culture.

Keeping the Sabbath & Lady Gaga

In 2011, I watched a 60 minutes interview, Lady Gaga & The Art of Fame. It gave me a lot to think about.

A few weeks ago, Lady Gaga posted a photo explaining her tour cancellation. Last year there was another photo from Church. Both posts have caused a lot of controversy, which I don’t intend to dissect today. I do not know Lady Gaga’s heart, and am not really a fan of her music. Although I do agree with Mark Shea’s recent response Jesus founded a Church, not a club. However, in this interview from several years ago, she did give me a lot to think about.

That is, Lady Gaga talks about “Mastering the Art of Fame.”

I am not famous. I am not trailed by paparazzi. When I walk outside of the monastery, I am gladly unknown and irrelevant to every pedestrian and passerby. When I was at a high school, surrounded by adolescents, from Monday through Friday, I had a certain amount of authority and influence. On Sundays, or at other Catholic Young Adult Events, I might even carry a degree of authority or influence. Sometimes I experience this alarming fascination with Fr Mark the young priest…

Between 2009-2011, Facebook’s peak empowered people to have access to every nook and cranny of their contact’s personal life. I often felt pressure to do things, merely to have Facebook posts.  Instead of attempting to capture moments, sometimes we create moments. This moment in Facebook’s conquest over my personal life accompanied a pastoral year at a Parish School. (It was expected that you add everyone on FB). Students didn’t need to see photos my friends tagged me, neither my personal friends need me to take pictures of parishioners and students. Things were tricky to say the least.

As a young priest, I experience an alarming amount of undeserved fascination. I have been monitored by students curious for my reactions to a billboard, or wanting to witness the manner I bit into an apple. In Church settings, I get stopped by women, who request access to something very personal: My vocation story. Although it is very nice for people to see that I am a human being, whether from FB, or RL, people imagine that my mundane trivia is somehow less mundane or less trivial.

Anderson Cooper reports: “They’re not just attention getting, they’re attention directing, To keep the public focused on her work, as opposed to her personal life.”

After Lady Gaga spoke on the craving of the public to see the public meltdown of the superstar, she was very conscientious and deliberate, at least according to this interview.

Even though I don’t have to bat off paparazzi, I don’t feel that I should have to answer for my day off, or answer for my vacation. Although some young people find me fascinating, it didn’t make sense for me to be constantly plugged in and accessible. (Remember when we used to say brb. We don’t anymore, we no longer leave, we live here). To some extent it is important to remind those in your pastoral care that you are a human being that does imperfect normal human things. Likewise, it is my responsibility to carve out time away from those under my pastoral care for my own well-being.

The simplest and easiest example I can name is this. I take a vow of poverty. Some older friars, or perhaps lay people have imagined that I can use the student weight room for free. I shouldn’t for liability reasons. However, I shouldn’t even want to. The community can cover a health club plan so that I have a space for my self care that doesn’t involve students or parishioners. I shouldn’t have to be limited to be with students in the weight room when I am with them the rest of the day. On a funny note, I once saw two of my students outside of my gym, interviewing pedestrians with a camera and mic. I went to the other side of the gym, simply because they would have loved to record footage of me exercising.

Although many young people might have an awkward sense of appropriate boundaries that would keep them from intruding on my private life, there are enough who won’t. I have changed my number, as it has been distributed without my permission. (Here’s Father Mark’s number in case you have a spiritual crisis in the middle of the night? He’s a priest he would never turn someone down right?) This kind of thinking can put me in risky situations. There is an office to screen calls.

People may love to see photos on social media of priests and nuns doing very silly human playful things. The thirst for a privileged behind-the-scenes view of a priest’s life, perhaps, is not too different from the public’s desire for photos of celebrities at the coffee shop. Our desire for an exclusive encounter with the divine is often replaced with a desire for a chance encounter with a celebrity at their favorite paparazzi spotted coffee shop.

So when Lady Gaga makes the difficult decision to cancel a tour, it is not too different from many priests that have seen, ready to take a vacation. Lady Gaga is being consistent and guarding her private life, and I have to hand it to her for sticking to her principals on this one. There is something very holy about sneaking away into the deserted place to speak to the Heavenly Father in secret. It became a noteworthy characteristic of Jesus, perhaps Lady Gaga this time, and I hope to God, me too when I need it.

Confession: Common things I say

Recently, Sr Teresa Aletheia asked for a quote for me on the topic of Confession. I had returned from World Youth Day, and was a month behind preparing for the new school year, I could only come up with a sentence.

It is important to bear these things in mind:

  1. The Sacrament of Penance may be therapeutic, but it is not a counseling session.

Although I am open to give practical advice, or helpful perspective, I believe the grace of God that they receive in that Sacrament is more important than anything that I can say. I also believe that people would be happy for there to be advice or perspective that is not merely practical, but explicitly  spiritual. Finally, bearing in mind, that many people don’t want or need any advice whatsoever (often this is how I feel going to the Sacrament), I merely need the grace that the Sacrament offers.

  1. People may need moral clarity, but it is not primarily a catechetical session.

I have had a difficult time with older priests assuming that I am paralyzed with guilt over sins. Catholic guilt is not something I suffer from. In fact, I wish my contrition was deeper and more heartfelt. I don’t think a person needs to be explained that they did not in fact sin according to the theological moral criterion and definition of sin. The peace that forgiveness grant’s is more important. That doesn’t mean that the questions of a penitent ought to be disregarded.

  1. People are not forced into the Confessional these days.

Involved Catholics gripe that there is not enough talk of sin in the pulpit. I am sure there are some who would want to know that I am scolding & castigating every last sinner who comes in. The fact is, nowadays, there are no social pressures to go to Confession. Whether or not there should be is another question. What that means, is that whoever shows up, has done so freely, set aside time from their busy life, because they know what they did is wrong, and they know that they need the help of God and the Church. They don’t need moral lessons, they need God’s grace.

  1. Catholics are not encouraged to grow spiritually

I find that most of their regular sins are their own personal spiritual plateau. Faith Formation ends at 14 for most Catholics. Catholics have mistaken holy darkness for atheism or agnosticism. Sometimes a one-on-one session with a Priest is an opportunity to teach them that God’s plan for them is satisfying beyond their wildest dreams.

Now when they show up, I keep these things in mind, and it informs the advice that I give them. As I have advised often, I find that there are a things that I turn to often. People think that they are so alone and unique in their sins and struggles.

  1. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is an Encounter with Christ and his mercy.

I know I can get legal minded, and I do encounter this with others as well. This is how relationships are made whole, by communication, by apologizing, by receiving forgiveness. It is personal, not just legal. Sometimes the remorse of the sin, or the preoccupation with the ritual can make people forget that Christ stands at the center of this.

  1. Strategies are not as effective as God’s grace.

I get a Confession of a sin, followed by a lengthy explanation of what they are doing to work on that sin. Maybe they are used to priests scolding them, or challenging them to think about ways to overcome that. Any strategy we make to overcome sin is entirely ineffective if we are not praying, not going to confession, not receiving the sacraments. I often find that the practical advice is inadequate. The most that I often do is ask them to find a mentor or few friends who can help with advice and accountability.

  1. Read the Scriptures

I know Catholics suck at reading or studying the Scriptures. I am not comfortable giving this out as a penance to many people, because many people look at the bible like operating a complicated and elite piece of machinery. I remind them that the Psalms are a good source of prayer, and the Gospels are how we can know about Jesus. This is also very dangerous. It can provoke them to love God and others more.

  1. The Holy Spirit seems to be working in their life

I can’t count how many times, someone enters Confession, after having to traverse many internal challenges. I really admire so many people boldly crying out to Christ in their brokenness. I am moved. As they are their wallowing, imagining that God wants to lunge and hurl condemnations, that the opposite is very true. The courage that to show up is probably an indication of the Spirit’s guidance in their life.

When Penance time comes around I usually assign a few non-traditional penances

  1. Read the Sunday Bible Readings

Every once and a while, I find that someone wants more. They have no legitimate mentors in their life to steer them in the direction of mature faith. One simple thing anyone can do is spend some time in prayer with the Readings for Mass. I started doing this my Senior Year of High School, now it’s my job to do it.

  1. Gratitude List

If someone doubts, they need to see evidence of God’s loving activity in their life. If someone sins, they need to see evidence that God will care for their needs. A gratitude list is a practical way for anyone to look with their eyes, and read aloud, the good things God does for them. Then they can thank them in a Litany. I tell them, as a penance, that they are required to do this once within 3 days, and that I encourage them to do it regularly 1-2x/week. This is very much rooted in Augustine’s Confessions: Writing down exactly how God has been good and generous in your life.

  1. Jesus Prayer

This is one of the ancient practices of our faith. Catholics are trained to see encountering God as a tedious, and often emotionally exhausting exercise, instead of seeing Christ as the source of all our new life. I find, over and over, Catholics are astounded that we have had this simple quiet meditation prayer for centuries, and that they are only hearing about it now.

  1. Offer a Mass Intention / Offer a Holy Hour

I save this one for Catholics that I have indication to believe that they are involved in their faith. I charge them to offer a Mass intention or a Holy Hour (it depends on the circumstances), in reparation for their sins, and in reparation for others who have struggled with the same sin. Sometimes I hear confessions before Mass, or during a Holy Hour. I also trust that they might be happy to bring their bibles, rosaries, and prayer books to adoration, and be set.

 

Movies about Saints my way

Temptation

Salvador Dali’s Temptation of St Anthony

With the Golden Globes finished, and the Academy Awards around the corner, I wanted to publish this long overdue. I often find Catholic Saints film a bore. For fifth grade catechesis, maybe, but not much for inspiration in my faith. For Greater Glory & There Be Dragons pushed the Action and Intrigue. They attempted to make Saint stories suitable for Big Budget / Big Screen Cinema. In 2014, we had Biblical epics picked up by Directors who may have been atheists. The Gospel According to St Matthew, directed by atheist, marxist, homosexual Pasolini, is on the Vatican’s list of top faith films.

While many Catholics dream of big budget, suround sound, 3-D, nationally screened Saint films, I wonder what could be lost. Some saints might get their action sequences. Most saints are dealing with interior dilemmas that just cannot be communicated in the same manner as Big Budget / Big Screen Cinema. You might have to talk to directors who have dealt with smaller scale, intimate portrayals, accompanied by character development. On the one hand, you might limit the audience. On the other hand you might reach an audience (that wouldn’t waste their time on a cheesy sentimental saint film) for an intelligent, thoughtful, artfully crafted film experience around a particular saint.

Classic Film Biopics often portray the subject’s life through a series of episodes. Contemporary Film Biopics typically center around a crystallizing event in the subject’s life. Unfortunately, most Saint films tend to rely exclusively on the classic biopic style. For example, Lincoln dealt with the passing of legislation, rather than entire series of episodes of his life. While the Song of Bernadette (1943) attempts her entire life, Bernadette (1988) captures the apparition event. Most Saint or Pope movies employ the Classic Episodic style Biopic.

Finally, they are portrayed as spiritually unconflicted and morally uncomplicated. That is not always a bad thing, but that would not work for many of the subjects that I haveselected. When I speak of character development, there has to be a mountain in the heart that is moved by faith. There has to be some sort of challenge that they are to face, and that is more meaningful and inspiring than watching a subject never flinch in the face of adversity. I am sure that some people would like to see movies about miracles, stigmata, or zapping fireballs at pagans (see Patrick below), but were we to be approaching stories of human persons becoming saints, it might be the most effective and powerful method. Besides, when you are focusing on covering 60 years in 100 minutes, you miss a the emotion, or you miss the passion

For my proposed ideas, some I have thought about for the past several years. A few have suggestions for a director. I have no interest in suggesting actors, so that it is clear that this list is meant to emphasize how having a skilled director could do a lot more for a film than having some attractive faces.

Augustine
One of my saint film disappointments in recent times was Restless Heart about Augustine. As an Augustinian, I certainly had high hopes. The central theme of Augustinian Friendship as a communal discovery of Truth was absent. The sort of personal conversations among confidants was missing. Sometimes I wonder if you had a director like Richard Linklater, you might be able to capture some of the banter which is essential for a film portraying Augustine. It wouldn’t hurt to also have an Augustinian scholar brought on board to consult, as they do in many other historical pieces. We are, after all, entrusted by the Church with the Spiritual and Theological Legacy of Saint Augustine.

Martyrs
Almost any group of martyrs in the history of the Church could be portrayed as a compelling drama for the big screen. Unfortunately, most Catholics filmmakers are more interested in making something that is okay for children. Films have been made portraying violence while minimizing gore, this would not be that hard. I do think of Cecilia, Felicitas, or Perpetua as possible protagonists if we are dealing with early Rome. Alfonso Cuaron, of Gravity and Children of Men has taken on complicated nuanced dramas, and I could see something like this being taken on by him.

Antony of Egypt
Lets face it, the early desert monks don’t look good on a vintage kitsch prayer card. They are not pasty-skinned enough, dainty blonde enough. Think, weathered face, squinty eyed (Clint Eastwood). The Temptation of Antony is one of the oft-repeated paintings throughout art history, and I wonder what an intelligent film director would do with it, and add his twiest. Because, let’s face it, a film like this could subvert the modern cultural paradigm which sees temptation as either insurmountable or as pleasurable. Out of the other ideas mentioned, this one wouldn’t lend itself easily to lighthearted humor. David Fincher and Tim Burton are two completely different director’s, who would take this in very different directions, but could do something awesome with it.

Francesco d’Asis
Many people’s visions of Francis are as a gleeful sprite gracefully prancing around Assisi singing like Snow White to the little birdies. They completely miss the fact that he left behind his urban dandy of a cloth-merchant old man for the callous hands of a wild and rugged stone chapel. Francis was a short man, kind of like X-Men’s Wolverine. I do believe that a Francis movie can find a good way of mixing playfulness with manliness. After seeing Prince Avalanche, something I would like to find in a Francis movie, David Gordon Greene might be able to pull something similar.

Thomas the Apostle
Christianity has existed in Southern India within a century of Christ’s crucifixion. All of the Eastern Christian Churches often appear different than what we expect Christianity to be. Having a film portraying early Malabar or Malankara Christians would, in many ways, be earth-shattering for our stereotypes of Christianity as a Western Religion. This could even be an enthralling story with Thomas as a supporting character or catalyst, rather than a protagonist. Slumdog Millionaire was a joint operation in England and India, and this would be what I would hope for with something like this, however, I wouldn’t want to see Danny Boyle (who did a work about Saints in Millions), as much as a local director.

Patrick
A few years ago, I saw a Saint Patrick movie, where he was going around zapping pagans with fire. There is a desperate yearning to make a Catholic movie into a big screen spectacle. I find my heart moved by his story, and would prefer to have something more dramatic. Years ago, there was a little Irish animated feature The Secret of Kells (2009). It portrayed a group of Christian Monks creating the Book of Kells. It had its share of fairies and folklore, and was meant to be for children. I have wondered what it were like to have short stories of some of the important Irish Saints: Cuthbert, Brendan, Brigid, and of course Patrick.

Mother Theresa
Here is someone that is still in the popular imagination among Catholics, as well as some secular humanist types. Younger Catholics don’t know who she is. I admit, that I am not a card carrying member of her fan club, and there could be a moment or two in her life that is worth capturing. I am impressed that she caused a ceasefire, she got a Nobel Peace Prize. These could be instances. It is also known that she did not feel internal spiritual consolations for the last part of her life. This is the sort of thing that works good on film. I don’t know that I have an idea of a director for this one (as I am not as familiar with her), but one person suggested Parish Hilton should be cast to play her.

Bonus: Hipster Pope Benedict
Ratzinger was forced to join the Nazi youth. He deserted, broke the law by going to the seminary, and became a priest. It could be a sort of wartime star crossed romance, except falling in love with God, and perhaps enjoying beer and having a friend cat. This wouldn’t go through the rest of his life, in fact becoming the pope would be irrelevant to this story that could be wrapped up in the climactic event of him being accepted into the seminary.

4 unusual, although typical priestly encounters

When random people encounter a priest, they are often ready to open up about their entire life. I find, that when I visit different parishes to preside at Sunday Masses, there is always a person or two who will briefly tell me their life story, or want to know mine.

As I am a “young” or “cool” priest, or perhaps a priest without grey hair or a gut, somehow they find me strangely fascinating. My actual ministry is to high school students at an all boys school, and so these sorts of encounters don’t happen at all where I work. Most adolescent boys like to hear stories from their teachers. Myself included. Yet, they never ask me for my vocation story, quite like the adults or elderly people that I encounter at parishes.

Just yesterday, I literally had 4 encounters that I think could virtually sum up what all such encounters.

Some context: The sophomore class had their retreat at a Catholic Parish. During the day, we used the Parish Hall, the Church, and one of the annexed parking lots for all the activities. We had over 100 students that I was responsible for throughout the day. These encounters were with people who were around the parish, and not any of the students (or faculty members involved with the retreat). It is also worth mentioning, that I was in the Augustinian habit, and that probably had them begin to open up to me.

  1. There to open the Parish Hall, there was a man who quickly asked me to pray for him. He was there the previous day, and I had a chance to interact and greet him. This day, he probably thought he could seize the opportunity and ask me to pray over him and bless him. It often amuses me, that after mass, after the priest has just given everyone in the congregation a blessing, sometimes a person will come up to me for a blessing. I have blessed people after a young adult event, and a line of very young adults come up to me for a blessing. I think sometimes they mistake youth for sanctity, but often I have to remind them that they just received a blessing. In this case the man didn’t. The man, that morning of the retreat, ready to open the Parish Hall, asked me to pray for his family to return to the faith. As an Augustinian, I thought of St Monica. So I prayed with him on the spot for a minute, and asked for the intercession of Saint Monica.
  2. Later in the morning, a woman shouted to me from across the parking lot. She asked if I was a monk, and what kind of monk I was. I had stepped outside of the hall of 100+ students, to move my car. It was near the entrance to unload supplies, and I wanted to keep the entrance wide open. Before I could get to the car, she was already within a foot in front of me, ready to spill out her entire life story. Interjecting her attempts to tell her life story, and how she ended up in San Diego, she wanted to know what kind of priest I was, and if there was an association with the priests that staffed a St Augustine school where she was from. She continued opening up about her life, on several random tangents. I was unsure if she was going to stop to catch her breath. As a pastoral minister, I realize that many people expect me to drop my entire life on the moment of their need. She wasn’t terribly needy, she was obviously a devout Catholic. I had to remind her that I was overseeing an event (I was not just the chaplain there to say mass, I was the man responsible for the retreat, meaning if a student got injured I had to contact parents, I had to ensure they got to the hospital, etc). She literally followed me around to the door of my car, as I was apologizing to her for not being able to set aside the retreat to hear her tell her life story. It is sort of amusing when you think about it. These sorts of encounters do happen at least once at every single parish or Catholic place that I visit, they either want to tell their life story, or want my life story.
  3. During Lunch time, I had just finished saying Mass for the students in the Church, and a Fire Dept inspector was checking the extinguishers. He was ready to open up not so much about his life stories, but about some of his faith experiences. He was the sort of person, who probably rarely has an opportunity to talk about those sorts of things. As he was looking over the extinguisher, and I was cleaning up the sacristy, he was telling some of his story. He was kind of excited to meet a young priest, I don’t think he ever met a priest younger than him, which probably also made him more excited to talk about faith, religion, church stuff, sacraments, etc. Often I will meet people who are somewhat unchurched, but go to Mass with some kind of regularity. They typically favor their religion, but don’t talk much about their faith. Seeing a young priest often gets them expressing their faith. Sometimes I am told (more often by women), that I am too young to be a priest. When I meet men like this Fire Fighter, I wish that there were more young guys in the priesthood that are easy for him to open up about.
  4. Okay, this guy probably wasn’t Catholic, he probably wasn’t there for Church. He saw me in habit on the street as we went between the Parking Lot and the Parish Hall. He wanted to know who we were, and what we were doing. He seemed disturbed by the fact that we were an group of students that were all boys (almost the complete opposite of most people that I encounter). When I explained that we were an all boys school, and that we were on retreat, he responded “Retreat from what?” I could scientifically explain to him the value of single sex education from a secular perspective, and there are enough secular retreats out there. I sort of felt bad for him.

Anyways, that about sums up the four encounters, fourth being a bonus, and not your typical Catholic encounter.