Priests are terrifying. And I'm not talking about "the scandals" or anything else. Face it...a guy in a Roman Collar is quite literally a Holy Terror. And that's EXACTLY the way it should be...but not in the way you think I mean.
I grew up Catholic, and I loved Fr. Weber of the parish I grew up in, and I loved the Irish priest who came to visit a couple times per year (he had the most incredible accent!), and when we moved to Minnesota, I loved Fr. Peichel, a Polish priest with very big hands who used them to do all he could to convey the love of Christ. So my experience with priests was also an experience with holiness when I grew up. And I also greatly associated them with God, and even as a small child, asked my Mom if Father Weber was God!
In college, although I attended a Catholic college, I fell away, and I remained away, having come across some serious self-hating "Catholics". By then I had grown enough to form my own questions, and realized I didn't know why I was Catholic. I had been Confirmed not because I knew the faith and what I was accepting, but because it was the thing to do, my family was Catholic, I believed because I had been raised to believe...and I didn't want to be Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Assembly of God. So, basically, I wanted to be Catholic by default.
I never learned our faith in that atrocity we called CCD. I never learned anything in Confirmation, although I remember reading Acts of the Apostles, and at our weekend retreat in the parish hall there was a nice couple who came in to speak about chastity.
But that's all I remember.
And then, several years later, I began to come back. I won't give my conversion story because it's already been told. But suffice to say I had a lot of questions, and one part I DIDN'T tell in my conversion story is that I considered going to a priest to ask my questions. And I didn't tell it because it's a whole 'nother story.
I remember when I actually began to take an active role in exploring my faith. I was working nights and the night nurse was an Evangelical ex-Catholic who wasn't afraid to share her faith. I liked her because she wasn't "in your face" about her faith, but rather, wore her Christianity on her sleeve and in her actions. She admitted she wasn't perfect. She knew she didn't know everything. And she had a peace about her that I really wanted, and wanted to know ABOUT. And she told me about it. She invited me to her church, but didn't push. She disagreed with the Catholic Church, and to be certain, the Church had NOT followed the missionary call of Vatican II, for she was alienated as a result of the improper changes and the focus taken from the truth and placed on custom and innovation. She did not tell me these things, but in remembering our conversations, that's the root cause of her defection from the Catholic Church; a lack of catechesis. She had the SAME QUESTIONS about the Catholic Church as I did. Because although she was older, we'd grown up with the same lack of standards, the same lack of formation.
She found her formation and Christ in the Evangelical Church, what was there for her all along in the Catholic Church had people not been asleep at the switch.
But she really did seek Christ...and so was I. And so I began to seek out all sorts of Christians, and we discussed faith. I'd talk about God with anyone who was interested. And sometimes I ticked people off because they didn't want to talk about faith and God...because such discussions were "too deep." I was ordered to stop my questions and "just have fun!"
But the truth was, I couldn't have fun. It was empty. I was supposed to be doing something else.
In my EMT class back in 1999 or so I met a woman who became a good friend, and who separated from her husband during that time. They had two children; she had a little girl from a prior relationship, from when she was very young, and married, and the couple had the other child. Her husband had been the only father the oldest child had known, but never formally adopted her, feeling it was unnecessary as he was the only father in her life. Well, then they were separated, planned divorce and my friend called me one day completely seething with anger. Her then-ex-husband had gotten engaged to someone else, and when he came to pick up his biological daughter for a weekend, he broke the "news" to their other little girl, his non-biological daughter. He knelt down in front of her, took her hands in his, and said, "I can't be your daddy anymore."
From that point on, that little 8-year-old was searching. She needed a daddy. She was heartbroken. And she might have heard me asking questions about God and talking about church once, because, one day, she approached me.
"Can I go to church with you?"
I was shocked. I did not regularly go to Mass, although I considered it. I did not live close to my friend (about 30 min in good traffic), and for a moment I considered it. Her mother was not religious, but might let her go with me. But I knew I was not holy, I was not a good example, and I didn't go often. But would I if I agreed to take her on Sundays? Or wouldn't it be easier to NOT take her on Sundays? That would be inconvenient.
So in a flash I considered my options, and I asked her, "Why do you want to go to Church?"
She shrugged, still looking at me hopefully, although the hope was fading given the sarcastic tone in my voice.
I saw the look, and still continued, "When I was your age I HATED going to Church. You REALLY want to go?"
She nodded, wanting this even in the face of my obvious contempt.
"Do you want to go because your friends all go to church?"
She nodded, agreeing with this, the hope gleaming in her eyes again.
I can't remember what I said next, but I think I put it down, and maybe her desire to go to church. She was seeking God, just as I was, but some of my response was out of shock. She was eight and WANTED to go to church?
I will regret that scene for as long as I live; I don't think there's enough penance available in this lifetime to make up for that moment in time. A child came to me asking to be taken to Jesus, her mother would have allowed her to go with me...and I was a condescending bitch. I deserve whatever I get for that.
My only defense, and a very weak one at that...I was unholy. I saw myself as unholy, as incapable, unable to provide an example, unable to be consistent. Because I recognized a certain call to respond, step up to the plate...and I turned my back and walked away. And I tell this story for a reason; because the incident underscored my sense of imperfection and unholiness and unworthiness. And my response to that poor child was out of fear; but what she saw was derision.
Years later, after my continued search, I found my way into various Catholic churches. And invariably, I sat in back. I was unholy. I was undeserving. I could not approach the altar. I was absolutely convinced that people could look at me and see how sinful I was and that I wasn't a "real" Catholic. I had this weird impression that everyone else in the church was holy and devout and belonged there, but I was a fraud.
Priests were especially to be avoided, in their dark shirts and Roman Collars and their vestments. Because they were the holiest of the holy, in my mind, and if anyone could find me out and expel me, it would be them.
But I had an even deeper fear; that if those priests recognized me for what I was, they would tell me I had to go to Confession. And then my refusal to go would be confirmation to them that I was hell-bound. And that would destroy me.
Priests. Always my hang-up; because I'd always seen them as holy, and I knew that I was not living as I should live. And yet, I was doing exactly what is detailed in Genesis. When Adam and Eve sinned, what did they do? They hid in the Garden, saw they were naked...and covered themselves up. They fled from God. What did Peter do when Christ appeared to them? "Go from me, Lord, I am a sinful man!"
Sin makes us flee; we know when we've done something wrong, and we want to flee God's presence. That's what I was doing. I didn't want to go to Confession because I was too busy fleeing from God. I didn't want to see a priest because I knew he would make me confront reality; he would be Christ to me. And I couldn't bear all that holiness.
So in my confused state, I built up holiness to what it is not, and I warped the Sacrament of Reconciliation into what it is not. Because my only goal was to flee God...and He let me flee, because all that I was running from was an illusion.
I continued seeking, not knowing where to go. I didn't have a computer at the time, so couldn't just go online. So I expressed to a friend one day that maybe I should just go TALK to a priest. Novel idea! I knew my fears were irrational and I wouldn't burn up in the presence of a priest. But I didn't know where else to go or what to do. In conversation with a friend, I expressed my idea...and she verified the other thought in my head....he's too busy. He won't really care. Priests don't have time to answer stupid questions.
Yup. All the thoughts in my head. Affirmed by someone else. My questions were stupid. They (and I) weren't worth the time away from his busy schedule. And the very worst...."The Priest doesn't really care about your questions or your soul...you are worthless in God's eyes." Because that's what the latter meant to me....if the priest didn't care, then that meant I was worthless.
So I had nowhere to go. And I didn't want to call just some random priest. I didn't have any kind of a relationship with a parish anywhere. Very few of my friends were Catholic, and of those who identified themselves as such, I was either not around them much or they were as lost as I was. Yet I somehow understood one thing; I was seeking a relationship, and this is foundational. I knew that in order to come home, I had to be somehow connected, somewhere, and that requires a relational connection. It doesn't make sense to throw darts at a board and then say "There!" Coming home means HAVING a home...but I didn't know where "home" was.
But God is faithful...because he sent priests across my path, randomly. To lesson my irrational fear. To help me see their humanity. To develop a sense of connection. And it nearly worked. But not quite; I wasn't ready, but I see now that was part of God's plan.
When I moved to my current residence and attended my current parish, I followed my regular routine...I sat in back. I hid. I would not get involved. I did not approach the altar. I avoided anyone I thought was holy. I did not want to know the priests. Because although my "big Confession" of 12 years was out of the way, it had been 3 years since...and I was back to not wanting to be forced to do what I did not want to do; go to Confession. And I still had the crazy idea that if I happened to run into one of the priests he would immediately demand that I go to Confession.
My goodness, a guilty conscience sure does speak loudly!
Slowly God drew me into the fringes of parish life, letting me find friendships and connections first. A friend I came to know had big gatherings at her home on about six times per year, and one summer night, a bunch of priests showed up...and there went my blood pressure! I sucked up my irrationality and just wanted to have fun...just like them. So as they and a few others of us sat around the bonfire roasting marshmallows, one elderly priest asked me, innocently having NO IDEA to whom he was posing this question, "Have you ever considered being a nun?"
I nearly fell out of my chair! WHAT!?
Seriously, the beer I was drinking nearly came out my nose, and I choked out, "Are you KIDDING!? They'd kick me out of the convent!"
But he was entirely serious, and surprised by my answer. "Why would you say that?"
So by my reaction, I had bumbled into my own web; responding out of my own faulty perception to a sincere question of a priest who did not see how awful I really was. And I was more shocked that he did NOT see my unholiness than I was by the fact that he would even suggest that someone like me should consider religious life. Or that he was surprised by my answer.
Anyway, God's grace eventually got me back to Confession that fall, but it was still a struggle; I was facing a lot of things. And so a couple months after the bonfire incident, at that same house, I attended another gathering. Another priest was present, and he sat DIRECTLY NEXT TO ME! Man, I was shaking in my shoes. Because even though I had come Home, I still had this inordinate sense of my own unholiness and unworthiness to be in the presence of this crowd.
And to be sitting next to a PRIEST!
Of course I liked him, he was wonderful, I'd in fact made room for him to sit down because that was the right thing to do and there WAS room so he could sit and eat...but I was wishing mightily that there had been room somewhere else.
At some point during the evening, in conversation, some topic came up, I can't remember what, I cracked a joke, and Father said, "So maybe you need CONFESSION!" And he was joking along, too.
But in reality, I'd already gathered that the Sacrament of Reconciliation (he called it "Confession" just like my favored term) was near and dear to him. Others had spoken of this priest, his gifts in the Sacrament, and I realized that he was my almost-worst nightmare. (Going to Hell was always my WORST nightmare...Confession was second-worst).
Yup. There I was, next to Father Holy Terrorist, the priest who was ALL ABOUT the Sacrament of healing through Reconciliation. The priest who had the special grace of being able to read hearts.
So when he made his comment about Confession, I quite literally nearly burst into tears, CERTAIN that he could see right into my soul and realize I needed Confession AGAIN!
He didn't say a word to that degree, though. He didn't treat me any differently than anyone else. In fact, he was all that I did not expect...he did not burn up in my presence, I did not ignite in his, and overall, there was no spontaneous combustion at my friends' party that night. Rather, we had a lively group discussion, talked about God in our lives, the Holy Spirit, all very natural conversations. And I was thrilled to be able to share my experience of God, for I had recognized His presence all over the place. That evening was actually an experience of Heaven for me. And I'm certain that was no mistake.
At the end of the evening, a lot of people left at the same time, so it was down to our hostess, her father, myself, and FATHER. As we finished off our conversation around the dining room table, suddenly Father looked directly at me, yet, somehow he seemed to be looking away at the same time, as though at someone else in the room. But it's not possible for one person to look at two people at the same time, and so one gaze seemed to be at me...the other...interior. I can't explain this.
"You haven't let go of something." He said this as a statement, not a question.
I was a deer in the headlights. My worst fear. He SAW what I'd been hiding. He saw ME.
Of course I denied what he said. He seemed insistent, then let it go.
And that night, I went home, completely rattled, thinking about what my friends had said throughout the evening. That this priest had gifts, he had the ability to "read hearts" in the Confessional, and they'd told their stories.
So on one hand my worst nightmare had happened...God put me in direct contact with a priest who had this ability, exactly what I feared. And he didn't demand that I immediately go to Confession. He accepted my denial - and he didn't reject me. In fact, he had that very evening affirmed the faith that I had. And I realized, in prayer before I went to sleep, that his comment to me had far more to do with something I needed to know about God; that He was merciful, He knew my suffering, and that the priest was right: I had not forgiven myself. I had not let go of a LOT of things. I still haven't.
Those who were present that evening don't remember Father's words to me or my denial.
And those words STILL make a difference to me. Because sometimes God speaks very directly through our most irrational fears and to our most basic needs.
So for years, I had been terrified of priests. I was without Catholic friends to set me straight. What a difference a friend could have made. Yeah, I needed to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I needed to see that priests are men like every other man, but with a Calling. And "force" is not a part of that Call. Even when they have that special gift...it's given on God's time, when we're ready, and when it still shocks us but doesn't chase us away.
I'm not terrified of priests anymore. I love them, we need more of them, and I'm completely committed to that which I feared and fought for so long....the Sacrament of Confession. Penance. Reconciliation. And more priests. Because if I have anything to do with it, a LOT more people are going to find their way to Christ, a lot more people are going to find themselves confessing to a priest, a lot more men are going to find themselves exploring that Call, and a lot more women are going to find themselves entering convents.
On one hand, I wish there had been a friend to lead me to the answers and bring me to a trusted priest, and technically, that happened, eventually. But I was too busy fleeing, being the timid deer and the shy lost lamb. So on the other hand, had God made things so easy for me, I'm not sure I'd be where I am now (wherever that is...really).
But I will say this: if anyone ever tells you a priest would think your questions are stupid, he doesn't have time for you, or doesn't really care...well, find a new friend and find another priest.
And if a child ever asks you to take them to Mass with you....ACCEPT!
What began as my holy terror has inspired my own Holy Mission.
What began as my denial of Christ has become my daily work.
Don't ever tell me God doesn't have a plan or that He doesn't have a sense of humor. I am a living testament to both, and like St. Paul, I can only boast of my weakness. For that is where God shows his glory.