Me: Have any sons?— Charles, OFM Cap. (@FrCharles) November 17, 2016
Angry lady: Yes
Me: Did you ever suggest priesthood?
Me: That's why there aren't more Mass intentions to schedule
That tweet is from the other day. Given responses, it seems to have hit some particular nail on the head. In thinking about it I decided it needed some follow-up for fairness sake.
First the context. It was an early evening and the lady had come to the parish office to ask to schedule a Mass intention. But she couldn't have the day she wanted because it was taken. So she was getting frustrated and got loud and a little rude with the poor high school student who was working reception that night. So I either overheard or was called--I don't remember how it happened--but I intervened. Mostly I was strong with the lady to check her rudeness with the kid. I had told the kids who worked reception in the late afternoons and evenings that if anyone ever came in and gave them a hard time or made them uncomfortable to call me right away and I would come and fix them good. In those days I had a very special interest in defending the dignity of those kids who worked in the parish office, and for very particular and bitter reasons which maybe someday I'll have a chance to share with you dear readers.
But the truth was also that the whole question of Mass intentions and their calendaring was a difficult thing for me when I was in the parish. On the theological level, I found the whole situation confused. At funerals--and we did a lot of them--everyone spoke and prayed, and expected you to speak and pray, with the happy presumption that the deceased had already safely arrived in the blessed rest of heaven. But then there was also a huge demand for Masses for the same deceased persons. Why? I thought, if you are so sure that they have concluded their journey to God and are at happy peace in his presence?
So then I realized that the Masses scheduled for the dead were not to pray for them on their journey toward the fullness of salvation, but to commemorate their memory. Now there's nothing bad about commemorating the dead. Indeed, it's a good and noble thing. But you don't need a Mass intention to do it. There are lots of other ways. So as people were fighting over the relatively few scheduled Mass intentions we had--few in comparison with the dead to be remembered anyway--I wished there was a way to privilege those folks who saw this as a way to pray for the dead and not just to honor their memory. It's not to say that a Mass for a deceased can't be both/and, but you see my point.
Anyway, enough context. On to the content. Priestly vocations and the parent who never would have thought of one her sons being a priest.
Yes, I chided the lady for considering unimaginable the thought of one of her sons entering the priesthood despite the fact that she had clear expectations of what priestly services ought to be available to her on demand. That being said, parental encouragement does not make a vocation. It might support one, but it doesn't make one. In fact, men who enter the priesthood to please parents--usually mothers--often end badly. Sometimes the priesthood is a solution for a young Catholic man enmeshed with his mother; it lets him maintain the family system. But this isn't a good thing either. A priest once bragged to me that he had the vestments for his first Mass made to incorporate the material from his mother's wedding dress. I said that's nice but I was a little creeped out.
In fact, the lives of the saints are full of people who entered religious life or priesthood over the objections of family. St. Francis's father locked him up in the basement. St. Clare ran away from home at night and was pursued by her relatives. And milder versions of such situations are nothing unusual for priests and religious, even those from Catholic families. Perhaps them especially.
But this doesn't mean that the Church doesn't have the obligation to help to recognize, nurture, and support vocations to the priesthood. And the family forms part of this. Here perhaps it's better to speak of family in a larger sense; the extended family, the parish family.
This goes with some of my basic faith about vocations to the priesthood and religious life. I believe God gives the Church all the vocations to priesthood that she needs.
To get at what I mean, I'll share a sort of counter-example that might be startling. When I was in theology studies I had a woman classmate who found herself in a rather angst-ridden situation because she thought she had a vocation to be a Catholic priest. One of our professors said, and quite flatly I might add, that she did not. How was this professor so sure? Because, he said, God is not so unkind as to put someone in an 'existentially impossible' situation.
Now that statement has all kinds of theological and ecclesiological beliefs underneath it, and we could tease them out and make them explicit. Any I bet if we did they would illustrate for us the weakness of some of our faith in the Holy Spirit.
In the same way it's my belief that God is not so unkind as to put his churches in the impossible situation of needing sacred ministry and pastoral care but not furnishing the vocations to the priesthood that provide it.
So if there seems to be a shortage of priests--and I'm not sure there is in every sense that such a thing is sometimes asserted--then either we are making poor use of the priest manpower we have, e.g. staffing (and heating!) several churches that are only partially full on a Sunday--or there are graces of the vocation to priesthood that are going unrecognized and do not receive whatever support they need to come to fruition.
So let's keep praying for vocations. But not in the sense that the vocations to the priesthood that the Church needs have to be squeezed out of a stingy deity. Rather, let us thank God for the abundance of graces he pours out on his Church through the Holy Spirit which animates her life. Thank him for the vocations he gives to his people, to marriage, to all different kinds of consecration, and to sacred ministry and other forms of spiritual paternity and maternity. And let's pray for the wisdom and spiritual insight to recognize, encourage, and nurture these vocations in ourselves and each other.