18 years ago next week, I re-entered the seminary. I say re-enter because I had left twice before, the 2nd of those two times I left in such anger that I swore I would never enter the grounds of a seminary in my life again. I really need to watch my use of absolutes. My re-entrance was less than spectacular; an act of reluctance and hoping once and for all that someone would tell me that priesthood was not my calling. After a semester in which I piled on damage upon myself, I went home for Christmas break and ran into my ex who informed me that we could pick up where we left off; she was a wonderful young lady whom I could see myself marrying and fathering a large family with. When I left for St Louis again it was to pack up and come back to New York. I knew in my heart that what I was doing was selfish and coming from a reluctance to commit. But at the heart of that reluctance was a very deep question: Why would I feel so drawn to marriage and family life yet also feel called to the priesthood? They seemed mutually exclusive terms. The retreat was immediately after Christmas break and out of my generosity to God (I'm kidding) I gave Him the retreat as an opportunity to convince me to stay. Archbishop Harry Flynn (then the Bishop of Lake Charles [or was it Lafayette] in Louisiana..later Archbishop of St Paul) gave the retreat. He was a former seminary rector of Mt St Mary in Emmitsburg MD. He was awesome. During one of his conferences, he offered opportunity for 1 on 1 meetings. I took him up on the invitation. My question was simple: How could I feel such a draw to the priesthood and marriage at the same time? His answer was simple and has taken me years to fully understand: "If you would not make a good husband or dad, you will not make a good priest. It is the same foundation, different building." This response, by the way, would give birth to what would become Camp Maccabee.
Archbishop Flynn was absolutely right. I have come to appreciate that in greater ways as I continue to mature in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. The same foundation consists of (and this is not an exhaustive list) the following: an ability to commit to something other than oneself, the courage to stand up for what is good and right and protect against what is not, the ability to stand one's ground, the ability to put those placed in your care first, the willingness to sacrifice and even suffer for those placed in your care, the ability to be a man of God and a man of prayer, the ability to provide what is good, and the willingness to give example by word and deed. Although these traits are not exclusively masculine, no man can be a man at all without them.
In marriage preparation, I remind couples that when they commit themselves to each other in marriage, they are from that point putting the other first. Jobs and careers, money and power, prestige and reputation, friends, extended family and even children come after their commitment to each other. That primary bond influences and enriches all their other relationships. After God, the relationship of their mutual bond as husband and wife comes first. For my life as a priest, the same is true. After God, my full commitment and duty is bound to the People of God and the Catholic Church. My commitment to them must come first at all times. As much as a husband and wife are called to profoundly self give for the sake of the other, so I as a priest am called to give myself totally for the good of the Church. As a priest that means that ministry always comes first. As a pastor, that means those placed under my pastoral care have the full right to attention, charity, sacramental ministry, and instruction. That extends to other duties to which I am assigned. It is as bad for a priest to see pastoral ministry as a burden as it is for a husband to see his wife as 'the old ball and chain'. A man who lives for himself and his needs is no more suited for priesthood than he is for marriage!
There is a reason why parishioners call their priests 'Father'. It is a term acknowledging the responsibility that this man has within the parish. A good father provides what is good and true for their children. He protects them from what would harm them. He realizes that he is not his child's buddy, but his dad, which means he will have to challenge behavior, correct behavior, but provide an righteous alternative as well. A good dad is interested in making his children into good men and women who will have a solid foundation for life. He looks out for the spiritual, physical, and mental well being. He provides, with his wife, a rock solid foundation for his children to grow into outstanding adults. everything I have just said about a dad applies fully to a priest. I have to be as vigilant and wise with my parishioners as a good dad is with his children. Both of us get the ability to do this from the same source: the grace of God. This grace gives us the base to be the Person of Christ within our respective calls. Neither a dad nor a priest is called to be an overlord; children are not the dad's serfs, parishioners are not the pastor's serfs.
There is such a need for both good husbands/dads and good priests. In our commitment phobic society, it is getting harder to find either. A lack of commitment is usually a very nasty sign of a present reality within oneself, the trait of selfishness. For men (or women for that matter as well) selfishness shows a profound lack of maturity. Boys are selfish...men are not. Men look beyond themselves to the need of others...boys don't. There are a lot of a lot of chronologically older men who are still boys. They cannot commit and will abandon the commitments they make when they become challenging or difficult. We need better.
Camp Maccabee was formed to address these things while the young men were still young. It was formed to give them the tools to help guide them from the destructive selfishness of boyhood into the selfless bravery of manhood. We speak of honor, respect, self-control, and holiness as the keys for a firm foundation regardless of the particular vocation to which they may be called. Why? The same foundation is needed either way. Those four traits must be driven into young men by their parents as well...especially sons from their dads. If we are to look into the future with any sense of hope about the state of the Church and the state of the married life, it will come from our cooperating with the grace of God and helping our young men to be men...not boys of this world but men of God.