The Heroic Option of the Priesthood

My grandmother was from Ireland. We called her Nana. When I was five years old she asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I gave her my rank-order preferences: baseball player, train conductor, Jedi Knight.

Nana was having none of it. “You could be a priest,” she suggested. I smiled and went back to my train set. Having a priest in the family has long been a point of pride for the Irish, though I’m not aware of a single one in my line.

When I was a little older we took a family trip to the National Shrine of North American Martyrs in Upstate New York. It was a stage of life when nothing mattered more to me than baseball. Not girls, not music, not school—nothing. Baseball was it.

In that bucolic setting, however, with the stories of St. Isaac Jogues, St. Rene Goupil, and St. John Lalande knocking around in my head, the religious life seemed at least as heroic to me as playing center field for the Yankees. When I closed my eyes, I could imagine walking those lush green hills in barefoot communion with God and His creation. I saw a simple and holy life. It seemed within reach.

But then we hopped back in the station wagon and tuned a game in on the radio. Rickey Henderson led off with a walk, stole second, and scored on a Don Mattingly double to the gap. All thoughts of the priesthood slipped away. Somehow playing center field for the Yankees seemed a likelier possibility.

Eric Metaxas, the great evangelical Christian author and speaker, has said that all men desire to live heroic lives. I think that’s true, and important to consider, especially, when talking to boys about their journey to manhood. Whom do we honor by calling them heroes? What examples to do we offer? Actors? Business tycoons? Ball players?

I’m of the mind that heroism is about self-sacrifice. Anyone who sacrifices his own needs for those of another is a hero in my book.

That includes anyone taking the responsibility of being a parent seriously enough to get down on the floor and play with a kid. Maybe we won’t get the Medal of Honor for changing diapers and taking out the trash, but we are sacrificing ourselves in some heroic way for our families when we do these things.

Sacrifice need not be on a large scale to be heroic. After all, relatively few will be asked to give their lives in battle. Fewer still will be called on to enter a burning building to save a life.

These are heroic acts, but even a coward may do the right thing by providence or by accident. True heroism requires a conscious sacrifice.

Which is exactly what the priesthood is and should be—an all-day, every-day job, performed in service of others and with no expectation of earthly reward. What could be more heroic?

Last month, my wife took our oldest daughter up to St. Theresa’s in Trumbull to see seven men of the Bridgeport Diocese ordained to the priesthood. I’m sure there were a few proud grandmothers in the pews that day.

I wonder sometimes how I would react if my son told me he was thinking of becoming a priest. Would I be happy? Would I be thankful? Would my son be able to tell instantly by my reaction that I was proud of him?

Tough questions, but ones that every Catholic parent should come to terms with. Our Church is in dire need of vocations to the priesthood. We should pray for them every day. We cannot thrive as a faith community without them.

No one in our house—except for Nana—ever talked to me about the priesthood. It was never mentioned as something a boy could actually be when he grows up. In fact, that conversation with Nana was the only time anyone ever spoke seriously to me about it.

Many of us—me included—don’t do enough to present the priesthood as a heroic option to our kids. I’m not saying we have to push it on them, but it could be on the list, couldn’t it?

Somewhere between Jedi Knight and center fielder for the Yankees?

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