Why did I become a priest? It is a question to me at sixty-five about me at fifteen, but also a question from the American late 1990s about the Irish late 1940s. And quite often the question is prompted by one or more of these three inquiries.
Was I particularly pious as a boy? No, at least not in any sense of that word I knew then or have come to recognize since. I did become an altar boy at the early age of eight, but I recall that choice primarily in response, as it were, to a series of dares. Could I learn by heart the Mass responses in a Latin I did not then understand? Could I handle the thurible at Benediction so that the priest got the incense on the hot coals and I did not get the hot coals on him? Could I light the tall (very tall) candles on the high (very high) altar by stretching the lit taper one-handed above my head to connect with a wick I could not see, preferably without setting any altar linens on fire in the process? It may have been piety, but I thought of it as fun, as adventure, as seeing the inside of something mysterious, and maybe even, at eight and after, as a sort of instant adulthood.
Were my parents influential or even forceful about my becoming a priest? Wasn’t it an honor to have a priest in the family, especially for an Irish mother? No doubt, but before I left for America, my father said, “Just remember, if this doesn’t work out, your home is here and you can always come back home.” By fifteen I had already lived away from home for four years at boarding school, and my family accepted the independence earned by that experience. I made up my own mind about the priesthood, and they supported me with a respect I did not appreciate fully until nineteen years later.
Were the priests who ran my boarding secondary school significant as mentors or models for my decision? That question, posed by a Canadian journalist with an Irish Catholic background, stopped me cold for a moment. I realized, only at his question, that I had never, ever, considered becoming a diocesan priest like my teachers at St. Eunan’s College in Letterkenny, County Donegal. I both admired and respected them as good teachers and fair disciplinarians, but I never imagined myself like them either as parish pastor or schoolteacher. It was somewhat of a shock to realize, and only from that prompting question fifty years later, that becoming their type of priest had never entered my mind for a moment. Yet those were the priests I knew best over seven years from altar boy to schoolboy.
Why I became a priest is actually the wrong question, although I only realized that after I tried to answer it. What I wanted was to enter a monastery and become a missionary, to become a monastic (priest) and a missionary (priest). Monastery and mission were in the immediate foreground, with ordination and priesthood as necessary and accepted concomitants. The diocesan priesthood that I knew best from everyday experience was never of any interest to me. Not piety but adventure was what fired my imagination at fifteen years of age. If somebody had told me that I was giving up my life to God, and I don’t remember anyone ever doing so, I would not have been impressed. If somebody had told me that I was giving up my life for others, and I don’t remember anyone ever doing so, I would not have been impressed. What impressed me was that monastic life meant challenge, that foreign mission meant adventure, and that God clearly had the best game in town, the most exciting game around (still does fifty years later, though the field has changed). That was what attracted me, moth to flame.
It might be more seemly to invoke personal piety, spiritual commitment, or religious dedication as driving forces in that long-ago teenage determination. But my clearest recollection suggests none of those emphases. The attraction was that of adventure, divine adventure to be sure, but adventure first and foremost. The diocesan or parish priesthood was not an option because that was never my idea of adventure. And, already from long before, it was as the lure and challenge of adventure that I had begun to see life itself.