As I do talks on the priesthood, inevitably questions arise about priestly celibacy. In responding to this question, I compare how the love of a husband and wife erupts in the creation of natural life, while the priest’s love for the Church begets a spiritual life in her children, especially through the Sacraments. Practically, though, I cannot imagine doing what I do and also having to try to support a wife and family, but that is another story.
Because of the work I have done as a priest, initially teaching full time in a high school and now working in the Vocation Office, I have not always been able to see the results of this spiritual fecundity that I knew was present as a priest, but not always so overtly. When I talk to my classmates, I feel a little abashed that I have not done near the number of weddings, funerals, and/or baptisms that they have; as they have all had full time parish ministry responsibilities; but God continues to call us where He wills, so I will get there sooner or later.
However, I had a recent opportunity that allowed me to glimpse directly into the heart of what it means to give spiritual life to another, and the experience was one I will always remember. I have recently struck up a friendship with a young man who is going through the RCIA process. He did not know many Catholics at the time he started inquiring, so a mutual friend connected us on Facebook and we have gone from there. As a life long Catholic, I love walking someone through the mysteries of our faith to help them discover the interconnections between the teachings of the Church, gleanings from science, how the Old and New Testaments are interconnected, etc. That he is soaking this all up as quick as I can feed it to him is icing on the cake!
As I got to know him, I also got to know his mother, who also started to desire full Communion with the Church. Unlike her son, however, she was already Baptized, so she did not need the full RCIA process, and being homebound, it would be difficult to get to classes anyway; so we started meeting at their home and she soaked things up almost as quick as her son. (I want to chalk it up to being a good teacher, but that had little to do with it, I fear!)
Finally, she seemed ready and in need of the graces of the Sacraments, so we set the date to welcome her into full communion of the Catholic Church and prepared the ceremony. While it is a fairly simple and straightforward rite, I found it to be particularly moving as this individual who had sought God for so many long years was fully embraced by the Church she now calls mother. Having played a small part in this process, I have rarely felt so much like a ‘dad’ as I did in the moments of receiving her testimony of faith, offering the Sacrament of Confirmation and finally giving her Holy Communion for the first time. This, I finally understood, was Spiritual Fatherhood. As I stepped out of the Sacristy after Mass and saw so many parishioners greeting her warmly, I knew her long journey was over and now she was home.
As I reflect on this now, there is so much in the journey we all make that is echoed in the journey of this one woman. Despite the many wanderings and meanderings we all make during life, God consistently and persistently calls each one of us by name closer to Himself. When we finally do return, we are welcomed as if we never left, as the Magnanimous Father reaches out to embrace his long lost son.