success stories

Posted January 3, 2003

How do you [as a priest] see your role
as a man in American society?

Taken from Grace Under Pressure: What Gives Life to American Priests

Bill, a Western priest, recently went to the ordination of a Vietnamese seminarian. "The banner over his head at the reception at the ordination party was all in Vietnamese. I asked somebody, "What was does that mean?" Someone translated it. It said, "He is no longer a man."

Bill was taken back by the banner, and most of the priests in this study would be as well. Their candid discussions at our focus groups make it quite clear that priests are, in fact, men. Much of the discussion of the priesthood, both inside and outside the Church, treats priests as though they were a third gender, neither male nor female. These priests know better; they know that they are men.

Men in America are identified primarily in terms of their work, and these men feel they get respect for their work. George from the East is pastor of a parish consisting of college-educated, professional-level members. "I feel very much a peer to the people in the community and they communicate that to me," he said. "They expect certain things from in terms of leadership. I get an enormous amount of respect from the people that I work with."

George continued, "One of the things that I pick up from people is that they know the difference between office and competence. Some of the young guys just assume that because they have an office, they have some rights. Lay people know the difference between somebody who makes that assumption and somebody who produces and is competent. So I find the professional respect that we get from people is based on our competence and our performance, and not on our office."

The pride of these priests in their competence at their jobs is tied in with their intellectual training. Tim from the West said, "One of the best piece of advice that somebody gave me when I was in the seminary was, "Nobody can take away your competency." Another priest siad, "I like to think we are professional in what we do."

Mark, a pastor and former diocesan official said, "People see priesthood as something very mysterious. They may not understand it, and they may not agree with celibacy, but I find people have tremendous respect for the priesthood. And I don't feel at all insecure about what I'm doing, or who I am as a result. I don't feel my profession is certainly any less adequate than a doctor. I think the astute Catholics today realize that being a priest today is very challenging, and because of that I find they are more empathetic. That's my experience. They know we've got a tough job just dealing with a lot of the negativity, and also with the great challenges that face the Church today. If they see a priest who's really trying to hang in there and really trying to do the best he can, they have tremendous respect for him."

Being a man in American society involves relationships. As we saw earlier, for these men being celibate is not incompatible with having intimate relationships. Some priests see their celibacy as giving them freedom for intimacy. Jeff, an Eastern priest, sees his priesthood as giving him freedom as a man to do a variety of things:

There's still a tension that you don't have children, that you are not married, and there are a lot of periods of loneliness by virtue of that, and I live alone. But there's still freedom. And I think that freedom also gives us the opportunity for intimacy that none of my own brothers experience. In the same way, I think of the different boards that I sit on and the committees that we all work on with laymen. They respect the intimacies that we share with a variety of people. These intimacies impact my vision and what I bring to preaching, to ministry, and to my job. I think in some ways we are able to glean a deeper level of God's activity than some other men really are able to glean. I think it's a freedom that allows for a deeper intimacy with how God's plan really does unfold. To me that's a blessing. . . .

John from the West put it this way:

"We are talking about being a model of the healthy man, but not in terms of society's definition of masculinity, which defines it in terms of how much money you make. Our urban societies are falling apart because we have set up these definitions of what it means to be a man. I see kids who only know how to relate or touch another through aggression. I think we have a strong responsibility to image or be a sign of testosterone that is not directed towards violence. I think it's imperative that we have a healthy image, a sign of hope for what to do with love. Nobody is out there teaching people how to be tender. Sexuality has been separated from love. Sex is pleasure or its aggression or it's dysfunction. . . . "

One Western priest reads Sam Keen and other authors who write about what it means to be a man. Neil, an Eastern priest said, "Maybe at times I don't know my maleness enough, so I'm actually considering a retreat experience later on this year that's going to focus on that. I feel I need to do it because I feel sometimes that I can relate and interact and hang out with other men and have a couple of beers and all that, but sometimes I feel uncomfortable with that."

. . . But these priests still sometimes feel tension in an all male clergy. George from the East described tensions with women:

I feel a lot of pressure as a male cleric trying to relate to equally competent women who feel that they don't have a role or that they are not recognized and acknowledged. That creates a lot of tension in my parish community. They feel they don't get a fair shake in the whole question of ordination of women. And I find that the gaffs and the mistakes that I make usually have to do with the fact that I'm not as sensitive to the role of women. I feel unsure. I instinctively understand male company but I don't understand female company.