Msgr. Martin McCaffrey

(age 67)

My name is Martin and I'm a recovering seminarian.  I have a good sponsor and I take it a day at a time and I'm about to get my forty year cake.  But that's another meeting.

I'm sixty-seven years old and not far from retirement, and it's been many years since I could call myself "middle-aged" with a straight face. 

You know, I was walking past an antique store on the west side the other day and I saw a sign in the window that said "Vintage Collectibles."  That's Brentwood-ese for "old junk."  But I decided that maybe I'm not old, maybe I'm vintage.  I like that.  I'm going to start asking for my Vintage Citizen Discount.  

I'm a member of the FBI.  Foreign Born Irish.  My parents moved here when I was three, for reasons that always varied according to which one you asked, who was doing the asking, and what kind of mood everyone was in on that day.  At any rate, I grew up in Glendale and that was every bit as exciting as it sounds.  My father worked for a building supply company and my mother raised kids and worried.

My family is something I can tell you about without a lot of words, because we seemed to believe that it was our personal duty to uphold and reinforce every possible negative Irish stereotype. My father was an alcoholic and we knew to make ourselves scarce if he was drinking.  My mother was the long-suffering passive-aggressive saint.  If you've read Angela's Ashes, you've met her.  

The fact that we were Irish was not really a big deal, until St. Patrick's day, and then it became the crux of our existence.  We also came out of the Irish closet every time the Notre Dame football team had a good season. 

There were five kids in my family.  Three boys and two girls.

Now, a lot of you are too young to know this, but when I was growing up, every Irish family with more than two kids -- which means every Irish family -- had one son who was the designated priest.  It usually wasn't the oldest son, because he was supposed to get married and carry on the family name.  If there were more than two sons, it wasn't the second oldest, either.  He was the ace-in-the-hole in case the oldest screwed up.  In a family of three sons, it was the third -- and therefore dispensable -- son.  And I was the third son.  So for a long time, when people asked me how I knew I wanted to be a priest, my answer was, "My mother told me."  It took me a lot of years and a lot of work to come up with another answer.  But more about that later.

I need to tell you something up front, or I will feel like I'm trying to hide it, and I don't want to do that.  There is a real angry streak in me.  It's probably my principle defect. Sometimes I'm not aware of it.  Sometimes I'm not aware of anything else.  I think I understand, about as well as I'm ever going to, where it comes from.  But knowing and heading it off at the pass are two different things.

I'm angry about the way I grew up, with parents who fought just about every night.  I can't tell you how many times I saw my mother pull her suitcase out of the closet.  She never left, and she never would have, but I was too young to know that.  I used to be afraid to go to sleep at night, afraid she'd be gone when I woke up.  I have had trouble falling to sleep all my life, and I think that's why.  I'm still listening for the fight so I can go break it up.  It was horrible, but I have to admit, it's given me a degree of compassion for victims of dysfunctional families that I wouldn't have had otherwise.  When they talk to me, they've got my attention.

I'm angry about other things.  Pertinent things.   I'm still angry at the seminary.  The politics of it all, the favoritism, the stupidity of staying locked up for eight years and studying philosophy and theology in Latin, stuff that I was never going to use anyway.  These days I'm getting quotes from roofers and organizing fundraisers and seldom do I think, "Thank God I took Advanced Greek or I would never have been able to handle this job!" 

Back when I was ordained, I felt like I was being sprung from a trap.  But this was in the mid-fifties, the pastors were still kings.  The young assistants worked for them, and there wasn't much room to maneuver.  But I kept my mouth shut and I did what I was told.  I knew I was biding my time, and that was okay.

After I'd been out for ten years, I was beginning to feel like I was coming into my own.  The Council was in full swing, and things were beginning to change with the liturgy and other things.  We all thought the Golden Age was about to dawn.  Instead, we got James Frances McIntyre and Benjamin Hawkes.  

Eventually things began to quiet down.  I got assigned as pastor of a very good suburban parish in Simi Valley.  But it was a short honeymoon.  Problems I'd never dreamed of.  Money problems, personnel problems, school problems, political problems.  I needed degrees in business administration, education, psychology, and a course in plumbing would have come in handy, too.  One thing I learned quickly about plumbing:  philosophy doesn't work on it.  Neither does Latin.

The "Father Knows Best" era was already starting to fade.  Between that and "We know this is your first parish, Father, so let us tell you how it's done..."  I was not the Lord of the Kingdom that I'd imagined I was going to be.  The women on my staff -- mostly nuns and soon-to-be-ex nuns -- let me know that whenever I opened my mouth, I said the wrong thing.  Parents felt they should be running the school and got testy when they didn't get their way.  Meanwhile, I had to keep multiplying councils and committees, until we were as complex as GM and as bureaucratically laden as the Pentagon.  Picking a theme for the annual fund-raising dinner-dance was a process that made the middle east peace talks look like a walk in the park.

The topper is my upcoming retirement.  I never really thought much about retirement.  Never really thought much about money for myself.  The diocese, we were told, would take care of us. "Don't get into social security," they said.  Then a few years later, "Gee guys, you better get into social security.  We can't cover for you."  Sometimes I have visions of myself living under a freeway overpass with all my books and memorabilia in a Ralph's cart.  But now they're taking up a collection for us.  I don't mean to sound like an ingrate, but that seems like just a classier way of standing by the on-ramp with a sign.   

Anyway, that's the negative stuff.  But I've been ordained over forty years and I'm still here, so obviously it hasn't all been bad.  There've been things along the way that have given me life, that have lifted up my drooping spirit. I want to talk about some of those things.

I've been involved with marriage encounters -- more in the past than now -- but it has been very important to me.  To share in the excitement and wonder of people who are discovering and rediscovering their love and linking it to God has meant more to me than I can ever say.

I know that a lot of priests don't like weddings.  I'm not too happy myself when things are lop-sided, when the celebration is pumped up and you know that the life commitment is very thin.  But I've had different experiences, especially in the second half of my priesthood.  I've married the children of parents I've married, kids that I baptized.  These are bonds and connections I can't completely explain.  I just know that these have been very happy, very holy moments for me.

Another life-giving element of priesthood has been liturgy.  I've spanned the whole thing -- from the Latin Mass to the Hootenanny Mass, to the politically correct Mass, to my parish's  current Mass, which seems to me a somewhat sane act of worship and thanksgiving.  Whatever its form -- and many certainly were not high quality -- the liturgy has been the privileged spot where I have met God and His people. 

Now, I don't mean to imply that this happens all the time. Some days I wish God and His people would just leave me out of it.  Like days when I have a string of Masses.  Three funerals and a wedding?  That's a normal day for me.  And then there's the fact that after forty years, I could say Mass in my sleep. And I have

A parishioner said to me recently, "You know Father, I have discovered that about one in every ten Masses is a genuine religious experience.  The trick is that you have to show up for the other nine."

But this is something I have known since childhood:  the Mass, on its worst day, is a concrete and unsurpassable miracle. It is holy ground.

People in general have taught me about faith and trust.  Some of the immigrant people, for example, that I've dealt with over the years.  The sick and the housebound have taught me a lot.  They've showed me what it means to let yourself go into God's hands.  I'm grateful for that.

As I look back on my life and my priesthood, I'm pretty clear in identifying what and who have been the sources of support for me across the years.  My family has been very important.  My brothers and sisters and their families have been tremendous.  Now there's an extended family that is pretty big.  I have always felt a part of their lives, and I think they know that they are a part of mine.

My classmates, especially a small group of us, have been important.  We go on vacations together, spend days off together, complain together.  It seems just social, but I think it's more than that.  We've practically grown up together, and now we're growing old together.  There's a...perfection... to it. A degree comfort that I never would have imagined. I'm grateful for that.

I've already mentioned couples who have been important for me.  They tell me that I have been important for them.  In different ways, they've softened me.  Maybe what I mean to say is they have made me less an old bachelor and more of a loving human being.  More normal.  More on the mark.

Prayer is important for me.  I'm no monk.  I could never go off into meditation.  In fact, any time I've ever tried to meditate, the only mantra in my head is, "You're not doing this right."  My prayer is in the liturgy with my people.  And it literally springs out of other times when I'm serving them -- a joyful moment of new life or the sad moments of grief and loss.  That is the prayer that has held me up.

And then there is the issue of vocation.  

About ten years ago, the fact that my vocation had never felt like something that belonged to me, rose up like a cobra and stared me in the face, daring me to move.  And I was paralyzed for awhile.  I almost left the priesthood.  

The issue was celibacy.  Actually, as I later realized, that was really just the surface issue.  I won't go into the details, for very obvious reasons.  By now most of you probably know them anyway.

I have a different perspective on celibacy than a lot of you because I'm older than a lot of you.  It isn't really a big issue for me anymore.  I'm not in the middle of it.  I'm looking back on a lifetime of it, asking myself if what I've gained is worth what I've lost.  Asking myself if I made the right decision.  If it was my decision in the first place.

I could write a book on all of this, and someday I might.  All I really have time to tell you is that when I was forced to make a decision, I realized that if I hadn't decided I wanted to be a priest at age 17, I was definitely going to have to decide now.  And on the other end of that dark night of the soul, I realized that what may have begun as a fake vocation had turned into a real one.  I realized that under all the problems and the junk, and way beyond the issues, even the really tough ones...  somewhere beyond all of that, I realized that my priesthood means more to me than anything else on this earth.  I feel badly about the fact that I had to cause a lot of worry and pain to the people closest to me in order to figure that out.  But that's what it took for me to be able to see the truth.

That entire experience has left me with a personal connection to the issue of the priest shortage, and I have done a lot of thinking and reading and praying about it.  I don't agree with the people who say that celibacy is unrelated, because I know too many people who have left over it.  But I do agree that to think it's the key issue, or even a major one, is way too simplistic.  We have to look at the whole ball of wax, including the blurry image of what it even means to be a priest any more.  It's hard to have a fuzzy dream.  

And there's a much larger issue, which is the world we live in.  It's not just a materialistic world, it's a murky world.  It's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys any more.  It's hard to declare that you want to live a "holy" life in  a culture that is hell bent, pardon the pun, to eradicate anything sacred for fear that it might offend someone who doesn't like the concept. In the context of the modern world, the sacrifices we make look increasingly ridiculous.  That's a problem that is way beyond convocations and committees.  But it could really benefit from a lot of prayer.

Right now, I have hope for the Church.  This may seem to be foolish hope, in light of everything I've just said, and if you take into consideration all the internal and external tension we face. The issues and concerns before us are not easy. Authority, structures, the role of women, morality, connecting with young people.  The list goes on.  But in the middle of the conflicts and divisions, I feel that we might be -- just might be --on the verge of getting back to the center.  Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.  The center holds that sin can be forgiven, that life can be renewed, that the future is God's promise, that we are not alone in this world.  As I get older, it gets clearer.  Maybe -- and this is my hope -- it will get clearer for all of us and truly lead us into a new age.

I have another hope.  A particular one, for the younger priests.  I don't really know them.  Sometimes I feel like I don't really want to know them.  I probably generate the same reaction in them.  The ones I have gotten to know are good men.  More mature, more realistic than we ever were at their age.  They have tremendous challenges to face, the likes of which we never had to deal with.  My intuition and my hope is that they are up to it.  They will meet the challenges.  Maybe not all the time and maybe not always successfully, but on the balance they will do fine.  I really don't have any advice for them.  It's a new world, and they will have to figure things out.  With God's help, they'll be up to the task.

I'll leave you with one story, and some words that have meant a lot to me.  At the height -- or depth -- of my personal crisis, my spiritual director asked me a question.  He asked me if there was ever a moment in my life any more where it all made sense and I knew why I was a priest.  I thought about it, and I was able to think of a moment. I said, "The last scene of Black Robe."  He's a Jesuit, I knew he'd like that answer.  But it's also true.  When the Indian chief asks Fr. Laforgue, "Do you love us?"  And there Fr. Laforgue stands, in the freezing cold in the middle of nowhere, knowing he's never going to see civilization again. And after all he's been through, his entire life hangs on the answer to that question.  And everything in his logic and his experience tells him that he's given up his life for no good reason, and that the hell he's been through is for nothing, and the question he's being asked it just nonsense.  And yet.  

In that long pause before he says "yes", that's when it all makes sense to me.  That's when I know what Fr. Laforgue knows -- that the real question is this:  "Can you sacrifice everything just because of an irrational love for humanity?  Can you give up everything, for something you may never understand?"  When Fr. Laforgue finally says, "Yes"...  I understand it in my bone marrow.

So I explained this to my spiritual director.  Being a Jesuit, he didn't say, "What a lovely analogy, Martin, and what keen insight you have!"  Being a Jesuit, he said, "Do you know what your problem is?"  He said, "You thought you could answer that question a couple of times and be done with it.  But you have to ask and answer that question every day, every hour, every minute."

And then he said something that really stuck with me.  He said, "I think you'll find that the answer will always be yes, if you can just remember to keep asking the question."  

All these years later, my answer is still yes.  And I can tell you, from my vantage point, that my priesthood has been worth every sacrifice I've had to make.  

And that in the end, God is very, very faithful.

 

 

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