Why I Love Being a Priest, a k a...

The editors of Time's new "bookazine" on Pope Francis, Pope for a New World, asked me to contribute an essay called "Why I Love Being a Priest," which I was happy to do.   The essay was written after Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, but before the conclave had concluded.  When Pope Francis stepped out on the balcony, the editors asked me to add a short introduction and a few remarks about the new Jesuit pope and retitled the essay, "The Life of a Jesuit."  They graciously gave me permission to post the article in full here.  A link to Pope for a New World is here.   

. . . . . 


The Life of a Jesuit

James Martin, SJ

The election of Pope Francis surprised much of the world.  So many firsts: the first pope from Latin America.  The first from anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere.  The first ever to take the name of Francis--which is hard to believe, considering how admired is St. Francis of Assisi!  And a source of special pride for me, the first-ever Jesuit pope.  (More about the Jesuits later.)

The election of any pope always elicits a flood of hopes from Catholics and others concerned about the church.  With the hopes come questions: Where will the new pontiff focus his attention—on the poor in the developing world, on the increasingly secularized West, or on the expanding Catholic communities throughout the Southern Hemisphere?  And the question that nearly all Catholics ask: Will he change anything?

Chief among those questions are those surrounding the priesthood.  How will the church provide enough priests for the needs of the faithful around the world, especially in areas where the church is booming?  Will the requirement for priestly celibacy change?  And, even though Pope John Paul II declared the topic off limits, there are still not a few Catholics who wonder if women will ever be ordained priests. 

If you speak at length with Catholics you will inevitably hear another question about the future of the priesthood, especially in the face of declining vocations: Who in their right mind these days would want to be a priest? 

. . . . .

In June 1999, along with five good Jesuit friends (they’re good Jesuits and good friends) I was ordained to the priesthood during a Mass in the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in Chestnut Hill, Mass., on the campus of Boston College.  The church’s name is probably not a surprise if you know anything about the Jesuits—the religious order to which I belong.  St. Ignatius (1491-1556) is the founder of the Jesuit Order, and Boston College was founded by American Jesuits at the end of the 19th century. 

But you might be surprised by my path to the Jesuits and to ordination.  Raised in a loving Catholic family, but not one that was super-religious, I sailed through most of life blissfully unaware of the priesthood.  Outside of seeing them at Sunday Mass, I didn’t know any priests (I didn’t know more than a few Catholic sisters either) and I certainly never envisioned myself getting ordained.  

Now, however, I’m tempted to say that my ordination was the greatest day of my life.  Other days come close—the day I entered the Jesuit novitiate; the day that I started working with East African refugees in Nairobi as part of my Jesuit training; the day my two nephews were born.  So instead of starting a competition, let me just say that Ordination Day was one of the greatest. 

The path to ordination, as I said, was circuitous.  As a college student, I studied at Penn’s Wharton School of Business, and spent six years working at General Electric in the 1980s.  But though business proved a good vocation for my friends, it never seemed to fit as well as all those Brooks Brothers suits I owned.  In fact, the corporate world made me miserable.  One night, after a long day of dull work, I came home and turned on the TV and caught a documentary about the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who in the 1940s left an aimless life to enter a monastery in Kentucky.   His life seemed far more appealing than mine, and I gradually started to think about entering a religious order.  All that led me to the Jesuits. 

Our new pope, Francis, is a member of that same order.  And I’ll bet he knew more about it when he joined in 1958 than when I did 30 years later.  Of course I knew the basics: the Jesuit order (officially the Society of Jesus) was founded by St. Ignatius Loyola in the 16th century, who hoped that the men who followed him would “help souls” in a variety of ministries—which turned out to be schools, parishes and retreat houses, among them.  But I didn’t know much about the order’s spirituality, which encourages people to “find God in all things.” The Jesuit spiritual tradition also stresses seeking freedom from anything that might keep you from being a loving person, or from being a person willing to try to discern God’s will in his or her life. Had I known more about Jesuit spirituality, I might have joined earlier! 

A bit more technical info before going further: in the Catholic Church there are “diocesan priests” who work mainly in parishes, and there are “religious order” priests, like those in the Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans.  In religious orders (there are orders both for men and women) we profess vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and live in community with one another.  Men’s religious orders also include men who do not choose to be ordained: Brothers. 

Now that I’ve brought it up, let’s cut to big question: What about celibacy?  It’s what most people have on their minds when they think about the priesthood, especially in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals.  So a little explanation.  First of all, celibacy is not for everyone—obviously.  If it were, there wouldn’t be much time left for the human race!  But it is meant for some people--like me, who take a vow of chastity; or diocesan priests who promise celibacy.  (While there are differences chastity and celibacy are the same for diocesan and religious priests.) For me, chastity is a way that allows me to love many people freely and deeply.  Yes, foregoing sexual intimacy is difficult, but married life has its own challenges too.  A celibate lifestyle calls you to find and express love in deep friendships, in your ministry and in prayer with God.

Celibacy doesn’t lead to sexual abuse, but that doesn’t mean that commentators don’t draw that conclusion—often in poorly informed op-ed pieces.  Most incidents of abuse take place in the family, but no one says that marriage leads to sexual abuse.  Many incidents take place in schools, but no one says that a degree in education leads to abusing children.  Basically, the easy (and to me insulting) conflation of celibacy with pedophilia reflects a discomfort with the celibate life.  Anyone, the popular thinking goes, who chooses to live without sexual intimacy must be either sick, deluded, crazy--or all three.  But as I said, it’s simply another way to love--not better or worse, just different. 

And I’ll bet you already know many celibate people in your lives.  You just don’t think about them as “celibate.”  They would include single men and women, widows and widowers, the uncle or aunt or coworker or a neighbor who have chosen not to marry.  As long as they are loving and enjoy deep friendships, why not see their choice as another way to live?  And love?  Indeed, some of history’s most loving people—St. Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II—were celibate.  And the charge that we’re lonely?  I’ll stack up my long list of good friends against anyone’s!   

. . . . .

I had been waiting for ordination for many years, having witnessed, since entering the novitiate in 1988, many older Jesuits ordained over the years.  Every year, at the annual Ordination Mass, I found myself tearing up during the part of the ceremony when the congregation prays to the saints to ask for prayers for the ordinandi, the men being ordained.  And I always enjoyed asking for my friends’ “first blessing,” the traditional request of a newly ordained priest.  They always blessed me tentatively but confidently, as if they had never done this before, but had been born for it all along--and of course they were.

Actually, I almost didn’t make it to my own ordination.  The week before I caught a horrible flu, and one of the older Jesuits with whom I lived, named Vin, generously rushed me to the emergency room.  I was so angry!  How could God do this to me the week before my ordination?  What if I weren’t able to go?  I said to the older Jesuit, “I have to ask you this—why is God doing this to me?”  Vin looked at me with mock seriousness and said, “In punishment for your terrible sins!”  We both laughed.  What a ridiculous question.  God wasn’t doing anything to me.  I was just sick. 

But when I walked up the aisle, that little scare ended up magnifying my gratitude.   How grateful I was to be there, after more than 10 years of preparation.

After the Mass, when we new priests walked onto the steps of the church, we were surrounded by our Jesuit friends, who--clad in their albs or wearing their clerical collars--hugged us, congratulated us, teased us and were happy for us.  My Jesuit superior immediately knelt down and asked for my blessing. 

And then—behold, as the Bible would say—a few steps down the stone staircase were my mother and father, my sister and her husband and their new baby, along the rest of family and friends from every part of my life.  All the people who had nudged or helped or prayed or loved me to where I was.  It was like heaven.

. . . . .

Since that day I’ve loved being a priest.  Why?  In good Jesuit fashion, let me give you three reasons.

1.) Confessions.  In the first few months, when I was still learning how to celebrate the Mass--that is, learning not to (oops) forget to say the Creed on Sundays and remembering to pour the water in the wine, and navigating my way around the complicated prayers of the Mass, confessions seemed simple by comparison.  And so beautiful.  How wonderful to offer a word of forgiveness and see a weight lifted, sometimes it seemed almost physically.  How wonderful to remember during every single confession since then what my theology professor said to our class, “Confession is not about how bad the person is, but how good God is.”  How wonderful to be able to say to someone who had been estranged or distanced from the church, who didn’t feel welcome in the church or who had not been to confession for decades, “Welcome back!”  I could say that!  What a blessing. 

2.) The Mass.  Eventually I got to know my way around the Mass.  But as soon as I did I wondered, “Who am I,” as Elizabeth said to the Virgin Mary in the Gospel of Luke, that I can say these words?  Who am I that I can pray these ancient prayers along with the People of God?  Sometimes when priests celebrate the Mass, as most priests will tell you if you asked, they might get momentarily distracted.  (“Did I consecrate the bread and wine?” said one Jesuit aloud during a community Mass in East Africa.)  Me too.  But sometimes I feel overwhelmed with emotion when I reach certain phrases.  “Blessed are you, Lord God of all Creation…”  This is my Body...”  “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof....”  Who am I that I am allowed to celebrate the Mass in the Room of the Conversion of St. Ignatius in Loyola, Spain?  At the Grotto in Lourdes, the great shrine in the south of France?  At the parish outside Philadelphia where I received First Holy Communion?  In our Jesuit community chapel?  In convents, in hospital rooms, in living rooms?  Who am I, Lord?

 3.) Baptisms.  There is nothing more enjoyable for me as a priest than celebrating a baptism.  Babies are miracles.  You know that, right?   And welcoming a beautiful little baby—silent, fussy or squalling--into the Christian community means welcoming them into something that they probably won’t understand for a while.  It’s like giving them a secret gift that will be opened in many years: the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of the church, the gift of fellowship.  But not everyone will open this gift right away.  Like some gifts it might not be appreciated at the moment it is given.  But some day it will.  Maybe, I think, they’ll open that gift when they’re a child, maybe when they're a little older, maybe when they're college students, maybe not until they're married or until their own children are born, or maybe not until they are facing death.  But the gift is there, waiting, expectant, patient. 

I wish that more people felt called to the priesthood, and I wish that more people were invited to ordination. 

These days, vocations are not what they were in, say, the 1950s and 1960s, when hundreds of men flocked to enter religious orders and diocesan seminaries each year.  The reasons for that decline are as varied as the people you ask.  The encouragement from Catholic families is surely less (and Catholic families are smaller).  Lay people, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, which spoke movingly about the “universal call to holiness,” also know that they can fully contribute to the life of the church, so ordination is not seen as the only (or, God forbid, “best”) way to be a Catholic.  Overall, as Western culture has become more secular, vocations to the priesthood and religious life tapered off.

But ironically, in the midst of all of the scandals and in the face of declining vocations, priests are happier than ever.  In survey after survey they are often listed as among the happiest of professionals.  A survey by the Center for Research in the Apostolate (an independent think tank that tracks Catholic data) in 2009 showed increasing levels of satisfaction among priests, with 97% reporting that they will “definitely” or “probably” never leave the priesthood.  Even during the height of the sexual abuse scandals a Los Angeles Times survey showed that 91% of priests described themselves as “somewhat” or “very” satisfied with their lives.  The CARA survey lists the following things that bring them the most happiness: “Joy of administering the sacraments and presiding over the liturgy” (94%), “Satisfaction of preaching the Word (83%), and “Being part of a community of Christians who are working together to share…the Gospel” (73%). 

Amen to that.  Whenever I read about how terribly lonely and clearly miserable it must be to be a priest, written by people who never seem to have spoken with one, I roll my eyes.

Many years ago, when I attended my first Jesuit ordination Mass, I remember thinking that I couldn’t imagine being a priest.  Ten years later, I can’t imagine not being one.  As Thomas Merton once wrote, it seems the “one great secret” for which I was born.

This essay originally appeared in Pope for a New World.  Published with permission of TIME Books.

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5 years 9 months ago
Thanks Jim for the beautiful reflection on priesthood. On May 28th I celebrate 25 years of ordained ministry and I cannot think of doing anything with my life more worthwhile than this. Presently I'm on pilgrimage in Spain and today we head to Loyola where I will celebrate Mass. I Will remember, in gratitude, the Jesuits who have inspired and uplifted my faith.
ed gleason
5 years 9 months ago
Good news about priests? Just watched some excellent Obama's remarks on Fr Emil Kapaun who was given the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroic action in the Korean war. There is a cause for sainthood on going. .good news about . Fr.Francis last month Fr Kapaun this month..
Bill Mazzella
5 years 9 months ago
James, You and Francis are clearly welcome examples as shepherds. At the same time I do have some questions about your essay. I believe that you missed an opportunity to be more realistic and, frankly, more honest in describing the state of witness in the church by presbyters. Those priests who state that they are happy are not making the state of Catholic Christianity a happy one, even in this country. They have not figured out a way to replace the ethnic parishes and a sense of community is absent in most parishes. While more people are involved in parishes due to lack of clergy the gap between people and presiders is still too wide. The bishops of this country are buying priests from other countries who can ill afford to send them here. Academia continue to have countless conferences on theology without a clue to effect what the promise of the Eucharist is. Should we not evaluate baptisms which are more of a custom and bow to superstition than an act of faith. An empire priesthood got by with Catholic schools to build community. But even a vast majority of those children leave after eighth grade. In general there is a prodigious lacuna between priests and the community they should be forming. Your tale is a dreamy description of feel good which lacks some solidly reality. I do like your witness. But your assessment of the priesthood, I submit, is fantasy. The priesthood is in trouble not because of lack of priests. It is in trouble because most priests don't get it. Maybe Francis can help change that.
Thomas Ivory
5 years 9 months ago
Thank you, Jim, for another insightful and articulate article. My hope and prayer is that Pope Francis will continue to show all of us how Vatican II calls us to become a serving, humble and more Christ-like Church. Fr. Tom Ivory


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