I Could Do Priest, But I Couldn’t Be Priest.

Silhouette Of Man Praying In Church In Sunset Light
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I thought about a billboard, but there’s little wiggle in an unemployed budget.

About a postcard, but that would be a bit brief.

A homily, but an ellipsis is not an endpoint.

So I waited. I waited for a question from friend or family. I waited for my long, quiet journey to be caught up to by the reckoning with a sudden announcement. I waited even for this blog, an invitation out-of-the-blue and right-on-time.

I waited to explain why I left the priesthood.

As I sit in a creaky, lonely church pew—I made Mass Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday this week, good for a gold star on my bulletin and a compulsive disorder referral in my inbox—my mind often goes to James Joyce. To call him an “Irish author” is as incomplete as to call him a “complicated Catholic.” But like any good Irish lad and Jesuit-educated student, he had a way with a phrase. Asked if he were no longer Catholic, Joyce is said to have replied, “Madam, I have lost my faith. I have not lost my mind.”

Thankfully, I don’t have all of Joyce’s holy, holy, holy hang ups. I can appreciate the sentiment, though.

Nodding at the sign of peace. Clicking through the latest Mass-goer Facebook friend request.

Responding to another “you look good” comment.

“Madam, I have lost my priesthood. I have not lost my mind.” That’s my recurring thought.

And, also, “It’s good to know the ‘sabbatical sixteen’ is the expectation.” I’d gain some weight if I could afford new clothes.

I wish there was a juicy story to share. Then again, would you really be reading about a juicy story unattached to Ramon Vargas’s byline?

Nope. It’s just “Pete from the blog” and his tens of readers, finally getting some payoff for weeks of long clauses and short paragraphs.

I entered seminary formation for the Catholic priesthood wanting to do some good in the world. What could be better service than being a priest? In many ways, I hope I always agree with that statement.

I also entered seminary formation for the Catholic priesthood as a scared young man, too anxious to wear a wristwatch, too bashful to look someone in the eye, too submissive to serve as anything but a doorstop.

That last one is literally true: after our twice daily community prayer, I would perform my self-appointed work of holding the prayer room door open—foot propping it on the hallway-side, face smushed between the door and the wall on the other. Sacred service by way of scared service.

But I grew. For all the discipline and ritual and you-had-to-pray-there moments, I grew. There is no stranger subpopulation than priests and seminarians. There also might be no better one, either.

As I grew, I noticed my motivations were a little different. Justice, for one, was the thread throughout my formation and ministry. For the Church to be anything, it had to be about the social uplifting of people. The sacraments, sure, but before he became bread and wine, God became a person.

Community, too, was a mainstay. The Catholic Church’s ordination rite overflows with rituals and prayers. Like, really overflowing. A new priest has blessed oil smeared over his hands, the dripping remnants wiped off by a cloth presented to the priest’s mother. My mom didn’t receive that cloth; I figured she had picked up enough of my used napkins. The ordination rite also features the humble act of prostration, a litany of saints invoked while making a facedown gift of self. The public vesting in the priest’s chasuble, the laying on of hands, the first voicing of the Eucharistic Prayer—all uniquely there in the ordination rite.

These are the normal highlights for ordinandi, but they didn’t really move my meter. Looking out on the congregation did, seeing all those folks who had been church to me, feeling the embrace of and call to service for a community.

Add “writing homilies” to “justice” and “community,” and you get my priestly motivations. Notice anything missing?

Even 100 suburban women would tell Steve Harvey that the celebration of Mass should be the Big Board’s number 1 answer. It never was for me.

It’s not that I don’t love the liturgy—see my gold-starred bulletin, above. I just didn’t love my role as celebrant. One day in the audience with the sheet music, the next as the conductor of the orchestra. Nothing could ever prepare me for that.

At first, I thought it was just performance jitters, that whole imposter syndrome, a bad night’s sleep or a skipped meal. The AC was never blowing hard enough, the lights were never dim enough, my thoughts were never calm enough.

And then, after ten years, maybe it was enough.

We all have workplace struggles and undesirable tasks. Life is a tradeoff, right? But when the essential elements of that trade are just throw-ins, a realignment is in order. To be a priest allowed me to hide from the real world, completing some tasks and then removing myself behind the rectory walls. Growth had stopped.

I felt it. But I liked those homilies and that community and the justice works. I’ve been effective as an assisting priest, but maybe everything will line up once I get my own gig and implement that Picasso-mashed-up vision I’ve always had in my head.

When I became a pastor, amazingly it did all came together. Gert Town touched Uptown. A Sacred Heart Ring Mass followed by a Mardi Gras Indian Chief porch sitdown. Bigger community, more enthusiasm, an evangelical budget even. It all worked. And yet…

And yet, to be a priest had to be more than good administration and a friendly face. There’s the question of the heart.

So I asked, again, the safe question: how can I minister better in the margins, let justice rain down, do more good stuff? When asked about his musical tastes, Dr. John liked to say he was “Catholic” (read: “CAT-lick”). “I like it all.” Priests are like that, too, coming in all stripes and sacramentals. I could find my way of expression, I told myself, my manner in which to be priest.

I think I did. That’s probably the reason I emceed more galas than led Lenten Missions. I certainly had fun trying.

But finally, after six years of formation and nine years of ordained ministry, the big question came up. Is this really what I’m called to be?

Much bigger than how to better serve the poor, the vocational question was not one I would ever allow myself to pose. “If that one needs to be covered, God will have to bring it up,” I thought. And on my annual retreat that summer God did.

During St. Paul’s conversion, he describes scales falling from his eyes. More than restoring his sight, the act transforms it. I could still see, but I could now see differently.

When I sat down for my first seminary interview, remember that answer you gave to why you might want to be a priest? “I love kids, but have never wanted a wife,” my 19-year-old self said reflexively. That was a strange answer—and not just because this interview happened shortly after the Boston Globe’s cracking of the clerical sexual abuse crisis. My interviewer’s eyes got saucer-sized concerned, but only about the kids part not about the no wife part. That answer looked different now.

When you think of models of faith, who comes to mind? Parents, families, the poor—people who have virtue demanded of them moment-by-moment, with little tightrope and nowhere to hide. That answer looked different now.

When you say “father,” what do you hear? Not me. Not here. Not in this way.

Suddenly, everything I had avoided seeing was emerging. Suddenly, the world was in technicolor. Suddenly, I had a big problem on my prayer hands.

What do you do with provocative prayer? Let it sit for a bit and see if it comes back. I left that retreat intending to do just that, allowing something more than myself to lead. And lead God did.

Each priest has a spiritual director. Think of it as a low-salaried counsellor who knows her way around the Catechism. And a bit more. Mine calmly placed the options on the table. Leave the parish and do some intensive prayer, or stay in the parish and do some intensive prayer. The second choice didn’t involve moving boxes or adjusting schedules, so that’s what I chose.

If anything, I wanted a renewed sense to stay. I was good at my job. I was respected by priests and people. I still had an invitation to Christmas dinner at my parents’s house. All elements of a safe choice.

But safe, it wouldn’t be. Slowly, my eyes and heart were opened to what was already there: I could do priest, but I couldn’t be priest.

Saturday will be 11 years since I looked out on that ordination-day community. 11 years since ordination as a priest in the Catholic Church. And my priesthood has never been better—a priesthood not at the pulpit but in the pews.

 

 

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As I daily concluded the celebration of Mass and moved to pray through this big discernment, I regularly found myself in a small seminary chapel. (The irony of the location does not escape me.) A touchstone text was a translation of a poem by reforming Carmelite St. Teresa of Jesus. I include it as a help to your own journey.

 

I am yours, for you created me;

Yours, for you redeemed me;

Yours, for you called me;

Yours, for you waited for me;

Yours, for I did not stray from you.

Lord, what do you want of me?

 

Here is my heart, I place it in your hands.

Here is my body, my soul, my life.

My very being is yours.

I surrender my life to you.

Lord, what do you want of me?

 

Let me live, or let me die;

Give me sickness or health;

Weakness or strength;

War or peace;

Honor or shame.

All I say is: YES.

Lord, what do you want of me?

 

Give me poverty or riches;

Happiness or sorrow;

Joy or sadness;

Hell or heaven;

You are my all and I am all yours.

Lord, what do you want of me?

 

Let me be at Calvary or at Tabor.

Let me be desert or fertile land;

Job in misery or John resting by your side;

A fruitful or a withered vine.

Whatever suits you is fine.

Lord, what do you want of me?

 

 

If that poem strikes you as a little Ignatian—as in similar to the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits—you, too, qualify for a gold star on your bulletin. The poem is based on his Principle and Foundation. Below is another prayer, from a successor of Ignatius, Pedro Arrupe. The 20th century leader of the Jesuit order made these remarks during his own post-Mass prayer.

 

 

 

Categories: Pulpit to the Pew