At Christmas, I get to see in a short season all of the things that make being a priest such a wonderful life.
Constant invitations to dinner and expressions of sorrow that I might be alone at Christmas and invitations to come spend Christmas with their kids, "since Kids are what Christmas is all about" are all very kind and thoughtful. People presume that because I am a celibate, it must be a most difficult season for me.
Actually, the "alone thing" is hardly a problem. With communities at two parishes, a monastery, plus the joys and sorrows of a rather raucous family, a little of the "alone thing" would be an interesting change!
I wish that there were a way to share the beauty and the joy of being a priest at Christmas with folks. At Christmas, I get to see in a short season all of the things that make being a priest such a wonderful life.
Who else is invited to be a real part of families, of their very lives, on so regular a basis as a priest? Not just at Christmas, but around the hospital bed of a dying son, daughter or parent, at the baptism of a new baby, the life-changing events of adult conversion or marriage?
I have held in my arms children who were to be aborted, but whose parents chose life because of the Lord's word in me. Without a family at Christmas? I have a family that spans events, ages, and parishes. Alone at Christmas? Never!
How do I get across to people - not the ones who invite me to dinner, of course - but to those whose only knowledge of the priesthood is what they see in the anti-religion media, that there is a much broader experience of celibate living, such as celebrating the liturgy three times with three separate communities on Christmas Eve night? Such as listening to associates joyfully tell the stories of their Christmas Eve experiences and telling my own. Such as watching the excitement of a new deacon describing his Christmas and knowing that I had some small part in letting it come to be.
How could I ever get across the unique beauty that fills and surrounds my life as a priest at the Christmas season?
Someone might hand me cash and say, "Father, see to it that this gets to someone who needs it." As I hand it over to someone who does, I wonder if there IS any other vocation that so frequently gets to experience the joy of seeing a face light up at unexpected grace, or receive the tears of that person, saddened at the need to accept it? Is there any other vocation so blessed? All year long I end up acting like the guy in "The Millionaire," giving money to those whose needs are known only by me.
When the Christmas season comes along. I play the part for weeks! At Christmas I swell with pride (the good kind,. boasting in the Lord and all that) to see my parish family begging food for the poor, driving into the roughest parts of town with toys, clothes and food to feed a family for weeks, all for members of our extended family, the poor. I watch teen-agers pack, sort and beg for the needy, host and serve a dinner for the homeless with HIV, come out in droves for a funeral of one of their own, sing in choirs, decorate churches, and rough-house in the commons area as they wait to drive their little brothers and sisters home from piano practice. I wonder how many other adults can speak with the same optimism and pride as I can of the "next generation"? I see it all year long, I experience it at Christmas.
Now, I realize that this life is not all one wild, mad fling after another. All those Christmas Masses can leave one right smart tired. I realize that handling the holy so often can dull one's sense of wonder at the holy that we handle, and that a priestís spiritual life can become filled with work worries, and projects. I know that not all rectories are happy places as mine is, and; that the temptations to celibate chastity are legion (as are those in the sacrament of marriage).
But I can't help but think that part of the problem lies with us priests. Perhaps it is time to take the title "Father" a little more seriously again. We are allowing cynicism, the great heresy of our day, to mold our perceptions. Too often we fall into line with the 'Me generation's' idea of the good - whatever feels that way.
Still, I donít think that my experiences of this life are all that unusual, and I do think that the choice for joy is ours. A wise man of 22 years once told me, "Suffering is inevitable but misery IS a choice." At Christmas, I find the wonder of being a priest, and yes, a celibate one at that, to be a beauty more easily seen that at other times, but the beauty is always there.
No, I don't have the pleasures of Christmas that some others have, with their spouses and children, but I do have some awesome wonders, subtle at times, but just as meaningful and just as rich. I am more grateful to this God, crazy enough to call me to a fulfilling and sometimes challenging life, at Christmas. I don't think I favor a married clergy any more. We'd get more priests, maybe, but we'd lose something that cannot be replaced.
So keep asking me for dinner, and sympathize about my life's call. Call all you'd like.But come look at the presents under my tree and let me tell you how loved I feel and how big my family is getting. If God was any better to me, I don't think I could stand it!
Monsignor Michael McCarron is Pastor of St. Stephen Martyr Roman Catholic Church in Chesapeake, Va.
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Pope Benedict XVI's Prayer Intentions for January 2013
General Intention: The Faith of Christians. That in this Year of Faith Christians may deepen their knowledge of the mystery of Christ and witness joyfully to the gift of faith in him.
Missionary Intention: Middle Eastern Christians. That the Christian communities of the Middle East, often discriminated against, may receive from the Holy Spirit the strength of fidelity and perseverance.
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