My Wife’s First Mass

My wife, Peggy, said her first Mass last Sunday.

I remember my own “first Mass.” It was at the beginning of January in 1967. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t really my first Mass. I had been ordained a priest in the Missionary Society of St. Columban on December 22, 1966. So it was maybe my 12th Mass. But it was a Big Deal anyway – on a par with a wedding reception.

All my relatives were there – at some country club dining room in Downers Grove, Illinois just after New Year’s. There I was at the head table, the uncomfortable focus of all the attention. I was sitting there with my mom and dad and with Fr. Stier, my pastor. As I recall some Columbans were present as well.

As I said, it was a big deal – speeches and everything. Of course, I was the final speaker. I don’t remember what I said – except one phrase where I thanked my mom and dad, brother, Jim, and sisters, Rosanne and Mary for “virtually praying me through the seminary.” That was true. In retrospect, I don’t understand how I made it through all those years from the time I entered the seminary at 14 till I was ordained at 26. It’s enough to make you believe in the power of prayer – or something.

The miraculous nature of it all stands out because for all practical purposes, the training all those years was without women. Can you imagine that – during the most formative years in a person’s life? Thank God for my mother and sisters and for the summer vacations which brought me into (very guarded) contact with women. How can men become human without them?

In any case, I somehow overcame all of that too. So here I was a couple of weeks ago and after 37 years of marriage at my bride Peggy’s First Mass. No Big Deal. No head table. No speeches. Just Peggy standing there, hands extended the way we’ve all seen priests do, and leading us all in the Eucharistic Prayer that both of us had composed for the occasion. It was beautiful.

I say “no big deal” because the context is an ecumenical community of Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and others who have taken seriously the idea of “priesthood of the faithful.” So if “the faithful” are priests, women are priests – or at least the priesthood should be open to them.  Why shouldn’t they officiate at the Eucharist in this community seeking to break free from the bondage of patriarchal church traditions?

Even Catholics in the group didn’t blink when they saw Peggy there. We’re ready for change. Despite our best efforts, most of us have become alienated both from our local church and from the Church of Rome. And it hasn’t been just one issue – not simply the patriarchy or the absence of women in church leadership positions. It wasn’t just the pedophilia crisis, not just the Vatican’s put-down of progressive sisters, or the “Republicanization” of the hierarchy, the amnesia about Vatican II, the silly liturgical language changes that no one understands (e.g. “consubstantial” has replaced “one in being”), not just the childish sermons. It’s all of that and the general irrelevance of the church whose hierarchy despite Vatican II is hundreds of years behind the post-modern curve. It’s surprising we haven’t just written it all off as b.s.  In fact, of course, many have

On the other hand, Peggy’s First Mass was a huge deal. It and our ecumenical community represent an awakening of “the faithful” and the fruition of seeds sown at the Second Vatican Council whose 50th anniversary we are about to celebrate.

The Spirit still moves and cannot be contained.

Next Wednesday: the “Table Prayer” Peggy and I composed

Why I Left the Priesthood: Part One

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)