When I say “Mormon Elder,” an image pops into your head, right? Or if I say “Lutheran pastor” or “Orthodox rabbi” or “womynpriest of a Unitarian faith community fellowship co-op”—you know who we’re talking about. Fair or not, you can picture the type right away, down to the tone of their voice and the cut and color of their hair. There may be some exceptions, but there is definitely a type.
But what about when I say “Catholic priest?”
I recently had the opportunity to edit the short autobiographies of twenty seminarians. It was a strange job, and I felt a little monstrous as I cut the stories down drastically to fit the required word count: “Hm, best friend in a coma? Sorry, no room. Gave dad the news while he was serving in Iraq? Touching, but too long—that’s gotta go. ‘May the peace of Christ be with you’? Sonny, we don’t have time for that!” and so on.
But as I gave the edited bios a final once-over, something struck me: there was no pattern. Other than that all twenty seminarians were men, they had nothing else in common that I could see. Some were teenagers, one was a widowed Navy vet. Some had been pious children with make-believe altars in their bedrooms, others had been atheists. They had been high school jocks, or engineers, or had considered a career in politics, or just drifted aimlessly until God came and smacked them with a vocation. Some of their mothers had pushed them into considering the priesthood; other mothers (quite a few, actually) laughed when their sons first mentioned the idea.
Nothing in common that I could see, other than some mention that they had each reached a point where they could no longer deny where God was leading them. They all—even the ones who had dreamed of the priesthood since childhood—had to turn their backs on something, in order to say “yes” to God.
I thought back over all the priests I’ve known, and this no-pattern pattern was evident there, too: I have known priests who play the drums, and priests who look bizarre without a cassock on; preists who bubble over with mirth, and priests who struggle with depression. Athletes, intellectuals, bon vivants, wet blankets, firebrands, gourmands, shysters, flirts, gentlemen, ascetics, exorcists, prophets, jokers, and weirdos.
In short, men.
The media has, of course, tried hard to make you think “pedophile” when you hear “Catholic priest,” despite what the actual numbers tell us. And I suppose if you grew up in a heavily Irish or Polish or Italian neighborhood, a certain type of guy might typify priesthood for you. But in most cases, the “salad bowl” model of American integration is very evident in the priesthood. A rectory is likely to house a little bit of everyone.
Doesn’t that tell you something? Priests who look like everyone mediate between everyone on Earth and a Heaven that is for everyone. Why look to any other church?
And this is why you shouldn’t worry when you hear non-Catholics sneer, “If your religion is so wonderful, how come Catholics don’t behave any better than anyone else?” Well, they certainly ought to. But just as the priesthood calls men of all types, there is a vocation to Catholicism for all sorts of laity—including people in all stages of the path to holiness.
The only thing that we Catholics really have to have in common is a willingness to hear that call to turn our backs on something, in order to follow God. And that leaves room for an awful lot of variety! Here comes everyone.