One wonderful thing about growing up Catholic is that I always smile and feel excited whenever I see a priest or a nun in full uniform. I understand why plainclothes nuns exist and in my college, some of the priests wore casual clothes along with their collars. But the feeling’s not the same. Whenever I see a Missionary of Charity, in their signature blue and white habits, I automatically think of Mother Teresa and think These women are so awesome to be following in her footsteps. Whenever I see a priest in a cassock, I think Wow that cassock is badass!
So Tom Chiarella of Esquire Magazine’s experiment of dressing up as different men, priest included, definitely caught my eye. The first one he dressed up as was a priest. It was interesting to me that he chose the cassock to “look like the Jesuit priests who taught me to write.” I’m assuming he had a Catholic school education up to a certain point. I also like that he respected the uniform of the priest enough to not wear a crucifix or carry a Rosary or act like a priest when he was never ordained as such.
But what really struck at me was this (emphasis mine):
No one asked my name. No one called me Father Tom. But that’s what the uniform made me. People want to believe.
Especially people in need. All day long, I was faced with homeless men, homeless families, crouched in the street. Sometimes they reached up to me, touched my wrist. Twice I was asked for a blessing that I could not give. Not in the way they wanted. I started wishing that I were capable of performing a service for the world. And I found I could not do nothing. The uniform comes with some responsibility; otherwise, it is just a party costume. I started kneeling down, holding out a ten-dollar bill, and saying, “I’m not a priest. But I feel you.” And I couldn’t do it once without doing it a couple dozen times. Chicago is a big city, with a lot of souls stuck in its doorways. It still makes me sadder than I could have imagined.
It’s easy to put on a cassock. And it’s really not easy to wear one at all.
I think, if anything else, this is evidence of what the life of a priest is like and why the church doesn’t call for married priests. Being a priest isn’t a job you clock in and out of. It’s a lifestyle that demands that the man who wears the collar and uniform to completely surrender himself to serving others, whether as a diocesan priest or as a member of a religious order.
When I was going on vocation retreats, a book called To Save a Thousand Souls caught my eye and a dear friend let me keep a copy. When I read that book, the lifestyle of a priest was laid open to me. Priests have to be able to manage a parish (if they’re diocesan) or have some kind of full-time job that requires a lot of responsibility. They also have to celebrate Mass, be ready to go to hospitals when necessary, celebrate weddings and funerals, give advice, hear Confessions, stand up for the teachings of the Church and, oh yeah, keep their own souls intact in the process.
Most priests may not be able to have families the way that ordinary men and women do, but they make a family in a completely different way. One priest that comes to mind is my dear friend Fr. Keon, who was a professor at my alma mater. He passed away a few years ago, but his life was an amazing one. Most of his life as a priest was spent teaching and serving the University of St. Thomas as a member of the Basilians. He taught philosophy and participated in many on-campus activities such as attending plays and going out to the movies with students. When I met him, he was retired, spending his days in the cafeteria talking to students, telling tall tales and making everyone laugh.
When Fr. Keon passed away, generations of students came to his memorial service. Everyone had stories to tell, memories to share about the time they spent with this priest. It’s hard to say that Fr. Keon never had a family when hundreds of alumni, young and old, were all there celebrating his life and at the same time missing him.
The life of a priest is one with great power and great responsibility. Each priest has the potential of being a hero to the Church and to the world, filled with lost souls. My hope is that people will come to understand that and pray for them always.