At least before all the scandals hit, I had always admitted quite freely and with a certain sense of pride that I had been a priest “in a former life.” I suppose that’s because as a Catholic born before the Second Vatican Council, some positive residuals still lurked in my mind around the ideas of priesthood and church. It’s also because I still sincerely value the training, education, spiritual focus, lasting friendships, and tradition of hospitality that I inherited from my 20 years of formal association with the Society of St. Columban (the organization of priests to which I belonged). Besides, people in the contexts where I’ve worked since then – mostly at Berea College in Central Kentucky, or in our local St. Clare’s church (where I had also served as a priest in that “former life”) – seemed to appreciate my previous incarnation. So when they’d ask me why I left the priesthood, I used to say,
I don’t think I’ve ever left the priesthood, or even could. They always told us “once a priest, always a priest;” and I think that’s true. The priesthood isn’t something “they” confer on a person. It’s an acknowledgement of an identity, a “character” that no one and no decision by me or by “them” can remove. I, and so many of my colleagues in the seminary, had a priestly character from the beginning, and ordination simply amounted to its acknowledgement and confirmation by the church. So I still think of myself as a priest. It’s true, the sacramental dimension is missing. But apart from that, as a teacher of theology and director of a Peace and Social Justice Studies program, I’m pretty much doing the same work I did before I left the canonical priesthood. I’m still a priest.
That’s what I used to say. I don’t any longer like that answer. Its approach to the priesthood was too exceptional, setting me and my friends apart from others in a way I’ve come to see as self-serving. None of us was at all that unique. We were pretty much ordinary, working class kids, who escaped factory work (or truck driving, or delivery routes, or the policeman’s beat) to become the first in our families to get a college education. We joined a highly exclusive club that put us on a pedestal from the beginning, and gave us an exaggerated opinion of our own importance. Before we were 30 or had done really anything at all, we were among the most honoured and important people in our communities. That sort of unmerited aura and especially the accompanying expectations eventually drove me from the priesthood as I once knew it.
Still there was truth in my statement about priestly character. There was indeed something special about me and those who came with me through the seminary. But the specialness belonged not to me or to them uniquely. What my words unwittingly expressed was an intuition about the nature of being human. The intuition is that everyone has that priestly character I was referring to. Luther, I think, (with his dependence on Augustine) was gesturing towards something like that. Though he didn’t say it as clearly as mystics like Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross – or as Hindus or Buddhists do – he was referring to the spark of the divine (the indwelling Spirit) deep within everyone. Awareness of its presence simply dawns on certain people earlier than on others. For some, it never reaches consciousness at all. It happened to dawn on me (more or less) quite early, but not in the way it has over the past decade or so. To get there I had to do a lot of growing, sometimes painful, but often delightful. The growth was intellectual, personal, and spiritual. Each step moved me further and further from the priesthood as I imagined it for myself and experienced it in others before ordination.
(Next Monday: Intellectual Steps away from the Priesthood)