I was one of those irritating kids who wanted to become a priest. That might have been a fairly common ambition for many first graders, but even by sixth grade, when most kids had become too cool to want to be priests, I was still raising my hand when Sister asked which boys (only boys) wanted to be priests. It wasn't long after that that I discovered girls and the Church-mocking albums of George Carlin. My interest in pursuing the priesthood faded for awhile after that.
But it did not disappear.
During high school, I travelled with a priest all over eastern Canada and the USA. I figured that he would have noted my interest in Church matters (even if it was couched in critical adolescent terms) and would have asked if I had an interest. No luck. College was a spiritual wasteland, so no need to delve into that period.Though that is when I read the gospels for the first time from end to end. An eye-opener -- the strange, nun-told tales were nowhere to be found!
But I still had the bug, even after I was newly engaged to my now wife. She was driving me to work as a math teacher at a Catholic school when I sprang on her a comment that I wanted to become a priest. She made it pretty clear, with the wedding just a few montsh away, that I had better make a decision soon! And I did, in her favor. Now thirty-five years later, I have not given up the dream, though I am highly doubtful that my Church will allow married men (certainly not of the progressive persuasion) to be priests anytime soon.
But why not?
My marriage and fatherood are the two critical components that made me a better human being. The ups and downs of being a husband and Dad have forced me to recognize my own shortcomings and strengths in a way that being a single man never would have. When you are the first line of support and defense for a child for 18 years or more -- changing diapers, being a playmate, drying tears, helping with homework, counseling and protecting from bullies and letting them go out on their own -- it changes you in ways that are hard to describe. Helping a kid througn a romantic breakup becomes a 24-hour-a-day responsibility until it's over, weeks or months later. You worry and carry the burden, in way that seeing a kid for an hour-long Saturday afternoon counseling session would not. When you atre a husband trying to undertand why you can't get through to your wife on some seemingly insignificant matter, you have to deal with the frustration, rage and temptations to violence that come with an inability to communicate to someone you want to love, but can't. Similar to doctors who bury their mistakes, you have to sleep with yours. Thre's no walking away without enormous personal costs to yourself, your wife and your kids. The decisions you make -- whether to scold or to hold, to stay or to stray -- teach you about the limits and possibilities of love, in a way that no seminar or retreat could hope to.
I am a stronger and better man for having married and raised children than I would have been had I remained single. I feel good that I spared the world another vain, rageful, entitled priest, which I surely would have been had I not married. But I regret that my Church is missing out on the services of the more empathic and genuinely wise person I have become. It's not enough to offer me RCIA classes to teach or church suppers to cook. I want the entire sacramental package -- Mass, confessions, anointing the sick -- that goes with being a priest. Though frankly, the collars and vestments are not longer an attraction.
I suspect that there are many Catholic men who would become excellent priests if the Church realized that marriage is a path to self-control, self-understanding and self-acceptance, servant-leadership and humility -- in short, holiness. I wonder whether the abysmal experience of immature, pedophilic priests (and the morally-myopic bishops who managed them) would have been tempered, or even eliminated, if the Church recognized that God had it correct right from the beginning when he said (Genesis 2:8), "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suited to him.
I can't speak for all men, and there are certainly some fine men who have chosen the single life and have made fine priests. But for me, there is no question that the path to formation that I needed to become a priest led not through a seminary or rectory, but through the nursery, marriage bed, playgrounds, parent-teacher meetings, late-night car rides, school auditoriums, pediatrician's offices, romantic restaurant and college tours. I found my manhood and my priesthood in the embraces of my children, and in the arms of my dear wife. I pray that my Church beats my Lord to tellling me, "Well done, my good and faithful servant."