Spiritual Leadership, Part III: Family

[Read the previous section, part II, here.]


Then there’s the matter of spiritual leadership within the family. Of course, I’m speaking mostly to the married clergy here, as that’s what I am familiar with myself.

The married priest lives in a constant tension. The tension can really be boiled down to the competing interests of what we can call the man’s first priesthood – namely his role as husband and father – and his second priesthood handling the Mysteries of God.

In my own experience and in talking with my brother clergy, perhaps the greatest challenge here is in avoiding the veneer of piety. A veneer is but a thin layer of one thing on top of something completely different. It can look good, but if it’s scratched, you can see through to the uglier stuff beneath. We must avoid the appearance of piety that is but a mask for impiety and dysfunction. After all, all of us who serve as clergy know we live in a fishbowl. There are seemingly as many opinions as people as to what makes a good priest. One natural, if wrong, response to the pressure of these criticisms is to give people what they ask for. For example, we hear from our critics (and then convince ourselves) that the priest’s kids should be absolutely well-behaved. So we cause ourselves endless aggravation trying to get our kids to act the way someone else wants them to act. I don’t know about you, but my kids don’t always do what I want them to do. Our critics tell us,”The priest’s kids should be at every service.” So we issue the decree that 100% service attendance is the requirement for our children, because our children are pious.

The priest’s wife also faces unrealistic expectations. She should be simultaneously attractive, modest, frugal, well-dressed, a bit frumpy, and ready for every situation. She is forever trying to figure out the right mix of dresses, shoes, hairstyles, dishes, and responses to intrusive questions so as to present the right image.

This solution, however, preserves that veneer of piety at the expense of the real thing. In the first place, it allows those who are sitting in judgment to become comfortable in their judgmentalism. This is not the kind of leadership the priest desires for himself. In the second place, and more significantly, it imposes a strictness on our own family that is not imposed because we as the priests of our household think it necessary, but because, in effect, someone else thinks it is. The fact is that our kids have other obligations, also known as “promises,” for some of their activities (e.g., being part of a team, band, or orchestra). We have to communicate that regular conflict with church services is not allowed, but the expectation that they never conflict is unrealistic. Our wives are people, too, with strengths, weaknesses, and, yes, needs that cannot be easily conformed to these competing images for what makes the perfect Priest’s Wife.

There are many valid places for strictness, but we must be mindful that severity can become the enemy of true piety. We know that the canons are not applied in absolutely rote fashion because their aim is not to penalize but to save. In the same fashion the priest of his family sets standards not in accordance with what other people think but with what he must discern is best for the spiritual development of his children and his wife, who is more often than not a co-laborer with him in his ministry.

Our kids encounter spiritual crises also, and we, as parents, must ensure that we do not lay too heavy a burden on them. We must also never forget that our children make a great contribution to our priesthood in their sharing of us—our time, our concerns, our financial situation—with many others. In making those contributions, they are silent intercessors in the parish and the home.

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