Which Came First, the Holy Family or the Holy Priest?
Disclaimer: This post focuses only on the vocations to priesthood and married life. While the vocation to of a Consecrated single person is just as valid and holy, I do not know as much about it. Therefore, trying to address the single life would have added confusion and I wouldn’t have done it justice.
“I can’t remember the last time I laughed this hard!” Father exclaimed as he caught his breath between full-bellied laughs and joyous tears streaming down his cheeks. Father’s fit of laughter was caused by watching our four, three, and two-year-old children play Mass in our living room. Father is one of our dearest family friends, and as I watched him watching my kids, I realized that he needed that time of silly joy that only children can provide. As a Son of God, he was enriched by my kids’ witness to childlike faith. I realized in that moment that as much as we lay, married Catholics need our priests, they need us too.
When priests spend time with my family, the number one thing they say is how refreshing it is to be at our home. Which is funny, because I rarely find a day at my house refreshing! What’s refreshing for me is a day away on a retreat led by a priest. (See, the two vocations need each other!) But it seems that getting a glimpse into the domestic church is like a mini retreat for a priest. I suppose that seeing the faith that they preach about every Sunday lived in an imperfect-but-striving way gives them zeal to go back to their ministry. Any priest who has experienced the chaos of nighttime prayer with toddlers is a priest ready to preach and advise with both truth and realism! So priests need moments of being part of a family, both for renewal of their own vocation and to glimpse the “holy ruckus” of the domestic church lived out.
We hear every Sunday at Mass an intercession praying for “an increase in vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life.” We know that there are not enough priests to shepherd our parishes, and so we pray for more of them. An intercession prayed much less frequently is for an increase in vocations to Holy Matrimony and the strengthening of families. Priests can’t shepherd empty parishes or preach to empty pews. Far more Catholic funerals are celebrated at my parish than Catholic weddings or baptisms. This points to an obvious, but rarely stated, reality: as much as there is a priestly vocation crisis, there is a married vocation crisis as well. Both vocations crises need to be addressed, because both vocations need one another to thrive. If we want our seminaries, convents, parishes, and homes to flourish, both the priestly/consecrated life and married vocations need to be promoted and prayed for simultaneously.
In my experience as a Youth Minister, dioceses and parishes tend to focus most urgently on praying for and “selling” the vocation to the priesthood. There is often a “vocation call” at the end of youth rallies and retreats highlighting Holy Orders and asking teens to stand if they feel called to the priesthood. At these events, the priesthood is “sold” as heroic, and rightly so. It is heroic to forego earthly marriage and give one’s entire life in love to Christ and His Church! But being a holy, selfless husband/father and wife/mother is an equally heroic calling. So let’s mention both in the same breath. After all, it is in the midst of a holy family (a family who attends Mass weekly or more, who prays together daily, and takes seriously their role of teaching children the faith,) that priestly vocations are likely to blossom. Children who have been taught to pray by their parents will be attuned to the voice of God from a young age and more open to His will for their lives.
I think the danger of promoting and praying for only the priesthood is that it gives the mistaken impression that priesthood is the “holy” vocation and marriage is the “default” calling. I guess the thought is that even without promotion, young people will inevitably choose to get married, so marriage doesn’t need to be the focus when we talk about vocation. But there is a difference between marriage and Catholic marriage, and even if people will still get married in our culture, holy marriage (marriage rooted in the Church, faithful, life-long, and open to life) will not sell itself. Holy Matrimony is a challenging and heroic call, and young people should know that as they discern God’s will.
Another danger of this frequent approach to vocation promotion is that it can set the vocations up in competition with one another. One night, after having our third baby in three years, Mike and I were up with one child after the other throughout the night. Because we had recently heard a “vocation call” on a retreat, Mike mumbled something in frustration about our parish priest not having to do this night after night. We started comparing the occasional 3 am sick call to the incessant crying of a colicky newborn, and bitterness started to enter into our hearts. Bitterness! Toward the successors of the apostles who provide us with the sanctifying grace of the Sacraments! Toward men who are some of our best friends and have shaped our spiritual lives in ways we can’t even measure! Why these negative thoughts? Because we started a game of comparing sacrifices instead of recognizing that each vocation has its joys and its crosses. Instead of seeing both vocations as two sides of the same coin (what coin? the coin of holiness, obviously!) we were weighing them against one another.
The fact is that either vocation can be lived selfishly or selflessly. A priest can choose to do the bare minimum for his parish each day and go back to a bottle of scotch in his rectory each night. Or he can selflessly commit to celebrating Mass, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, counseling those in need, loving the unloveable, and praying with Scripture so that his homilies are truly inspired. (And then go home to a nice glass of scotch!) A married couple can choose to do the bare minimum for one another and for their children, living for themselves side by side while letting the TV raise their kids. Or they can daily offer themselves as a gift to their spouse and children and put the needs of the family above of their own. They can take seriously their promise to “accept children lovingly and raise them up according to Christ and His Church” by raising children in the Catholic faith. In a sense, both vocations must be “open to life” if they are to be a true means of sanctification. So instead of comparing the sufferings and blessings of each vocation, we’re much better off acknowledging that the different crosses must be carried with the same grace and resolve to be a mutual support for one another.
At a family wedding a few weeks ago, the priest thanked the couple for preparing for marriage “exactly as the Roman Catholic Church asks couples to.” He said that the witness of this young couple’s faith was a blessing to his priesthood. In a culture that often foregoes marriage (especially church weddings) this wedding was a true grace for this priest. Let our prayers and our efforts regarding vocation reflect what we as a Church believe – that our vocations have much to learn from one another and greatly rely on one another!
Priests, thank you for your priesthood. I need you. I need you to consecrate the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ that sustains me in my vocation. I need you to stand in persona Christi and absolve me from my sins every Confession so that I can be the holy wife, mother, and youth minister I so want to be. I need you to bless me at each of my children’s baptisms so that my motherhood can be renewed through the blessing of your anointed hands. I need you to pray in an intentional, focused, regular way on behalf of all families and by your commitment to celibacy, remind me that my marriage must point toward the heavenly one. I need you to preach the truth in a loving and authentic way and welcome my children at Mass. I need you to be role models for my sons (who want to be “fireman priests” when they grow up!) and examples for my daughter of what a Man of God acts like. And please remember, you need me too. You need me and my husband to give birth to the children God blesses us with and raise them in the faith. You need me to bring my family to Mass. You need me to talk about the vocation to the priesthood as a real option to my sons and the consecrated life as a beautiful option for my daughter. You need me to witness to the culture about the sanctity of marriage and the joys and struggles of Catholic family life. You need me and my husband to model selfless marriage so that your marriage to the Church can be a selfless one. We need each other, let’s remember that, promote it, and rejoice because of it!