Pope Francis' discussion marking the end of the Union of Superiors General of religious men at their 82nd General Assembly made just one day’s headline and then faded from the news. Too bad, because it was one of those spontaneous conversations where the truth suddenly pops out and deserves more attention. This is the meeting where Francis described the need for dividing seminaries into smaller communities to facilitate dialogue. Otherwise, he said, “We are creating little monsters.”
Get the scene: these are the 120 men most responsible for training young men to become not just priests but priests who have decided to join religious orders, which means, in practice, that they live not in a rectory with two or at most three other diocesan priests, each of whom—at least in the big, old rectories I have visited—has his own apartment and who may or may not have dinner together, depending on who has what to do. Religious order priests live in community (from six to 60 members) with a community Mass, common dining room and recreation room, where they might join for a libation before dinner. Some of the big, old houses still have 10 bedrooms on a floor with the bathroom and shower at the end of the hall.
The 120 religious superiors had asked for a brief meeting; but once they asked the pope “What do you expect of consecrated life?" he opened up and the meeting went three hours.
In short, the lifestyle of religious order priests should approximate the interaction of a family. Ideally the religious community should be able to compensate to some degree what is lost by the priest leaving his natural family behind. Celibacy represents a sacrifice. Though some may attempt to compensate—by food or drink or power or a double lifestyle—there is no substitute for a wife and family; but Pope Francis insists, “Formation is a work of art, not a police action. We must form their hearts. Otherwise we are creating little monsters.”
He lists uncommon attitudes which would make the church attractive: “generosity, detachment, sacrifice, self-forgetfulness in order to care for others.” The priest must move around, get different viewpoints, and this requires real contact with the poor. If they don’t do that they run the risk of being “abstract ideologists or fundamentalists, which is not healthy.” This is not a “folkloric adaptation of customs,” he insists; it is a mentality.
I recently asked a wise journalist friend, the father of two and author of several books, what quality he considered most important in a priest. He was silent so long that I thought he had not heard my question; then he tried to describe it before giving it a label. It was extreme sensitivity to the feelings and experiences of other people. The more I understood him, I saw that he was describing the kind of sensitivity that emerges from the unpredictability, the surprises, of married and family life, where each member must constantly reset his or her feelings and desires to honor the freedom and individuality of the other.
The challenge of celibacy is to achieve these virtues without the experience of marrying and raising a family. John Courtney Murray, S.J., touched on this in a talk to fellow Jesuits in 1947, “The Dangers of the Vows” (Woodstock Letters, vol 96, Fall 1967). He warns young Jesuits about the risks of losing their manhood. Look around, he said, and see men damaged by the way they react to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; and see men unorganized, and intellectually and emotionally immature. They lack responsibility, integrity and purpose. This is because they have failed to encounter and master the three elemental forces—with the earth, with woman and with one’s own spirit. With chastity, he says, “sex is dead,” “man risks becoming a disembodied head, that fancies itself the whole thing when it is not.” “Your typical bachelor is proverbially crotchety, emotionally unstable, petulant, and self-enclosed—small and childish in emotional life. Your religious risks being the same. The chaste spirit risks being also the childish spirit.”
A major influence in my life was Joseph R. Frese, S.J, a Harvard educated Colonial historian and later academic vice president at Fordham University. I served his Mass every day for three years, and he concelebrated my ordination and preached at my final vows. In retirement he stayed close to families he had ministered to over the years, even to the point of babysitting, for which he proudly learned how to change diapers when the parents were out. It seems to me he embodied the hopes of Pope Francis, my friend and the priest’s yearning for realities of family life.