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.