I was raised Roman Catholic through during far less enlightened times than these and long before the hip Pope Francis. The priests were single and celibate. The nuns were the same, kind of, because I guess they really weren’t single, sporting wedding bands and claiming their marriage to God. What is there to say about that? I won’t get started on nuns, because that is a landmine for me, and a whole other story for a whole other time, so we’ll shelve that one.
This is about clergy, priests in particular. I am not a researcher, so this will not be based on facts or long studies that involve placebos or clinical trial groups. As is usually my style, I am sharing my observances and my thoughts about what I see and how I think it works or in this case, doesn’t work so well.
The idea of Catholic priests and celibacy is an example of didn’t work out so well. It is still the required condition and commitment for any Catholic priest despite all of the disastrous outcomes of huge percentages of priests and worse for their devastated victims. Still, the Catholic Church requires this sacrifice of their mostly young men who come to seminary having received the “calling.” I have yet to figure out when and where God said, “Sorry you can’t be sexual and serve me at the same time.”
When I wasn’t busy trying to peek up under the nun’s veil to see if her head was shaved, I was busy waiting for the “whisper of Christ in my ear.” Told that it would come on one glorious day I waited patiently, sure that I would be deserving of such an ethereal and life changing moment. When I never got the whisper I figured that I just wasn’t good enough or holy enough and still I waited. I thank God now for skipping my ear in that whispering process. I digress.
Back to the priests. So yes, they were an odd and quirky lot. The old ones were cantankerous, often drinking too much, telling somewhat bawdy jokes that all were required to be laughed at, whether funny or not. They were catered to and treated with reverence and a sort of worship akin to presidents and such. They had maids and cooks and often beautiful and historical residences called rectories. Bridget and Ellen were sisters who came from Ireland and the perfect servants for the role. I do believe that they felt they were serving God! They dotted around giggling, serving, and keeping all the secrets with their lilting brogues always praising these mere mortal men who had their own battalion of inner demons. In a good parish some devotee would collect money and buy them a car. It was usually a Buick and almost always black, but hey, it was a FREE car!
The rectory of the parish I belonged to in Brooklyn was in a ghetto neighborhood that even back in the 60’s was riddled with crime. But the rectory was a mass of valued Oriental carpets, mahogany detailed stairs and paneling, a grand dining room and long carpeted stairs that led to the secrets of the priest’s bedrooms. My friend and I worked evenings in the rectory, answering the phones and doing some filing while being ever so intrigued by what might exist up that stairway. So tempted were we, that on a few occasions when no one else was around, I stood vigil at the bottom while she ran up to the bedrooms and looked around. I wonder still, if someone had walked through the front door just what she would have done. Hid in a closet forever? Climbed out a window? Hid under the bed? Just what were we thinking? We never found anything particularly sensational, but I suspect those items were well hidden.
Years passed, we all moved away, got married, had families and I had little or nothing to do with the Catholic Church. I married a man who was as they say, “a cradle Episcopalian” and I am not a fan of that expression because to me, it is akin to “blue blood purebred.” But, I was intrigued by this church and found that it not only had a sense of humor and lightness, but it had married healthy clergy and praise God some were women! I was in with one felt swoop and the shaking of the Episcopal Bishop of Long Island’s hand! Done. Converted.
Once we moved to North Carolina in the early 90’s with my then four children, we set out to church shop. After the first one we went to my nine year old said, “If you ever take me there again, I will throw up.” Needless to say, we did not revisit. We came upon a small church where we were told, “Please come back. We have a great rector who is away on vacation, but she is a Type A personality and wonderful.” I’m not sure which grabbed me more, the type A part or the fact that this place was led by a woman, but we were back and stayed for the next 12 years!
This woman was one of the most gifted speakers I ever heard, and that was true Sunday after Sunday, since she ran the church on her own back then with an occasional respite by a deacon. She ran deep, was hysterically funny and irreverent at times (appropriately) and leaned so heavily to the left she could have fallen over. I learned something new and spiritually innovative each time she opened her mouth. My entire political perspective changed. We became friends and our sons played together often. He was an only child and as parents of only children do, they often take your kid places for a companion and well that worked fine with me! My kids believed that her parents were their grandparents and loved them. Our friendship grew and though I never felt that I was part of her “inner circle” I was so grateful to have her in my life, especially years later when one of my sons died and she became my lifeline.
Speaking of “inner circles,” this tends to happen often with clergy. It is this magical place where you are definitely an “in crowd” member and looked upon with envy. It is as if the most popular kid in school has taken you in and this a cool place to be. I feel it happens even more with female clergy than with male, but it works both ways, though there is golf playing and slugs of beer with the males more as opposed to coffee or lunch with females.
So back to my friend and priest. She was sick ALL the time. Albeit she had lost her spleen years back which makes one vulnerable to repeated infections so that was a big issue, but in this field, she was exposed to mega germs day in and day out and let’s be frank, a priest practically puts her fingers in your germy mouth when delivering hosts during Eucharist! She was exhausted ALL the time. She often missed the school plays and the events of her adopted and beloved only son. Her days had no beginning and no end . There are rarely days off and you are on call 24/7 likely being called more often than the average CEO or heart surgeon! Someone is sick, or had a baby, or is dying, or is crying, or suicidal, or coming out of the closet, or questioning their faith, or being abused, or homeless and hungry, or angry, or grief stricken, or needing communion or last rites or, on and on and on. I cannot even imagine, because again, I am so glad I never heard the whisper.
Not to have an entirely negative spin here because I do feel with all my heart that these women absolutely love their work and feel that indeed, they are walking Jesus’ walk and doing Jesus’ work as desired. They live a life likely feeling as close to God as one can and their lives are filled with more grace filled moments than the average. They beam when they preach and when they process down the aisles of church for services. Somehow they learned not to cry from the pulpit, which always fascinated me. Is there a course taught on that? Must be. But, I am not sure about the level of demands this work insists upon.
When my priest and friend had a major stroke in 2008, our church changed and the parade of “substitute teachers” (precisely known as “supply priests” or “interims”) were mostly awful and the youth program deteriorated. She was guarded like the pope or a famous actress following cosmetic surgery. No one was allowed to visit or see her in her altered state. Meals could be delivered, but left on the doorstep. Cards could be sent. But, she was protected so closely by her posse that parishioners became frustrated and hurt to the point of giving up on giving help. They loved her so deeply and wanted with all their hearts to give back some of the love she had given so freely, yet they were never allowed in. This went on for so long and was so restrictive that eventually they did give up and lost interest, never to attempt visiting again to this day, seven years later. For a woman as brilliant and social as she was, this could not have been helpful and remains a mystery to me how the exclusivity became her detriment leading to isolation. She was never able to return and we left seeking a new church with programs and clergy that felt like a good fit. We found a downtown church where we really liked the rector and assistants. Though he was a male, both associates were females and one was already a friend. Though the culture and population still seem like a poor fit for us, the programs and clergy seemed more important.
In being friends with the female clergy here I have witnessed similar stresses and unrealistic expectations of them. I see them always needing to be someplace and likely never feeling like they are in the right place while rushing to get to the next one. Their spouses and kids wait. Dinner waits. Vacations wait. Sundays are never part of the family weekend. As my friend says, “there is just never time to make a salad.” And when one is finally on their way home to attempt to make the salad, the call comes, “Please come now, my mother is dying,” and so the car turns around to head to the hospital. No salad.
And being as self conscious as most of us females are, no matter how hard we try to liberate ourselves, I imagine there are often the unwanted thoughts on the altar as the spotlight soars down onto the priest of, “Is my hair looking gray? Do I look fat? Did I remember my earrings? Are they too big? Is my stole straight? Are my kids hating me being up here? What if I fall in front of everyone? What if I get sick in the middle of the service? What if that baby slips out of my arms into the baptismal font?” Maybe they have enough spiritual connection and enough strength of the Holy Spirit around them at all times to skip this litany but I know I would be thinking those things. And if and when the female clergy become ill, it is completely overwhelming. Hundreds or thousands of parishioners can descend with lasagnas, prayers, cards, visits, stories of their friend’s friend who had the same disease, etc” Not unwelcome and always appreciated but completely overwhelming and insatiable for the givers.
I am a feminist and have been since N.O.W. began in the 70’s, but I am a realist feminist if there is such a thing. I am a strong breastfeeding advocate so I do not think that parenting roles are interchangeable and I was a stay at home mom for many years, eternally grateful for my husband providing just barely enough to keep us afloat. I think women and men ARE different and relate differently to our own gender as well as the opposite. Hard as we may try, I think that by and large these differences continue to exist in most cases. Women thrive on talking. Even when I see little girls in my practice (as the mother of six sons, I have none!), they are talking to each other, to their moms, to themselves, way more than little boys. We love to talk to each other and most of the time, we NEED to talk to each other about nearly everything. This may be a luxury that women clergy are denied. They CAN’T talk about most things they deal with every day. It’s far worse than HIPPA for heaven’s sake. I know they have “spiritual advisors” for this purpose, but maybe that’s once a week if they’re lucky and it just can’t be the same as meeting for coffee to dissect every inch of what is going on in our lives and with whom, across from a good friend! There has to be intense lonesomeness for a priest and likely for males as well as females, but I suspect, less so. What an odd life for a female.
And speaking of males, I imagine there is similar sentiment amongst those married with young children. They too are rarely able to have a normal uninterrupted family life, exhausted with the demands of a church that never ceases having needs and extremely intense seasons for two very long periods of time each year. They too must suffer the “I’m never in the right place at the right time” feeling as well as the “what ifs” on the altar.
So, here’s my outrageous thought. I am wondering if the Catholics had it right all along. If in fact, being celibate and unmarried allows one to be more able to cope with the extreme demands of this inhuman job. I mean I wish it didn’t mean that they also had to be celibate because well, you know how that ended up and I don’t know how this could be handled. Like ummm, “Well, you can be in a relationship, but it cannot be demanding and you cannot live together or be married and well, she/he has to be okay with your 24/7/365 demands.” Not realistic? Neither is this calling or job. Something really has to change to save the psyches and health of these lovely and brilliant women (and yes, men too) who have so selflessly given their hearts and their souls to the love of God and the caring for us all.