3.22.2010

Panoply of Priests

Ordination, Nicolas Poussin

I’m not sure if it got started in the late 1960s, but that’s when I remember family-friends and relatives beginning to express the opinion that it was better to roam from parish to parish in order to find a priest who satisfied one’s personal taste, than to stay in the parish assigned to you by your diocese. So some of my relatives started frequenting the parish where the priests were also professional theologians. Ordinary sermons didn’t satisfy their erudite tastes. Some friends only wanted to hear from the priest who passed out a paper bag at every Mass, in order to take up a special collection for the homeless men and women living on the Philadelphia streets. Gospel teaching without direct action wouldn’t do for them. Whenever and however this kind of picking and choosing got started, I recollect distinctly that my parents felt it to be an insidious development.

I didn’t really understand the strength of their feelings on this. My mother would try to explain: “these are holy men of God,” she would remind me. God has done the choosing, and these men have bravely and sacrificially done the responding. Besides, she would say, it’s just not charitable to assume the general posture that our job as parishioners is to take and to criticize. A better posture would be to thank God for what the priests do and bring to us.

True to my parents’ words, they invited a string of very diverse priests into our house and our life. There were the exceedingly pastoral priests, whose kindness and gentleness my parents just couldn’t bid goodbye after they had moved on to another parish. There was the priest who had stuck by my parents and one of my siblings after the latter had gone through some tough times in high school. There was our former pastor who we used to visit in the retirement home for priests long after he could no longer make it over for dinner. At some point during our visit, he would start glancing around his room, determined to find gifts he could present to me and to my sister – out of the few possessions he owned – so that we never went home empty-handed. There were also the priests who elicited respect, if not the warm fuzzies. They came to dinner too. There was the pastor whom I feared to meet in confession when I was a little girl, and the priest-essayist whose opinions on defense spending did not mesh with my father’s at all, but who was welcome to dinner at our house anyway, not only for the childhood memories he shared with my parents, but also due to my parents’ steady respect for his holiness, his erudition, and the courage of his convictions. No matter the variety of priests I met, the “takeaway” message I got over time was that we were privileged as a family to have the friendship and the instruction they never failed to give. They were kindness and intelligence wrapped up into a very nice package.

What a perfect preparation this proved to be for my work as an adult! When I attended graduate school in Theology, there were four women and about twenty seminarians and priests in my class. Together, we crammed for our comprehensive exams, celebrated our passage, ate many meals, and attended Mass. When I traveled the United States on behalf of the American Catholic bishops for more than ten years, I met an endless variety of holy, ordained men. I met priests who had emerged from families where there had been divorce, or disabilities – and who had become uniquely gifted bearers of Christ’s message of healing and bearing with suffering. I met quiet contemplatives, loquacious professors, and monks who operated tractors and movie cameras…all in the same day. I met priests who had prayed outside abortion clinics until the personnel inside quit because the Spirit had changed them, and priests living side by side with the homeless. I met priests whose prayer lives were so rich that they could see lucidly, what I was doing and what I ought to be doing, better than I could see while on the treadmill that was my life. The more time I spent with them (and the older I got), I could actually see how their particular gifts served the particular needs surrounding them.

In short, I came to see – and won’t my parents be happy when I tell them – that my parents’ instincts were right on. God has called a great variety of men to live, work, and speak to this infinitely variable world.

Helen Alvaré is the mother of three children and resides with her husband in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. She is presently a professor of family law and law and religion at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, and previously worked in the pro-life office of the USCCB for ten years. Professor Alvaré is also a consultor for the Pontifical Council for the Laity.