The scene plays out as if it were scripted. I will be praying after 7 a.m. Mass in the summer, or sitting on a bench outside with a rosary in hand, or otherwise be expressing my faith in some way when someone will walk past and, after a few moments of conversation, ask, “Have you ever thought about being a priest?”
Studies indicate that young men are much more likely to become seminarians if various people ask them about considering the priesthood. It’s not hard to see why. Hearing the same question, expressive of the same discernment—that a young man would make a fine priest—from various persons (and personalities) might well make a man turn inward and ask himself whether he might have a calling, or at least open himself more to the call that he already inchoately is experiencing.
I wonder if the question doesn’t veil a lingering clericalism.
In many ways, I’m the beneficiary of post-Vatican II changes in the Church. I pray the Hours daily. I study theology as a layperson in an excellent program in which the majority of faculty are lay Catholics. Folks pose me the priesthood question perhaps most often upon seeing and hearing these things.
While I appreciate the question and am never annoyed with it, and while I gave very serious thought to entering the seminary during my middle college years, I do sometimes want to respond, “No, I’m not going to be a priest. Men other than priests can pray the Hours and study theology at an advanced level and attend daily Mass and live vibrantly in the bosom of the Church, all without being called to the priesthood. All Catholic men should live vibrantly within the Church, whatever their personal vocations.”
I say that the “priesthood question” expresses lingering clericalism because it can veil the judgment that holiness and prayerfulness and a desire to know the faith correlate naturally to priestly life. Of course they correlate. Priests should live like this. But not every man who lives like this should be a priest. The priesthood question jumps to an exclusive association between holiness and altar, between prayerfulness and vestments.
The priesthood question expresses low standards of expectation for the same reason: The questioner has a difficult time understanding that one can have a strong desire to live a deeply Catholic life without feeling drawn to the priesthood. When I’ve been asked the priesthood question, and responded that I’m actually in a relationship, I’ve been asked (even by priests) “Why do you pray the Hours, then?” This question may simply be a matter of curiosity, but my impression is that it can, and has, not infrequently, masked the thought that liturgical prayer means holiness and holiness means religious or consecrated life.
The priesthood question is a distant cousin of the “marriage question”: The smuggled assumption that marriageable men should marry. It's a judgment that—unless you become a priest—marriage is the only practically worthwhile way to live one’s life as a Catholic and that deep companionship is unavailable outside of marital community. We say of single persons we’d like to see fulfilled that “we just wish they could find someone.”
Where priestly life is concerned, the marriage question smuggles the judgment that “it would be a shame” for a man to become a priest if he is any of the following things: handsome, charismatic, gracious with women, deeply talented, articulate, friendly, and so on. Sometimes the same man regularly is asked both questions, from different people with different views of the Church.
The marriage question and the priesthood question both can express a failure to grasp the deep richness of personal vocation. By no means should we stop encouraging young men to consider that God may be calling them to the priesthood. But we can’t encourage them to do so because we think the priesthood, or them, holier. We shouldn’t stop journeying with single friends who desire marriage. But we should encourage their discernment in ways that don’t effectively treat life-without-a-spouse to be a second-rate option.
I’m still asked the priesthood question, and probably will be until my left hand carries a band. When I’m no longer asked it, I’ll continue to ask other young, devoted Catholic men, though differently, about their callings. Most of them are not called to the priesthood. But they are called to holiness, and are striving to live it. May their numbers increase.