During the many years I spent fighting my sense of call — to refer to it as discerning would have suggested that I wanted to know God’s will — it was the prospect of being alone that I struggled with the most. Having worked in the “vineyards of the Lord” during other times in my life, I was all too aware of the dangers of living a life of service, dangers that included an overflowing emotional “out” box with a corresponding “in” box that had room to spare. However any honest assessment of my own history of sometimes mixed motivations of helping others not only included altruistic impulses but also misguided attempts to avoid my own … “stuff.” Add the institutionalized loneliness that usually marks the Roman Catholic priesthood and, well … you get a better understanding of why the blog was named “Kicking and Screaming.”
The majority of my six years of priestly formation were spent facing these concerns on some level; being open to and finding real connection in the midst of what is often the solitary life of a priest. Needless to say many of my concerns were answered along the way, others were addressed if not completely answered, and still others have remained unclosed plot lines … like the mystery surrounding the fate of the Russian Hit Man in the infamous Pine Barrens episode of the Sopranos. And while I had come a long way in those six years, I was still a little surprised when the cold chill of doubt came upon me during the retreat I took the week before ordination.
If the previous paragraphs make it sound like skepticism of God is still alive and well inside of my soul, that would not be entirely wrong. I am not saying that’s necessarily a good thing, but I am simultaneously comforted by and challenged by the fact that one’s faith and the employment status within the church is rarely a one-to-one relationship. That being said, in my experience it has been during the darkest periods of doubt that the tectonic plates of faith begin to move the most. It was only later that I was able to see that the Divine had probably anticipated this encounter with the chill of doubt by making sure that I had a good retreat director.
One of the advantages of having a Paulist lead you on a retreat is that cinematic offerings are usually not off of the table the way they might be under Jesuit or Franciscan guidance. And there was probably more than a little divine inspiration when he suggested on closing the retreat with a movie: “The Avengers.” While the initial motivation for the both myself and my director might have been somewhat self-serving — the movie had been out for seven whole days and neither of us had seen it! — it turned out that I badly needed to see a movie about superheroes while making my final discernment retreat to become a priest.
There are absolutely “bad places” one can take an analogy when priests are compared to superheroes. The less-theologically trained will be tempted to relate the priest’s role in the Eucharistic liturgy with Ice-Man’s ability to freeze everyday objects instead of focusing on the his role within a larger community celebration. But most superhero’s stories do talk about the separateness that comes with their role of service to the larger community. When halfway through “The Avengers” Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) referred to being Iron Man as being a “terrible privilege,” the part of me that has spent years wrestling with the notion of serving a community while being somewhat separate from community knew what he meant.
By the end of the movie however, the disparate heroes who had up until that point understood their identity as individuals had come together to become something greater, part of a larger community themselves. And I know that there are many out there who are probably thinking that this is really stupid … waxing poetic and shedding tears over how once solitary comic book characters learned to work together — best summed up by Captain America’s inspiring proclamation, “Hulk. Smash.” (Sniff.)
But it was both a comforting and challenging reminder that, in the midst of a profession that is best known as a solo act, at the end of the day this is about community. After all, while the cultural mythology of the priest is that of a solitary figure who makes the Mass “happen,” the true theological understanding of the Mass is a celebration that happens within a community of which the priest is part. Not that those specifics of Eucharistic theology were on my mind when the Hulk caught an unconscious Iron Man as he fell from the sky, but the fact that I watched the movie with a retreat director who also happened to be one of my best friends in the community helped to underscore the point. The point would be further underlined two days later when I was ordained with two men who had at various times both comforted me and challenged me on my “stuff” along the six year journey.
The next day, after a scheduled doctor’s appointment to determine how to proceed with treatment for my thyroid cancer, my retreat director and I were on our way to New York City for the ordination where countless friends, family members, and Paulists were gathering. And sorry if this sounds cheesy, but I couldn’t think of a better way to close: Avengers assemble.