“Life is an unrealistic goal...”
That is the argument that Australian academic Helen Goltz has made as she proposes limiting, or “shortening,” the bonds of marriage. “We have fixed-term contracts for the buying of property, cars and insurance,” she says, “but there is only one contract available for marriage and it is for life. Is it time to consider introducing fixed-term marriage contracts?” According to news reports, under the plan, couples would sign a 5 or 10 year contract: if it works, great, if not, the union would simply dissolve without what she calls the, “shame and stigma” that is associated with divorce. In some ways, it’s somewhat surprising that it’s taken this long for someone to propose such a thing.
With reports saying that close to 50% of marriages ending in divorce, Ms. Goltz, no doubt, means well. Just as a Catholic sociologist and a priest did, over 15 years ago, when he proposed something similar when he argued that there should be the establishment of what he calls the “Priest Corps,” something like the Peace Corps. His plan is that in the “Priest Corps” young men who are interested would commit themselves to a limited term of service to the Church in the priesthood, say five or ten years, which would then be renewable. If they like being priests—and he argues that the evidence in many studies suggests that they would— they may want to stay. If not, then they are free to go, with gratitude and respect.
Why not? Wouldn’t this be a great way for couples to see if they really want to be married? Wouldn’t it be a great way to increase the number of men who are willing to give priesthood a try? Test it out, see what it’s like - if after 5 or 10 years it’s not your thing and you want to move on, it still would have made for a good run.
I’m sure that the people behind such proposals are well-intentioned (Isn’t there a saying about a road to somewhere paved with good intentions?) Seriously though, there’s a reason that such proposals appeal to people. They seem practical. People sign one-year contracts and hope that both sides will honor it. Five, ten years - people think that’s a big enough commitment, anyway. In this day and age, it’s rare that people work in the same place, or live in the same place for a long period of time. Because my lease was up, I got rid of a car that was brand new three years ago - setting up the payments for a new car for five years seemed like a big deal to me. Everything around us seems to be temporary, seems to argue that a lifetime commitment is just a bit too much to ask of any reasonable person.
At our recent Ordination Mass, where 16 men were ordained to the Priesthood for the Archdiocese of Newark, the Gospel gives us a clue to one major difficulty Jesus would have with this type of “redefinition” of his sacraments.
“A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.” John 10:10-13
Jesus gives us an important contrast here between what makes a good shepherd different from a hired hand - his concern for those in his charge. The hired hand works for a time, but his mind, his direction, his heart is somewhere else. He’ll do his job - but enter wolf - WHOA, that’s not in my contract, SEEYA sheep. For the Shepherd, his life is tied to His sheep. Good times, bad times, they are His and He is theirs. The Shepherd knows that in His heart, as do the sheep, who hear His voice and follow Him.
About eight years ago, I think I might have welcomed the notion that my priestly vows could “expire;” complete with a nice farewell, thank you cards, bunt cake and toaster. Eight years ago, I was pretty much on my way “out the door” of being a priest.
It wasn’t the people - I loved, correction, I love the people from my first assignment in West Orange, where I was a priest for 7 years - or Ridgewood, where I was a deacon and returned as a priest for a few months. So, it wasn’t the people.
I had just gotten angry and disillusioned about a lot of things, some of which were very justified, looking back, but I don't need to get into that right now.
The point I do want to make now, though, is that leaving seemed so logical in my mind. My arguments were solid, I felt pretty justified in what I was doing; I had behaved well and with respect to others. Even my “post-priesthood” plans (although those whom I confided them to weren't as thrilled about them as I) would at least provide a good job, stability, and a new life doing good, noble work.
So I took a leave of absence, and I got my opportunity to start over, in a different field; it was right in front of me - all I had to do was sign a letter and mail it in (and I guess it’s safe to assume I would also have to show up for work the next week). But there was something that kept me from signing that letter. A very, very quiet thing inside me that was gently holding me back. It wasn’t fear - and, surprisingly, as an Italian Catholic - it wasn’t even guilt . . . I wasn’t sure what it was, but I truly felt stuck.
A few months later, still trying to figure all this out, I was in Sloan Kettering Hospital with my family, visiting my niece, who had leukemia. It was a Saturday afternoon, and we were sitting around, trying to entertain or distract her. The door opened, and it was a priest who had come for a visit. There was something inside us that was instinctively relieved to see him. Yet, truth be told, he spent more time putting on the hospital gown and surgical mask, that we were all required to wear, than he spent being with us.
And that stayed with me. First, I was angry, saying, “Geez, buddy . . . Why’d you even bother to stop by? I mean, I know there were times I might have been uncomfortable doing something as a priest myself, but couldn't you at least try to fake it a little better?” But very quickly, almost immediately, that voice was cut-off by this feeling of utter compassion for this priest. I started to think, “I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to be the chaplain in the pediatric unit of a cancer hospital . . . As hard as I thought I had it at times, I doubt I could do this on a daily basis - how does he come here every day?”
After that encounter, I started to realize that the reason he came back to work each day was the same reason I “was stuck," unable to truly “leave” the priesthood behind me. No, the reason wasn’t fear, nor was it guilt . . . It was Love. I was a priest (and that chaplain was a priest) because of the love Jesus Christ invited me to share with others, and because of the Love he was constantly inviting me to receive, although I had been unable to see it until that moment.
The love of Jesus Christ doesn’t have a term limit, or contract, or statute of limitations or expiration date. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, never abandoned me. Jesus’ love hadn’t ended, even though I may have felt betrayed or abandoned by others. And as I started to let go of my anger and disappointment, and step away from the things that had made me stop focusing on Him, I started to be able to feel that love again in my own life - and, finally nourished and refreshed myself, I was once again able to freely offer it back to others.
As we celebrate Ordinations of New Priests around the country this time of year and anniversaries for many priests (I’m finally a “teenager” - 13 years a priest on May 29th), I can look back with acceptance and gratitude. Acceptance of what (no offense, Jesus) was a totally insane, roller-coaster ride there, for a couple of years. Acceptance of the fact that, although I can imagine a lot of easier paths, this was the path that Christ (perhaps He has a sense of humor?) chose out for me. So now, at the ripe old age of 38, I can accept that, with love.
And I feel gratitude. Not only to all of the people of God I’ve met over these 13 years- former parishioners, my friends and family, and other priests who stood by me when I was all over the place, and unsure of the right direction to take - but gratitude to God that, although I couldn't always feel it, His inescapable love was always surrounding me. And, although I didn't always know it, His providence and protection were leading me here and will, one day, lead me into other, different and, perhaps, difficult situations.
But I can face that.
I can accept that.
Because He is with me always, and I won't lose Him now.
Although I don't always have all the answers, although I still make (plenty of) mistakes, although, at times, I stumble and lose my way, I still have now that same, beautiful, life-altering realization I had then, standing on that pediatric cancer floor - a realization that came, just when I least expected it.
The realization that I am His priest.
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