Yesterday was the first day back on the job wearing a clerical outfit in my parish, and stopping at the supermarket to pick up a few things I was stopped by a guy in the parking lot who felt obliged to tell me a Catholic joke. Q: Did you hear the pope got bird flu? A: He picked it up from one of his cardinals.
So I chuckled in a friendly manner and moved on with a moan. In the store an old lady approached me. “Are you the priest at OLR?”
“I try to go there on Tuesdays. I like your church.”
“I hope to see you there soon.”
“I’m going to the beach. I have a house down there.”
“You make sure to wear a straw hat. The sun’s a killer!”
So we moved on with our shopping carts.
Later on I was contemplating this strange job/vocation of being a Catholic priest.
I think one of the things folks on the other side of the collar don’t realize is how many unseen stresses there are, and this has to do with identity.
Our society is so fractured and divided that our own sense of identity is fractured. We don’t know who we are. Increased mobility and affluence has eroded the social cohesion of our local extended families and therefore the support systems of strong personal identities.
A priestly or religious vocation should help to solidify identity, but the priesthood has also been broken by the pressures of modernity. What do I mean?
The pressure is this: Put simply, I am supposed to be a Catholic priest–but not only a Catholic priest, but what everybody THINKS a Catholic priest should be.
To the secular world I am supposed to be a rather strange man in black who believes incredible things and upholds outdated moral and doctrinal beliefs. I am a somewhat threatening person (Probably a pedophile) I am also one who challenges the worldly viewpoints.
To the liberal Catholic in the wider world I am supposed to be not much more than a universally kind and nice person because they now equate nice-ness with sanctity. I must never say an unkind word. I am to be always tolerant, always indulgent, always generous and always sympathetic. I may not have a strong opinion–indeed I am not entitled to opinions at all. I must simply be a bowl of vanilla pudding in a black suit.
Meanwhile, to the conservative Catholic I must be a paragon of virtue, right doctrine and total moral purity in word and deed. I must never have a lustful or dirty thought. I must be constantly in prayer and also be a spiritual warrior–always on the lookout for the devil and always ready to fight the good fight. I am to be a walking miracle man–an exorcist always ready with the crucifix, the holy water and the silver bullet.
To the pious old ladies (of both sexes and all ages) I must be the golden boy, the wonderful priest–Jesus Mary and Joseph in human form in their very midst. Twenty four seven.
To the Diocesan authorities I must be a reliable cog in the ever burgeoning bureaucratic machine. I must never complain, never criticize, never speak my mind–and all of this in a church that is “synodal”–a listening church–one that is there “for the people”.
In an earlier age I think the priestly identity (like everyone’s) was more clear because society was more local, more tribal, more structured and unified. Take for example the typical Italian American priest in Philadelphia or New York in the 1950s. Everyone knew what the church was and who and what the priest was. The priest identity was clear and supported by everyone. Now? Who knows?
I’m not complaining. I hate the idea of playing the victim. I’m thinking and feeling out loud.
So where do I go to find the authentic priestly identity? Increasingly it is simply in the liturgy. It is in the faithful recitation of the Divine Office and celebration of Mass. This is what a priest does and where I find the roots of priestly identity. The rest of it will have to fall by the wayside.
Remember these things when you pray for us priests. Remember too, that many of us struggle with these expectations while also struggling with family issues and deeper issues of personal identity, sexuality, psychological conflicts, loneliness and continued discernment on how to fulfill the great and good calling God has given us.