When I was a girl, we knew our priests. They were so much more than" that guy up at the altar." They were our family friends who came for dinner, debated politics, discussed literature, told jokes, laughed, lived. We were members of small military parishes and the small congregations meant that our priests were well known to us all.
Fr L was the first priest I can readily remember. He was a constant fixture in our young lives and a beloved uncle figure. His was the trusted voice of my first Confession. The church was under construction and we were moving before my class received the sacraments, so he heard my Confession in my brother's empty room amidst the packing boxes. My first Communion was in our living room where he said Mass for us and our Protestant neighbors.
Fr P spent every Christmas for 4 years with our family. Santa Claus always came while we were at Midnight Mass, so we opened presents in the middle of the night, had breakfast around 2 and then went to bed. Fr P would spend that whole late night with us. He watched as we opened presents, ate the giant cinnamon rolls that were a family tradition, helped my little brother climb onto his first bike, and eventually had a stocking of his own by the fireplace.
I can't remember a time in my childhood where priests were not frequent lunch or dinner guests, where we didn't know them on a personal level, or where they were not a joy in our lives. It is telling that both of my brothers mentioned the priesthood as possible vocations when they were younger. While neither actually when down that path, it says something that both considered it to be a viable option.
Where is this today? The Catholic boys of my sons' generation are coming of age in parishes which are so large as to make a relationship with the priest extremely unlikely. It is a part of the vicious cycle of a lack of vocations and the wariness on the part of priests brought about by the sex abuse crisis. When my sons talk about what they want to be when they grow up, they will sometimes mention "priest" (except for the one who always does), but when they play there is a confusion as to what a priest actually does when he's done saying Mass.
We are fortunate in that we get to see our priest socially from time to time, but not often. My sons know that he is a fun guy, but they never get the opportunity to just talk to him. They never have the chance to ask "What do you do when you aren't doing this?" It's a shame. How many potential vocations are lost through lack of contact? I wonder....
It's not the fault of our priests. They are overwhelmed with the volume of work and responsibilities which rest upon their shoulders. They don't have the time and neither did most priests when I was young. We were fortunate in our little parish that we had a priest with time on his hands. I wish that I knew where to find that for my children and especially my sons.
I want the priesthood to be a viable option for them. I want them, when they think of it, to be able to picture themselves living that life...because they know what it looks like.