We will be meeting for a long weekend in my home, sitting on my back porch in the 90 degree spring Orlando is currently experiencing, catching up, telling the old stories, and probably looking for some wisdom on facing the new challenges of seniority. In terms of demographics, I am the oldest at 67 but the others are just months behind me. The first to leave the class, as they say, departed as a college sophomore. He told me later, “I was sitting at my desk in the seminary, and five weeks later I was in a classroom in the Army.” He went on to highly successful multi-facet business career and has great kids and grand kids. The second to move on left at the end of his junior year of college. We share a great memory of both meeting his eventual wife together at a Halloween bash in D.C. He went on to a distinguished Air Force career as a psychologist and now continues practice in the criminal justice system. My third comrade took leave one year into theology, and somehow parlayed his seminary training into a highly successful career in the field of medical high finance. I was the only one of the four to be ordained and did not leave the ministry till 1994.
We all lost touch, of course, 30-35 years in fact, until shortly after March 30, 2001, when my stepson was killed by a drunk driver. The sad story was reported in the Franciscan Order’s weekly newsletter, which former friars also received. It was then that we four reconnected, and to tell you the truth, we e-mail each other several days a week to the present day. We don’t get to see each other face-to-face very often—they live in the Northeast, and I have connected with them during NCEA Conventions in Boston and Philadelphia, and at the occasional wedding or Disney trip. We all have one thing in common; we all “married up.”
I know that in our lifelong friendship and youthful ideals there is a story here—several in fact—about religious life and the Church. I never made the facile assumption that if the Church only lifted the celibacy rule, all of us would be pastors of rich parishes today. (For one thing, there are few very rich parishes anymore.) I know that I have surprised a few people who assumed I would jump back into the clerical arena at the drop of a hat if I could be a married priest; the actual truth is that I was much more at peace and professionally satisfied in the mental health field, and probably able to function as a Christian professional with more honesty, as strange as that may sound. I never had the impression my wingmen had any regrets about their choices.
The interesting thing, though, is that at one point in our history the idea of priesthood did seem like a good idea—to the degree that we four did the real Gospel thing, left everything behind—family, girlfriends, home towns, our histories—for the far away world of the seminary at the age of 14 (in one case, 13). I can honestly say of my friends that none left the seminary involuntarily or due to shortcomings. All were and are smart enough, decent enough, and charitable enough, to have made outstanding priests. So the question becomes, where and how did the “vocations” get to us, and where did they go? It is an important question for the Church today, which promotes vocation awareness relentlessly. (My own parish has a “vocation cup” which gets passed from household to household.) Were we, as youngsters, swept up in the baby boomers vocational craze of the 1950’s (promoted with no greater zeal by the Church Army’s greatest recruiting corps, mothers?) Was our religious intensity, piety, and zeal in early puberty years such that we wanted priesthood that badly?
And what about the other end? That is, when each of us responded to an inner tension to change direction? Was it a matter of growing up and realizing there were more choices? Was the piety of youth tempered by things we experienced as we progressed onward into the guts of church and clerical life? Was the vision of wife and family—a competing sacramental call, I might add—replacing the grace of youth? All I can say is that four young men experienced the dilemma of that transition—and the forces at work might teach a lot about recruiting and the training of priests. My guess is that tonight, with the addition of a fifth member, a Mr. Jack Daniels, we may have a few more answers for ourselves.