Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Freedom: Law and Lost Innocence

Saint Aloysius, pray for us!

The other evening at a reception, a good friend who is a language teacher shared with me her puzzlement over a discussion of a magazine article on priestly celibacy which had recently taken place in her advanced language class. While some were indifferent the bulk of the group, mostly practicing Catholics, men and women, some 18 or 19 years of age, others 25 to 35 and married, thought that a priest should be allowed to choose. They could distinguish between monastic life as a chaste or celibate experience and secular priesthood, which they thought should be open to marriage. My teacher friend, an older person who knows her faith, sensed a certain disconnect in their attitude but did not know how to respond to it.

It was clear to us both that their stance did not stem from some sort of chauvinistic attitude about marriage being the best of all possible lifestyles. Rather it seemed simply a rebellion against structure or rules. Somehow the notion that the priestly vocation also for secular priests was by its very nature as lived out in the Church celibate made no impression on them and they just seemed to want to balk at what they found a priori to be an imposition.

At the same reception an older gentleman, non Catholic but thoroughly immersed and versed in our world, asked me if when I retired I could just go sailing and leave everything I had known as a priest and bishop behind. He was respectful but somewhat puzzled when I spoke about priesthood as my life from which I could no more retire than a man could retire from being a husband.

Upon further reflection, both conversations bring home to me the dilemma of living in a society without respect for traditional limitations, without either taboos or laws (poor Lady Gaga!). Once upon a time certain things just were not done and people were all the freer for having fewer options to consider. Not so many years ago I can remember being at table with a German bishop who said very clearly that the tragedy of life for young men in the professional and banking world of Frankfurt-am-Main was that the taboos had been lost which had kept their fathers from falling in love with the man at the next desk. Life was much harder now and filled with much more suffering as a young man had no rules to help him sort through feelings which were no more enduring today than they had been a generation or two ago. My bishop deplored a world which unrealistically offered too many choices.

In terms of priesthood, if the secular priest's lifestyle were not put in question but seen as a package, the call from God to priesthood as something naturally celibate and austere, life in the Church would also be easier and especially for priests. In fact, I'm beginning to see that the tendency to want to prefer accepting only older and experienced men as candidates for the seminary is not only an illusion or perhaps a perversion of how things ought to be. It puts undo pressure on everyone involved.

Granted, the 14 year old who went to the minor seminary in former times may not have been able to understand much about life but he certainly was able to know essentially what it meant to be a priest. Why shouldn't the same be patently clear to today's 14 year olds? Then and now that young man will have sorted more things out by 18 years of age and when he decides for celibacy with ordination to the transitional diaconate at age 25 it will be the most natural thing in the world, a giant step, yes, but oh so full of promise for what will be the realization of his life's goal already at age 26. Doesn't everyone have a right essentially to realize the dream of a lifetime before he reaches 30 years of age? I am not singing the refrain "Life was simpler back in the good old days". I'm just saying there are no particular advantages to be gained from reading a book while standing on your head. Life must be simpler than what many folks make it out to be.

It may be objected that the world has changed and nobody at age 18 makes life choices any more. The point is that an 18 year old today has choices which his father maybe didn't have at 18-25. If you get my drift, I guess I think it is unfair of the "first world" to explain away the more numerous priestly vocations of the "third world" by chalking it up to social promotion. It would be better to stand in the "third world" and express regret over the additional complications which have made life for "first worlders" so miserable.

Next week, on June 21, is the memorial of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, religious, who is celebrated for the sacrifice of his youth in the service of the sick and poor and remembered for his yearning for the courts of Heaven. His joy in single-hearted commitment to the Lord left his elders even somewhat perplexed. What was rare in his own day might be thought even rarer now. Rarer, perhaps, but as thoughtful friends in the priesthood in contact with life in the parishes up north tell me, there is already a typecast of the first home-schooled men to reach ordination to the priesthood and it is wonderfully positive and refreshing. The home-schoolers now being ordained priests after theology studies in good seminaries at home or abroad are marked by a Gonzagan transparency and youthful enthusiasm. Realizing the dream of a lifetime at age 26 is evidently possible.

Scriptural imagery describing the glowing young bridegroom never denies that he must keep working at his relationship with the love of his life, until death do them part. The combat, spiritual combat, associated with the life of the priest will go on until the Lord calls him home, but I really and truly think that too many folk spend too much time trying to make life harder than it is.

Besides praying for vocations and encouraging those who come forth, I think we have to correct our world perception and make it once again possible for a little boy to know, love and serve the God Who made him. Priesthood is certainly a sublime aspiration, especially when a 14 year old can know just what that is supposed to mean.


Lux Veritatis said...

Very good post... and very true. My life's ambition, when I was 12 was to be a priest by age 24. And it did happen that way ! I oft had the same thoughts about the philosophy underlying the acceptance of only older candidates to the priesthood in some corners up North. However, if we have a young millionaire enterpreneur who started the facebook social network when in his 20s...why not imagine having the same for Christ and His Church. Why would we settle for less in the Church.

VĂ­tor Pimentel Pereira said...

Most Reverend Thomas Edward Gullickson,

I totally agree with you on the point of accepting that men at young age are able to take lifelong commitments. I know many fine priests who at the age of 12 entered seminary back in the old days. As for marriage, things have changed a lot as well: I find myself being questioned by some friends about my marriage, to be held next year. Just a detail: I'm 27 (man) and some friends still say I'm too "young" to make this decision, since I always tell them marriage is a lifelong commitment, so they think I should be getting married later in life. Astonishing, no? I wonder what later in life means to them (maybe 40, starting to have children at 45, in order to enjoy marriage before having children?).

The only problem I see in your post is the one concerning priestly celibacy. I fully understand your concern, specially because you were talking about Latin rite Catholics. Maybe your concern is due to the fact that the Latin rite parishioners making the claims about "married priests" were only about "changing rules" and leaving "old stuff" behind (which is utterly problematic for a Catholic, who must commit to Church Tradition).

But being an Eastern Catholic myself (Melkite), I cannot see priesthood as intrinsically connected to celibacy (for secular priests, of course). Celibacy is a great gift of God for His Church and we should always foster celibate vocations for the priesthood both in Eastern and Western Catholicism (in my personal view - personal alone -, celibate priesthood is the "best part chosen by Mary" - "optimam partem elegit sibi Maria").

Yet we cannot despise the long-held tradition of Eastern Churches, both Orthodox and Catholic, of ordaining married men to the priesthood. Now, I don't want to enter into an argument about which tradition is truer or older (I'm a Catholic, I don't have any problems with any of the systems), but I've recently heard of your nomination as Apostolic Nuncio to Ukraine. You will sure have to deal with this issue of married priests over there.

Excellent blog this yours! I have just heard of it through a priest's blog here in Brazil who highly regards your comments on Liturgy. I hope your new activities in Ukraine will not hinder you from posting!

Vitor Pereira - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Thomas E. Gullickson said...

Thank you, Vitor! Be of good courage as you and your bride to be prepare to stand with Jesus against the tide of "common wisdom"! You are right of course in surmising that I speak within the Latin tradition of celibacy. I am looking forward to Ukraine and getting to know another great aspect of the reality of the Church in all its fullness.

When I was in Jerusalem 1993-96 I read a study on the life of married priests and their families in a changing Middle East. Many of the men and women interviewed for the study were Melkites. Most of the women argued that their lives were too hard as their lifestyle in the villages had not changed with the times. As I say, I am looking forward to Ukraine and learning! God bless!