A few miles north of the city of Bridgeport 138 years ago, a young 30 year old priest visits a man named James “Chip” Smith outside the walls of the jail where Chip had been imprisoned, awaiting his sentence of death by hanging; the fateful night where his sentence would be carried out finally arrived. Just four days prior, a Solemn High Mass was celebrated for the intentions of Chip and in reparation for the sin and the crime of murder that he had committed. On the night that his execution would be carried out, a sentence that New Haven had not seen in decades, Chip was seen receiving last rites from this young priest who after imparting his final blessing, turned away from Chip to be seen wiping tears from his eyes. Just before Chip passed, he uttered one final line of comfort to this priest who spent the last few weeks making visits to the jail to help Chip more aptly prepare himself for his final hour; it was in no uncertain terms that he owed his life to this priest and just before passing from this life to the next he said, “Father, your saintly ministrations have enabled me to meet death without a tremor. Do not fear for me, I must not break down now.”
For too long, many in the Church and the Catholic culture have tried to explain the priesthood by well-meaning but albeit inadequate analogies. Undoubtedly deriving the pedagogical tactic from Jesus Himself who was apt to teach by way of parables, the truth of the matter is that these analogies still do not fully encapsulate a vocation that lies in, but not of this world. Countless books, videos, and podcasts compare the vocation of marriage to the vocation to the priesthood in an attempt to help understand the supernatural vocation and while these analogies help make sense of what we do know, they also seek to try to explain away the mystery that lies at the heart of the sacred priesthood. The reality is this: the vocation to the priesthood and the vocation to the married life are two different vocations. It is understandable that young people in today’s Catholic world continue to find it difficult to see the vocation of the priesthood as it truly is, not a compilation of duties mixed with prohibitions but rather as spiritual fatherhood in the midst of a world so desperate for it. Constantly striving to know more about our world, about our surroundings, and about ourselves, we must rely on analogies to make sense of that which without the clear lens of faith, would be foolishness; but what is lost by relying solely on analogy?
An honest return to an understanding of true spiritual fatherhood may be exactly what this culture needs to inspire young men to answer God’s subtle whisper to “Follow Me”. It is in understanding how powerful, how real, and how absolutely necessary spiritual fatherhood is that we have our eyes opened to what it means to be a spiritual child. In Matthew, chapter 18, when Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” those words must be taken seriously. The actor Sir Alec Guinness dressed like a priest in France for his role in the Father Brown series was walking from the set to the hotel just as it began getting dark outside when suddenly a young boy ran up to him and grabbed his hand, skipping along until the young boy bid him farewell. The young boy had mistaken him for a priest and Sir Alec wrote that “a Church which could inspire such confidence in a child, making its priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable could not be as scheming and creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices.” Sir Alec converted to Catholicism just two years later. A brief encounter…a taste of spiritual fatherhood moved one of the world’s greatest actors to conversion, not because he saw a vocation likened to his own but because he was moved by a profoundly different experience than his own.
Innumerable canonized priests found in their hearts a commonalty, in that they did not view their parishioners as a faceless flock but rather as a multitude of spiritual children. This young priest who found himself ministering to a man who stood prepared for certain death, wept not because of his love for his fellow man who would soon depart from this life. He wept because James “Chip” Smith was not like a child to him but was really and truly his son. Blessed Michael J. McGivney whose beatification touches close to home both geographically as well as spiritually is a beautiful reminder that in seeking to solely compare one vocation to the next, how easy it is to miss out on what the vocation of the priesthood truly is. The world and certainly the priesthood does not need an analogous love, it needs spiritual fatherhood.