The other day I was playing soccer in our backyard with a group of boys. We were having a send-off party for a good friend, Father Timothy Walsh, who is heading on to a new assignment. I worked closely with him over the last year, and he has been a godsend of a mentor in more ways than one for this baby priest.
There were over a hundred people there in our backyard – quite the crowd!
Moments earlier, I had pulled out the soccer ball, and little by little it drew the boys in like a magnet. Before long we must have had a 10 on 10 game. Lots of fun, needless to say. After tiring myself out, I had taken the place of the goalie, and was watching the game. The boys ranged from 3-year-olds all the way through a few high school freshmen. Most of the little ones hadn’t really passed the “mob-ball” stage yet. They spent the game stealing the ball from their teammates and trying desperately to score. It was a lot of fun watching them, really.
Earlier, I had been thinking about one of the hard parts of being a priest. You take a vow of celibacy, and so you don’t get married. No wife. No kids. It was something I had to think long and hard about before I took that vow. Because, personally, I’d love to be married. I’d love to have a family. I know it wouldn’t be all fun and games – one sitting in the confessional makes that clear very quickly – but I do know that it would be very fulfilling, that it would fill a hole in my heart.
But I took the vow. And I became a priest. And I didn’t do that out of masochism, or a spirit of penance, or hoping that the rules would change. I did it because I believe God called me to be a priest. I did it because I believe that there is more to fatherhood than physical fatherhood alone. But there’s always been plenty of mystery to all this.
As I stood there in the goal, watching the boys play, God gave me a little more clarity. Simply put, I realized that these were my children. My family. My spiritual family. My spiritual children. And these were only a part. There are more than just the hundred that were there. Many of them go to the school where I’m chaplain and they call me father. Others I meet in my travels. Others I serve on retreats and summer camps.
If I were to have my own family – a physical one – I’d have as many children as God would give us (I always wanted to have lots!). Nine, maybe, like my mom and dad had, if I was lucky, But not a hundred! And the kids I was playing soccer with are wonderful kids, from wonderful, faith-filled families. I would do my best at parenting, but I doubt if any of my kids would turn out as good as these.
Get it? If I were physical father to some, then I couldn’t be spiritual father to all. After taking a vow of celibacy, God has given me more children, and better children, than I could ever have otherwise. It seems so contradictory, and you certainly don’t see it that way when you’re contemplating never walking down the aisle with Mrs. Right at your side.
Sure, my desire was, and is, to be married. But there is a greater reality. That hole in my heart is still there, but, to my surprise, there is One who fills it in a marvelous way.
It all doesn’t make sense at first glance, or even at the ten-thousandth glance… but for God it makes sense. And sooner or later, often little by little, God lets us see things His way. He gives us glimmers and moments of clarity that help us keep going.
Please pray for all priests, that we may be faithful to our vows, and that we make seek our wholeness from the only One who can truly give it – God Himself. His is the everlasting Romance.