This is a similar homily to one I gave a while back for all those beautiful people at Holy Infant, but there are some amendments for the equally beautiful people at Epiphany and you may have missed it the first time around.
I’m not so modest as to claim that I don’t enjoy talking about myself, but I would like to limit it during homilies and focus instead on Our Lord who unites us, and on his Mother who holds each one of us in her loving arms. But… I’m going to make a bit of an exception this morning because when I first meet people, they have questions. Specifically, there is one question – What’s the deal with the married priest?
Although I know many of you very well, I know that I’ve never talked about it, so here goes. Some quick background: Amber and I were married 15 years ago, we went to St. Charles West high school, class of ’99 (I know that’s important to share with you) and we have happily expanded our little tribe with five children: Catherine, Mary, Michael jr, Augustine, and Teresia Benedicta, and this is probably the first and last time I’ll mention them in a homily. In 2006, I was ordained and called priest in the Anglican church, which first formed under King Henry VIII in mid-16th century England. Their ministers are allowed to marry and it wasn’t an issue, but when we converted to the Catholic faith in 2011, I didn’t know if I would ever serve the Church as an ordained minister again. That was a difficult time, and I am forever grateful to you at Epiphany for letting me spend that time here, learning the faith, praying, and struggling through my frustration at not being a priest. Let me tell you, though, that the opportunity to raise our children in the faith would have been worth it even if I never had been led to where I am today. The Church is a precious gift from Our Lord, and we ought never take her for granted. Whatever it takes to be here at mass, it is worth it.
Okay, so when people hear about a married priest, I almost always hear one of two responses.
- Their eyes light up and they exclaim, “I think priests should be married too!” That is awfully nice to say and I know it is meant as a way of being welcoming, but there’s a mistaken assumption in there, because I do not, in fact, think that all priests should be married. Way more importantly, the Church does not think that all priests should be married. The Church has her reasons for this, mostly because priestly celibacy allows these heroic men to devote themselves totally to loving the Church and all of you like their very own family. They are a member of no family and a member of all families. As a famous poem by Lacordaire says of the unique existence of priests, “My God, what a life; and it is yours!” Celibate priests stand apart from the world as symbols of hope and that is precisely how they are so effective at bringing God’s love to us. In a way, they are already straddling heaven and earth. If you aren’t already doing so, please pray for priests. Long story short, my own position is an exception and I don’t expect it will change and I have no intention of trying to change it.
- Some have a totally opposite reaction and say, “A married priest sure sounds like a double standard. We like the celibate priesthood and it isn’t fair that you get to be married.” Over the past five years as I was seeking ordination, I shared that concern, and I wondered if other priests would be jealous and dislike me. If it was unfair and if I shouldn’t give up. But then I had a surprising conversation with Fr. Pastorius. One day, after my children had rampaged through the rectory with the energy of a thousand tornadoes, he actually thanked me! He said, “Thank you for confirming my vocation to celibacy and to never, ever having children.” Behind that joke lies a serious truth that I have heard many priests echo. They don’t see a double standard at all. They have no desire to be married, they aren’t jealous, and they are leading happy and fulfilled lives. In fact, it was presumptuous of me to think that they’d be jealous of me! Take a second and see celibacy the way our priests do, it is a sacrifice, yes, but with sacrifice comes great reward. Celibacy is a gift from God and isn’t merely a sign of something missing, it is a sign of a soul that has been changed by God and is forever bonded to him. In a mysterious way, celibacy for the sake of God is even more fundamental than the marriage bond, which is why priests are such great marriage counselors. They understand the commitment it takes to be married.
Another variation on this response is that a married priest is a change in the Church and maybe isn’t a good one. A few quick thoughts on that. What we know as the Mass is actually one regional expression of the Catholic Church. Our Mass is called the Roman Rite. Other Rites exist, such as the Maronite Rite (St. Raymond’s, downtown), a Coptic Rite, a Ukrainian Rite, a Byzantine Rite, and so on. There are a lot, the Catholic Church is truly Catholic, meaning Universal. In most of these other parts of the Catholic Church, from the very beginning, some priests have been married. So this is actually a ancient practice of the Church. But, in the Roman Rite, it will remain very limited, an exception for a few men, and I am confident it will stay that way. Another concern is about going to a married priest for confession. Just a quick reminder, if I or any priest ever breathes a word of what we hear in confession, even to the person who confessed it, even to the police, even to my wife, I will not only have my priesthood taken away, I will be excommunicated from the Church. In confession, that’s between you and God, and he will forgive anything and his priest immediately forgets it.
Turning to our Gospel reading for today, Our Lord makes the invitation to come to him and find rest. In life, God has a challenge, a destiny, uniquely your own, a path for you alone. For some of us it is priesthood, for others to marriage or hoping to be married, some of us are still busy growing up and going to school, or adjusting to retirement. We are all at different places in our lives, all have different gifts, and whatever vocation you have I encourage you to dedicate yourself to it with your whole self. Don’t be afraid to leave behind whatever holds you back to strive for greatness. As St. Catherine of Sienna says, “Be brave about everything.” Life can throw all sorts of challenges and discouragements our way, and the burden can sometimes feel overwhelming, but Our Lord invites each one of us, whether we think we deserve it or not, to come to him. He will always provide you with the grace necessary to take the next step.
God has a plan for each and every one of you. He cares for you and loves you, so run to him. Don’t hesitate, and find that as you find your place at his side you will find your true happiness.