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.