success stories

How Do You See Your Role As a Man in American Society?

From Grace Under Pressure: What Gives Life to Priests
Authors: Melvin Blanchette, James Castelli, Eugene Hemrick, Paul Theroux, James Walsh
National Catholic Educational Association, Washington, DC. 1995.

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 does that mean?' Someone translated it. It said, 'He is no longer a man."'

Bill was taken aback 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 that community and they communicate that to me," he said. "They expect certain things from me 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 pieces of advice that somebody gave me when I was in the seminary was, 'Nobody can take away your competency ."' Another priest said, "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 America involves relationships. As we saw earlier, for these men being celibate is not incompatible with having intimate relationships. Jeff an Eastern priest, sees the priesthood as giving him freedom. As a man to do a variety of things.

There's still a tension that donít have children, that you are not married, and there ae a lot of periods of loneliness by virtue of that, and I live alone. But thereís still freedom. And 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 Godís activity than some other men really are able to glean. I think itís a freedom that allows for a deeper intimacy with how Godís plan really does unfold. To me thatís a blessing.

Not that celibacy is not difficult. Rick, a Western priest, described two lessons he learned as a young priest about sex and the priesthood. ďTwo wizened pastors, on separate occasions, mentioned something to me and I thought it was very freeing. It didnít solve the struggle, but itís just freeing. One told the story of how your sexual urges never leave you. In his own joking way he said, ďThe donít leave you even when you are old like me.' And another old pastor said, 'Yeah, and priests fall in love several times.' And it wasn't a big deal. It was information from a perspective that I appreciated. It was also very freeing. It is still a struggle, but at least I know that this is not just something that's new with my generation. It's part of the package."

Mike from the Midwest talked about a difficult time in his priesthood when he discovered that he had strong feelings for a woman in the parish. "I'm 38 years old," he said. "I don't need this. God, I don't need these feelings. I am secure in my priesthood. She is secure in her marriage. I never dated in high school. I played sports. I struggled with school. I had to study hard to get the grades. I worked in a gas station to enable myself to go to a Catholic school and I never took time to date. Here I am 38 years of age and I'm a happy priest and here I have feelings for this woman. I had to deal with that. That was difficult."

Jack from the Midwest said his perspective changed when someone suggested that he look at celibacy as a gift from the Lord. "That was a change of reference for me," he said. "I used to think of celibacy as my gift to the Lord. This is what I was giving the Lord. A friend said, 'Think of celibacy as what the Lord has given you, not what you are going to give the Lord.' And I began to think about that and pray over that. And it changed. Celibacy was never a big problem or issue for me, but when I began to ask for the gift of celibacy, it seemed like I received the freedom that it brings to love. It seemed that there was more life and vitality out of that. And it seems like a gift, not a burden. It's what I am receiving rather than what I am giving."

These respected priests see their role as counter-cultural. Fred noted that he had heard at a conference that the role of priest is so counter to the role of the male in our society. ďWe spend a lot of time with women. We can, by and large, hold up in a conversation which the women have among themselves in the sense that we can talk about feelings, we can be sensitive in public, we can be compassionate and caring. Yet, at the same time, we can divest ourselves of that and be the macho or be the man or whatever the society role is. Or, we donít need to do that. I mean there is that freedom of just being who you are and rising up against it. Three is almost fun in tweaking the society expectation of what a man is by being a priest. . . . .