In the summer of 2014, our eldest son embarked on a seldom-trod course in modern life: He became a novice with the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church (which is formally known as the Order of Preachers). That was not terribly long before I began writing this blog and I have periodically shared some of our experiences as parents of a young man as he discerned whether he was called to religious life.
For those not around at that time I wrote a little bit about what religious orders are and how they fit within the Catholic Church. If you are already Catholic and are still rusty on the concept, do not feel alone. The Dominicans date to 1216 when St. Dominic obtained a Papal charter for an Order of friars who would take a vow of poverty and preach against the then-common Albigensian heresy, which distorted God’s nature and our own.
Two years ago he took the major step of professing his final vows to the Order, which is akin to becoming married to the Order and to the Church. His vows of chastity, poverty and obedience to his superiors are intended to be lifelong – though, sadly, there is the occasional brother who seeks to be released from them. We attended the ceremony where those vows were made and were awed by the strength of his desire to profess as a permanent brother in the Order. Last year we were excited to attend his ordination as a transitional deacon, but were later disappointed when Covid demanded that the ceremony be a private one we could attend only by a live stream.
Our son spent the year of his diaconate continuing his studies while assisting the priest at a local parish by occasional preaching and other acts of assistance. The eventual goal was twofold – to obtain his advanced degree and to be ordained as a priest. We were delighted when the ordination ceremony went on this year in a more-or-less normal way. Family was able to attend, but numbers were limited by the need to practice social distancing.
So now that this seven year process has completed and a new priest is being deployed into front-line service, what are the thoughts of that young priest’s father? That is a very good question. My first reaction is to say “let me get back to you on that”. There is so much swirling around in my mind and my heart that I am having some difficulty corralling it all into a single thread. But, to use the words of a British friend, let’s give it a go, shall we?
First, I have a case of extreme pride. Yes, we Catholics consider pride a deadly sin, so I need to be careful about how I act on this one. I am proud of the way a young man has found something so important to him that he is prepared to make real sacrifices in his life to live out and promote what he believes. It is not a popular view today, but his job is the saving of souls and it is a job he takes very seriously.
He does not, however, exhibit the kind of superior, holier-than-thou attitude that so many seem to attribute to those who take their Christian faith seriously. I have seen a change in this young man over the last several years. The young adult who could be quick with a sharp remark or impatient with others who don’t see things his way has been replaced by one who wants to listen, to meet you where you are and to help you be better. We heard over and over last weekend from others in the community that “he will make a wonderful priest.” I guess they would know.
I also have some trepidation. He leaves a large community of brothers and priests and will be going out into a world that has become quite inhospitable to Christianity in general and to Christianity as practiced by Catholics in particular. A priestly ordination is not the ticket to acclaim and respect as it once was. There is a lot of anger and resentment out there, and a lot of people who will harshly judge him for every failing or misstep. He will become the target of many who were once mistreated by the Catholic Church (whether actually or perceived) or who see Christianity as a protective veneer worn by unkind, hateful people. He will need much love, kindness and patience to make his way through this environment – and in my view he has a pretty good start on all three.
I also have a little fear. Can I live up to the assumptions people may make about me as the father of a priest? I will tell you now that there are surely many other men who may be better examples of how to live a consistently holy Christian life than me. I suppose the only answer here is to be at peace with the way he learned from my good examples and took the right lessons from my bad ones. The other response is that I need to up my game in how I practice my own faith, that has had an unfortunate tendency to ebb and flow through the years. A positive example helps, and he can now serve in that role for me. Maybe we will need to serve in that role for each other as best we can.
Life is hard. And modern life has many forces that oppose a genuinely Christian life, or at least try to drown it out with a million other things – whether they be politics, sports, popular entertainment just to name a few. An increasing number of people are cool with not sweating the Catholic thing and just trying to be a good person. But what is a “good person”? What is the yardstick and what kind of measurement beyond our own opinions of ourselves is there to tell if we are succeeding at that task? While I cannot agree with those who take that view, I do not hate them or wish them ill. It is my conclusion from the available evidence that there is a God who made me, who loves me and who wishes the best for me. And that he sent his son as a sacrifice, who during that process passed an authority on to his apostles – an authority that today subsists most fully in the Church which those same apostles first led. And perhaps most importantly, it is the representatives of that Church who are there to help me along my Earthly journey.
That Church now has three new priests whom I know, trust, respect and love. One of them is one of my children. I guess the only conclusion I can reach is that life (and God) is good.