By Rev. Edwin C. Dwyer
My vocation story is really not all that extraordinary. I was raised in a small town, with devout parents. My sisters and I were at mass every Sunday with mom and dad, even on vacations. Communal Penance services were part of our religious practice, and I was a part of the local youth group. When I arrived at college (5 hours from home) I continued those practices, and eventually found my calling to the altar. It’s a fairly basic, American vocation story.
There is one element, however, I really never paid much attention to until my second year of priesthood. Priests were not just the men in the vestments on Sundays; they were part of my family. From early childhood I remember a priest in our home for dinner, or being instructed by my mother to ask Father if he wanted to join us for brunch after mass. In those settings I became used to talking to these holy men in a context outside of the church building. Without realizing it, I became confident around priests and put my trust in them. Altar serving became not just a way to keep myself occupied with holy matters at mass, but also became an opportunity to talk to Father a few minutes before and after the liturgy. This had huge pay-offs as time passed.
As adolescence and young adulthood bring times of great transition and tension, I had no problem making an appointment with Father to discuss discernment, articles of faith, and leadership. Since the families of my youth group friends pretty much had the same kind of relationship with priests, I just figured it was common place for families to have Father over a few times a year for dinner. It’s no wonder that two of us are now priests from this youth group, and most all of us are active parish members.
Now I am a priest. It is a great vocation full of joy, but with frustrations. The greatest frustration I have found in the priesthood thus far has been hearing about people under my care struggling or quitting the faith without ever coming to me or another priest for help. I usually hear about this from a devote friend of theirs, and as I come to understand, thru their testimonies, the situations I find myself asking; “Why didn’t they as me for help?”. I fear the answer is that they do not feel comfortable/worthy enough to approach a priest for help. It could be a matter of power-distance, old wounds, or false perceptions, but at the end of they day they go un-helped. I do contact them in one way or another to let them know of my concern, but I rarely hear back from them.
As I mentioned above, I did not realize how present my parents and friends’ parents made the priesthood to me while I grew up. I had this epiphany when a young dad at my parish informed me that he extends his invitations to me to his home not just because he enjoys my company, but because he wants his children to be comfortable around priests, and I can see why this happens. When I’m at the homes of young families I get to play with their kids; they get to see me out of liturgical vestments and in my simple clerics or even civilian clothing, and see me interacting as an uncle would with their parents. In other words, I become part of their family. I pray that this will pay off in the long run as it did with me. I pray that when they age and face more adult problems they will feel confident and comfortable approaching a priest with their struggles. I pray that they see we priests are human, and are that living witness of the humanity of Christ.
I write this not so that my brother priests and I get a few more home-cooked meals (those are nice), but that you see how important it is for the faith for your children to learn that going to a priest is not as intimidating as the world makes it out to be. With so many negative portrayals of priests in film and television it is good for them to see how most of us are loving and dedicated men.
So have the priest over for a simple back yard BBQ this summer, and don’t worry about the kids making the place a mess; I prefer a home full of life with a mess than a sterilized house that is, well, sterile. Your home is what is most familiar to your children, and bringing in the clergy every now and then make the Church more familiar to your kids.