There is an axiom that “grace builds on nature.” More accurately, some scholars attest that “grace perfects nature.” Divine grace perfects our human nature, so, thankfully, something is perfecting us. Our human nature often is hidden by us priests. There is a dimension of us that we may keep hidden because of our need for some privacy in our lives or the mindset some might have that priests don’t live normal lives; therefore, there is a perception that we are not like the rest of society.
Some of the attitudes people have regarding priests are odd and, at times, a bit dismissive. The one that occurs most is this: “Father, you wouldn’t understand, because you ... (fill in the blank: are not married; don’t have children; don’t have to be concerned with that — whatever ‘that’ is).”
It is amazing the assumptions people make because of our celibate lifestyle or because we delve into the spiritual side of life more often than the average person. I wonder if the parishioners who question what we know or don’t know also are saying to their oncologist who just diagnosed them with cancer that the doctor doesn’t understand because he or she never has had cancer. Does a woman say to her male obstetrician or a man to his female urologist: “You don’t know anything about that as you have never experienced what I am experiencing”? It seems odd so many believe that because one has not experienced something that they are limited in their knowledge about it or their empathy for it.
The life experiences of the average parishioner and the average priest probably are more similar than most laypeople would think. While priests typically do not need to worry about job security, when someone is lamenting over the fact they could lose their job and will not be able to make ends meet, many priests experience those same dreadful feelings as they look at their parish checkbook. Priests lie awake at night, tossing and turning like the rest of the world when the bills are more than the offertory collection. Like any other household, priests have persistent worries. Like any family down the street, life can be a journey of one step forward and two steps back. Just when the family in the third pew thinks they are ahead of the game, their car needs a new transmission. Just when things are going well, the 50-year-old boiler in the 150-year-old church has just boiled its last. Like the family down the street or in the third pew, the pastor does not know from where the money is coming. The family needs the car to transport the children to school and parents to work. The parish needs to heat the church as winter is coming.
Though the priest himself might not be living paycheck to paycheck as many parishioners might be, most priests are running their parish from offertory collection to offertory collection. Many parishes, like their parishioners, are living week to week. The parish income is similar to a self-employed person. If the self-employed contractor is not out there building a new deck, he is not getting paid. There is no making up a day of lost income — the day is gone. When there is major snow or another reason that parishioners cannot or do not attend Mass, there is significant dip in the collection. Those empty pews mean empty collection baskets. Sure, a few families make it up the next week, but for the most part it is lost income. It is a like a plane flying with empty seats — no revenues, and that flight is not flying again.
Though we are celibate and have no wives or children, there are many priests providing care for an elderly parent. There are so many silent unknowns in priests’ lives. The average parishioner does not know what else is on a priest’s plate at any one time. They have the same worries the people in the pews have. Some priests are actually supporting their parents as their pension does not make ends meet and their health and age impedes them from working. Some priests, because our income (though minimal by professional standards) is reliable and mainly disposable, are helping their siblings make ends meet. There is the brother who is laid off, so the priest wants to assure a roof over his nephews’ and nieces’ heads, or help pay their school tuition. Just as most priests do not know what the circumstances are with the parishioner down the street or in the third pew, most parishioners do not know the private life and the concerns of the priest.
Even when there is no financial difficulty, the ailing parent who needs attention can be an emotional and physical drain on anyone, including priests. Like any other person, it is a worry when Mom or Dad is in the nursing home, or has an acute illness, and the family is doing a 24/7 rotation in the hospital to make sure Dad is never alone. Then there is the priest who has a developmentally challenged sibling. The priest knows once Mom and Dad die, who presently are the major caregivers of the physical or mentally challenged sibling, he, the priest, may be the next primary caregiver. The sibling may not live with the priest, but the priest typically holds the power of attorney as the other siblings have their own families who rightfully need their attention. There is nothing wrong with it falling to the priest, it is just another example of priests being more similar to the people in the pews.
Then there are the moments when the priest is anointing people in a hospital or at an anointing service with many people walking up the aisle. The priest’s own physical well-being comes into the equation. Priests tend to be private people, so many may not know that you yourself are under the care of a doctor for your own diagnosis, which you have not made public. So when we are anointing that hospital patient who has cancer, we do so silently, even if we have a similar diagnosis. It is not about us at that moment but about the person we are anointing. You keep silent, even though you are contemplating your own finality when laying hands on another who is experiencing the same feeling of their pending mortality.
Grace perfects nature. Thankfully there is a God who is perfecting this human condition of ours as we realize we cannot do it ourselves. Life for the man in the pew and the man at the altar is more similar than different. The moments of richer or poorer, sickness or health are not much different, whether we are the married man in the pew, the celibate priest at the altar or the single guy sitting alone in the church. The human condition neutralizes most differences among us all. The redemptive grace that pulls us through these human moments is there equally for us. Maybe the priest’s mission is to point out the grace of God to the man in the pew or the guy sitting alone, allowing all of us to know we are not carrying these burdens alone.
FATHER PATRICK M. CARRION is pastor of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore and the director of the Baltimore Archdiocesan Office of Cemetery Management.