A Celibate Priesthood Very Familiar With Family
Taken from Grace Under Pressure: What Gives Life to American Priests
National Catholic Education Association, Washington, DC
People form their first relationships within their families, and family life is important to priests. There is a tendency to think of families primarily in terms of providing support to young men in their decision to enter the priesthood, and that support is clearly important.
But [it is also clear] that their families — parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins — are important to priests throughout their priesthood. These priests visit their families, spend holidays with them, and get involved in their lives. One priest has gone on vacation with his mother. Another has grown close to a first cousin and a second cousin who live nearby.
One priest says his family keeps him honest: "My brother and sisters don't take anything from me just because I am a priest. My parents do a little bit. But not my brothers and sisters."
Several priests recalled the family life that had shaped them. Phil, 53, a Midwestern pastor, said, "My Dad always was the quiet one, but he had a very dry sense of humor. My Mom had a laugh that was recognizable in any large room. She was very strict, a tough disciplinarian. But we did things as a family. I have a younger brother who has cerebral palsy. He was born with that and he became the focus of the family because he needed help walking. He wore braces and they said he would never be able to walk or talk. He had a wheelchair at two years old. But through physical therapy and speech therapy he graduated from high school. He drives a car. He has a job today. He's been my inspiration. But, the family commitment to that was a big factor."
Two priests described their strong connections to dead brothers. Jim from the Midwest learned to appreciate the gift of life when his older 16-year-old brother died. Art from the South said, "I have an older brother I never knew. And yet from comments of my parents I learned that even though I never knew him, he knows me. There is a bond or a connection there."
These priests learned commitment from their families. While we asked only about the marital status of our priests' parents, many volunteered the length of time their parents had been married, and there was more than one Golden Anniversary among them. Mike, 42, a high school principal from the West, described learning about commitment from his father.
I always thought since I was a little kid I would love to grow up and be as wise as my father. He said very little. I come from a large family of ten kids. My Dad struggled to make it and send us through school and his wisdom basically was that his sights were always set beyond. He always saw the horizon an it was always rooted in an incredibly deep faith, no matter what. I guess that inner strength is where I get my basic strength. My Dad relied on the Lord consistently, no matter what. When he got married, my Mom's father said ‘You want to marry my daughter? Well, how are you going to do it?' And my Dad said, ‘Look, as long as I have these two hands, she will never starve. She will always have a roof — as long as God helps me use these two hands.'
I have just admired that kind of incredible strength my whole life and my Dad is still the same today. He, for me, is my most fundamental basic supporter. And it's been an incredible source for me.
Tom, 48, a Midwestern pastor, talked about how, when he was in the second grade, he learned forgiveness from his father. Tom's mother was going out to play bridge; she told the children that they didn't have to take baths that evening. When Tom's father came home, he didn't believe the children and made them take their baths. Tom related:
Later that night, it must have been about one o'clock in the morning, Dad woke us all up and he got us all in the room and he said, ‘I want to apologize to all of you. I made you do something I didn't believe you.' Well, that was the first experience I ever had of being asked to forgive someone. I guess I had asked somebody to forgive me a lot of times, but no one had ever asked me to forgive them, especially an adult and especially my Dad who couldn't make a mistake and here he was telling us at one o'clock in the morning he made a mistake. And he didn't want to wait until the next morning. He wanted us to know it that night. To be honest, I don't like confession in the Church. But I've got to tell you, my priesthood is wrapped around forgiveness and being forgiven. To me that is what it is about. I am constantly in need of being forgiven and there is an awful lot of opportunities out there for me to forgive and helping to lead people to do that. And it stems from that moment with my Dad.
Priests must respond to challenges within their families. Don, another Midwesterner, found that out when his alcoholic brother required assistance and Don had to help raise his brother's five children. Phil from the Midwest describes what happened when he learned that his sister was a lesbian:
My youngest sister, who is sort of the joy of my life, is about 11 years younger than I am. She came out of the closet about two years ago. So my life has gotten very interesting because I often find myself in the Southern city where she lives in a lesbian community where I'm not used to being. But I'm getting better at it each time I go down there. And I found a use for myself there. It has been kind of interesting. It has added a different kind of perspective to my life and to my ministry. My oldest sister who still lives on the East Coast is quite mystified by all this, but I've been able to be a bridge between the two of them, to open them up to continuing a good relationship.
Jim, 47, a pastor and diocesan official form the Midwest, described the family tensions that emerged when his mother objected to the fact that his two sisters both planned to marry divorced men. Jim supported his sisters. ‘I felt I had to do what I felt was the Christ thing to do at that time,' he said. ‘So at that moment it was a negative. Family was kind of a negative. It was putting tension and pressure on me. All that got straightened out, thank goodness, as years went on. But I felt privileged that I could be part of that healing.'