James R. A. Merrick, Ph.D. is the Director of Emmaus Academic and the Director of Clergy Support at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He is also a Lecturer in the Theology Department at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Before entering the Catholic Church with his wife and their six children, he was an Anglican minister in the US and UK for over a decade. He writes for the National Catholic Register, Angelus News, Ascension Press, and Catholic East Texas magazine.
It was supposed to be a joyous weekend. It was my daughter’s First Holy Communion. We were anticipating a nice party, celebrating this supernatural gift. But a few days before, I received a text message from a former colleague saying he had some news. A priest with whom we had worked announced he was leaving the priesthood. Despite his Holy Orders, he told everyone not to call him “father” anymore. I guess he saw himself more as a shop manager making a career change than an alter Christus.
I couldn’t quite figure out why I felt so grieved. I wasn’t particularly close to this priest, yet it honestly felt as if my father had just walked away and disowned the family.
I had had some concerns about his preaching and style of priesthood. He would always slide his collar to the side after Mass, as if it was a vestment. He would occasionally swear in homilies and drew more from song lyrics than the Sacred Scriptures. He once proudly told a group of high schoolers about when he went against Church teaching by knowingly giving Communion to a man in mortal sin.
His homilies were invariably the same. They reduced to the notion that Jesus loved us unconditionally and so we could accept our brokenness. Once we accepted ourselves, then we could accept the brokenness of others. This will change the world, he said, and we will finally be free from all expectations that would keep us down.
I often wondered how repentance, forgiveness, holiness, virtue, worship, and the sacraments fit within this primarily psychological view of salvation. In my view, his message of self-enlightenment and self-actualization had more in common with Gnosticism than Catholicism. That was a big part of my sorrow – that he never got the Catholic Faith.
His announcement was equal parts sad and appalling. He explained more or less that he never really understood the clerical priesthood and that he believed God was taking him deeper into his “authentic self.” And for this, he expected to be congratulated. He was just the latest in a culture of self-expressive individualism to self-identify. He assured us he still believed in everything he preached. I couldn’t help but think his gospel of self-acceptance made his own magisterium.
At least, I guess, he was consistent. Having regularly preached about how the point of the Christian life was feeling at home with oneself, he followed that logic right out of the priesthood which he just wasn’t feeling anymore.
As I prayed and ended up writing him, I came to appreciate afresh why we call a priest “father” and why the priesthood really is a sacrament requiring a solemn vow to God and to the Church.
I was so gutted by this priest’s abandonment of the priesthood because he was my spiritual father, even if I thought he was often wrong or didn’t have a personal connection with him like I have with other priests. As a priest he is a symbol of fidelity to Christ to all the faithful. As we laity daily struggle to live the Faith in a world full of temptations and disdain, as we anxiously try to raise our kids in such a way that they will take the Catholic Faith seriously, the priest is there leading the charge, inspiring us, and exemplifying through his faithfulness the possibility of our own.
How confident can we be in our Faith when the very man who gives it to us decides to quit? How am I supposed to tell my kids and students that crucifying our desires for holiness is worth it when the guy who hears our confessions says that the Catholic Faith is subject to one’s “authentic self”? It is a real gut-shot to those of us who are doing all we can to keep the Faith in a faithless world to see a priest trivialize the priesthood and reduce it to a career.
More significantly, like a father, a priest is there in the most intimate, vulnerable, and personal moments of our lives. What are we to think about his commitment to the seal of the confessional if he can’t keep his vow to God? How terrifying and demoralizing to think that a man you could entrust to hear your guilt and shame could be using your stories as party gossip a few weeks later.
Not just in the confessional, but also in the Mass, as he, like a father, admonishes us in the homily and then provides our very sustenance in the Holy Eucharist. He sees us as we adore our Lord. He senses our brokenness, our desperation. He encourages our eagerness. As we are there in prayer, agonizing over sin or giving thanks, it is his face that we see, it is his voice we hear.
The Catholic priest is not a guru or self-esteem coach, there to inspire or whisper sweet nothings in our ears. He truly is a mystical father who provides spiritual grace and wisdom that shapes our relationship to the Lord. For him to just throw up his hands and walk away is more than a slap in the face; it is a betrayal on par with any father abandoning their family.
That Sunday, I went to Mass, intent on offering it for this priest, still wrestling with grief and anger over his abdication. The liturgy was executed with excellence and care, giving the faithful a clear sense that the Mass was worship. The altar was free from clutter or kitsch. Nothing was rushed or improvised. Everything was done with a sense of poise and purpose, dignity and decorum, elegance and eloquence.
At every name of Jesus, all the altar servers turned to the tabernacle and bowed in unison. This priest didn’t try to blur the line between himself and us, but at every point acted as though it was a holy duty to represent our prayers and offerings to the Lord and to offer us the Lord’s sacrifice that is our salvation.
The homily was on speaking prudently with charity. Ready for a rebuke about the things I had written to the “former” father, the Lord instead confirmed the rationale of my lament. The priest explained how St. Peter’s words applied to priests especially, because they are accountable to God for the care of souls.
He then warned us against putting more stock in podcasts and articles than in the teachings of the Church. With conviction, he firmly but calmly counseled us on the controversies of the day from the Vatican to the vaccine. He did not give us his own opinion or trendy theology, but the official teaching of the Church.
He then boldly declared, “I am your pastor! Not such and such Catholic celebrity, not such and such Catholic news site, not such and such scientist or expert, not such and such politician. I am the one who will answer to God for your soul. I am the one God appointed to teach you the faith of the Church.” It was like a father telling his children to listen to him.
My ten-year-old son said that it was the best homily he ever heard. I almost cried. Here was a pastor, a shepherd, a father. Someone who embraced his duty. Here was a priest who cared more about being faithful to Christ and His Church than being liked or dodging controversy. Here was someone who took his vow seriously and expected the grace of his ordination.
Afterwards he didn’t hide in the sacristy but went out as quickly as he always did to greet parishioners and make appointments for the week. Here was a father who was ready to take whatever may come for the sake of God and his family.
In this fatherless age, part of which consists of fathers refusing to grow up, we desperately need the fatherhood of the priest. We need priests who embrace their vocation wholeheartedly. We need priests who understand that in the mystical body of Christ, they are our fathers, they are there as we are lie exposed to the Lord’s searching grace.
We need priests who recognize that they aren’t there to entertain or cheerlead but to be the father unafraid to instruct us in God’s goodness and truth. We need priests who think the Scriptures are more relevant and powerful to our lives than song lyrics, TV shows, sports, or politics.
We need priests who are in love with our Lord and confident in His Church. We need priests who are more fearful of being judged by the Lord than being disliked by their parishioners. We need fathers who won’t demean us by relaxing the fullness of the Gospel and the Church’s doctrine but will truly dignify us by demanding our goodness and holiness. In short, we need fathers who take seriously the great accountability they have to God and accordingly take responsibility for our souls.
Fathers, don’t try to be like the cool dad who parties with his kids. Don’t try to be like the laity. Don’t try to downplay the difference between the cultural and the supernatural. It is your priestly commitment to Christ that reminds us of the supernatural dimension of human life. It is your faithfulness to your vocation that inspires our faithfulness to ours. It is your clear exposition of the Scriptures and the Church’s teaching that helps us live our Faith. If you try to be like us, you’ll never be like our Savior, you’ll never feel comfortable in your vocation, and you’ll never gain our respect. We will call you “father,” but we won’t mean it.