A number of years ago, my spiritual director, a priest, went on a leave of absence because of various troubles. He was considering leaving the priesthood.
I wrote a heartfelt letter to offer my thoughts on what he was facing. Recently, I learned of another priest-friend who is intending to leave active ministry. Someone who read the original letter encouraged me to consider publishing it for the benefit of others. I offer it here, in a slightly revised version, for those priests experiencing a crisis in their vocations. My hope is that it can be of encouragement to priests and all those facing crises in their vocations.
Promises and vows are the precondition for true freedom and flourishing. And while the letter to a priest-in-crisis was hardly the place to invoke scandal, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the scandal and damage done to the People of God by a priest turning his back on his promises. This shakes us to our core and destabilizes the laity in their own vocations. May those experiencing crises trust in the Lord who led them to offer themselves in those promises and vows.
First, let me say that I think you were thrust into a difficult position. I hadn’t realized this was the first time you ever lived alone, but to come from the high of living in Rome with many brother priests and seminarians to Podunk, Michigan is the definition of culture shock. To be loaded up with being pastor and having several other big duties is obviously a lot. I am very concerned with this dynamic in our Midwestern dioceses. I know we are low on men, but there has to be a better way. Thus, in one sense, I think your vocational crisis is very natural and actually to be expected. And given that we know that there is more than nature at work here, it is all the more to be expected. You have a big target on your back as a priest, especially as a smart, good looking, normal, dynamic, young messenger of the Gospel. The Accuser wants you to stumble, wants you to doubt, wants you to question. Being isolated only intensifies that.
Second, I want to appropriate some words that Msgr. Giussani, the founder of Communion and Liberation, spoke to a priest in a similar situation as yours. Fr. Aldo Trento, who works with the poorest of the poor in Paraguay, recounts how Fr. Giussani saved his vocation. Fr. Aldo had gone to Fr. Giussani and told him that he, “already a priest, was in love with a woman.” Msgr. Giussani’s response was radical and turned everything on its head. It wasn’t a scolding. It wasn’t a rigid, moralistic response.
Rather it was this:
“Father Aldo, how beautiful, this falling in love is the greatest thing that could happen to you. Now your relationship with Christ will be more radical, you will not have any more doubts or uncertainties.”
I am blown away every time I read that response. He absolutely overturned the conventional categories and showed Fr. Aldo that there was a both/and response to his situation. Where Father Aldo saw a contradiction between his love for this woman and his vow of chastity, Fr. Giussani saw no contradiction. He saw the possibility of going deeper into his vocation, of loving this woman and affirming his vocation.
I imagine in your situation you have been presented with these either/ors. You have probably also been castigated by some and affirmed by others. It is the old dualism, the Cartesianism of our world. X implies not Y. I think what Giussani was pointing at, brilliantly, is the possibility of affirming both x and y. You are a man. You love women. Perhaps, you love a particular woman. Great. Beautiful. This is as it should be. You aren’t some cold fish without the desires of the heart. You are alive. Thank God!
But that’s not the end of the story. I think Giussani points at the deeper question to push forward to: how do I love women, and this woman, within the concrete circumstances of my path, my vocation, my life. It is not an either/or. It is a question of how I love the woman in front of me within the call to which God has already brought me. That to me is an exciting and wonderful invitation. It rejects the world’s categories.
The story, recounted in George Weigel’s Witness to Hope, of Saint John Paul II’s trip to the Tatra Mountains when he obtained the nickname, “Wujek,” also comes to mind here. Recall that a young Father Wojtyła was supposed to go to the mountains with a group of young students—women and men. Father Wojtyła arrived at the train station for the trip but the men had an exam rescheduled. The women were locked out of their school. Perhaps the “sane” thing, the “moral” thing to do, would have been to scuttle the trip. But Father Wojtyła in his great freedom jumped on the train, told the women to get on, and told them to call him Uncle. They had a wonderful weekend. He demonstrated a radical freedom and upended conventions. He knew that he was free to love those women without any sort of possession and without any sort of scandal.
I’ve always been struck by that anecdote because I think it shows the radical otherness and openness of the celibate vocation. It would be so easy to make celibacy a wall, a barrier, a form of cutting off from the world. I think what Giussani and Saint John Paul II were showing is that it is actually a way to be more fully present to the world….
The above comes from an Oct. 28 article in Catholic World Report.
Thank you for this article. It builds one up–i.e.,edifies. How much more authentic than the “follow your heart” advice I would have expected to be given these days. No “Dear Abby” cotton candy here. This guidance was from a most sympathetic and understanding fellow priest’s heart and mind, for sure. But it was also firmly rooted in the “facts on the ground” of a priestly ordination already freely accepted: faithfulness to promises made to God Himself; refusal to see that a priest’s desires–however good in themselves–cannot be the be-all and end-all for him; keeping his shoulder to the wheel as part and parcel of a gift already promised to the faithful to whose care he committed himself for life.
May God grace us with many more kind, understanding and wise spiritual directors as the monsignor named in this article.
Beautiful! this reminds me of “The World’s First Love,” by Archbishop Fulton Sheen. I remember when Pope St. John Paul II hugged Archbishop Sheen, when Sheen was aged and close to death, and told him what a great son of the Church he had been. He said, “You have spoken well of the Lord Jesus.”
“Totus Tuus! Archbishop Sheen’s mother had dedicated him to the Virgin Mary, and the Virgin Mary became Pope St. John Paul II’s mother after his mother passed away. Truly these were two like-minded men. They followed the Lamb wherever he went as in Apocalypse (Revelation) 14:4-5.
I know the life of a priest is not easy although our Lord gives special graces to those consecrated to Him. This letter is itself a special grace, and thank you Cal Catholic for sharing it. Good news is hard to come by nowadays.
The life of a married person is not easy, either. Both vocations have a lot of self-sacrifice.
Try being single and lonely your whole life, especially in a Church where hardly any other people your age are.
I am sorry you are lonely. Being single has its sacrifices as well. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, so find what gives you joy (if it is Godly.) “I come in the little things, saith the Lord.” Sometimes it can be a color, a bird song, a smell, bubbles, music.
I have found that other people cannot make you happy, but they sure can make you miserable.
Praying for you.
Have you considered trying another parish?
Also, you don’t have to find friends at Church (my experience is that some people do and others don’t).
Try joining a group with interests similar to yours. Almost every niche has a group to join.
Friends of the whatever, fan club.
I know of someone who was offered a very well paying job and turned it down because it was in an area where they would never be able to find a spouse in the area the job was in.
I have a kid who can’t find love so I listen up when people are saying how they met their spouse and it is almost always unexpected and sudden. So keep your head up and remember like attracts like. If you are down and depressed, people usually think that you want to be left alone.
Dear Try It. I understand this situation, since almost all of Catholic parish life is dedicated either getting single (young) Catholics to marry each other or to supporting life with kids. Oh and a few senior lunches thrown in. And all that is fine, I get it. Those things are good and in my life, I’ve supported all of that through volunteer hours and donations. But left outside are those who either are by happenstance, or choose to be single, or those for whom the Church prohibits marriage, and so find themselves single.
The Church used to make this simple, or maybe it was just simplistic. Either you were married, or you were a religious. But to be single in the Church and not called to be a religious, or to be single and not called to be married…nothing. The Great Catholic Void.
Just a quote that I like to share on parenting and sacrifice…
“Yes, the life of every good parent is a martyrdom! It is to drink daily from the chalice of Jesus Christ Crucified. To be good parents, you must have a deep and true love of the Cross. It is by changing serpents into doves and tigers into lambs that you will be representative of Christ the Good Shepherd, and prove yourself a worthy parent, a man fit to beget and save souls.”
Fr. Gerreol Girardey Qualities of A Good Superior 1920
I agree with what the Good Priest said, however, I just have to wonder what he knows about what it means to be a parent? It seems he just seems to be writing from the top of his head rather than from what he knows in his being.