Much attention has been focused lately on the calling of all women to either physical or spiritual motherhoodit is written into her very being. What is the comparable notion for man? Following Christ, who laid down his life to save and sanctify his Church, every man is called to be priest. Of course, not every man is called to ordained priesthood, but in daily actions, loving dispositions, service and sacrifice, every man is called to a spiritual priesthood that contributes to the salvation and sanctification of those around him.
God can speak to us anywhere he wantsin the grocery store, behind the steering wheel, at the kitchen sink. Sometimes I feel a bit embarrassed about revealing where God speaks to me because it seems, well, so unspiritual.
Take my recent flight back from the Caribbean island of Trinidad. There I was at 31,000 feet over the Bahamas when God decided to speak to me. I wouldnt mind, except that when God invades my being so personally, sometimes I cry. And this was one of those times.
As we flew over the turquoise-blue water, I tried to control my tears and twist my body to face the window. The two strangers next to me must have thought, "Poor girl. Shes really going through a tough time." Actually, it was quite the opposite!
God was revealing to me something I had pondered for yearsthe nature of being a male. Now it might seem odd for a woman to ponder such thoughts, but as a writer and speaker on the dignity and vocation of women, I am often asked about the dignity and vocation of the male. In response, Ive said it has to do with generous initiative, with being the caretaker of what has been entrusted to him. I knew these answers were inadequate and provisional, but God hadnt revealed a deeper meaning to meuntil we were 31,000 feet high, and I had no where to go.
This is how it happened: I was reading the life of Catherine de Hueck Doherty, founder of Madonna House in Canada, and I got to the part where her 78-year-old husband Eddie received permission to be ordained as a priest in the Melkite Rite. Something broke inside me, and I began to cry. Surprised at my reaction, I composed myself and continued reading. Three paragraphs later the tears flowed again: When Eddie returned to Madonna House after his ordination, Catherines first words to him were: "Your blessing, Father."
Eddie was no longer simply husband to Catherine, but priest.
This was the answer I had been seeking for over two yearsthe nature of the male is to be priest, to offer his body and blood for others.
In my talks to women, I explain how motherhood is knit into the very structure of a womans being. This means that some women are called to biological motherhood, but every woman is called to spiritual motherhood. At last, I had the male counterpart: Some men are called to the ordained priesthood, but every man is called to the spiritual priesthood.
Priesthood, then, is knit into the very structure of a mans being. He offers his body and blood so that others can draw closer to God. His life is a sacrificial offering, not for material comfort, status, or power, but to purify his family, wife, neighborhood, and workplace of sin and its effects.
Thats a mighty tall order. Its also painfully counter-cultural in a society that has lost the distinctiveness of the ordained priesthood. While priesthood is certainly pastoral in nature, its essence is one of reparationan offering of life for the forgiveness of sins. The Old Testament abounds with this theme, from the spreading of the lambs blood on the Hebrew doorposts to the sprinkling of the mercy seat with the unblemished lambs blood on the Day of Atonement. As Hebrews 9:22 reminds us: "According to the law almost everything is purified by blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness."
The book of Hebrews goes on to describe Jesus as the great high priest, whose blood "assures our entrance into the sanctuary by the new and living path He has opened up for us through the veil (the "veil" meaning his flesh). Because Jesus offered his body and blood for us, we can "draw near [to God] in utter sincerity and absolute confidence, our hearts sprinkled clean from the evil which lay on our conscience and our bodies washed in pure water" (Heb. 11: 19-20, 22).
Men, this is your callingto imitate Jesus priestly act upon the cross. But how do you do this if youre not an ordained priest? St. Paul hits the nail on the head in Ephesians 5: "Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church. He gave himself up for her to make her holy, purifying her in the bath of water by the power of the word, to present to Himself a glorious church, holy and immaculate, without stain or wrinkle or anything of that sort. Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies."
Paul is describing the priestly role of the husband to his wife and his domestic church (i.e., his family). When you drag your body and blood out of bed in the morning to pray and then lead your family in morning prayer, youre being priestly. When your body and blood goes to work for the twenty-second year in a row, youre being priestly. When your body and blood resists the temptation to look at pornography or to be unfaithful to your wife, youre being priestly. When your body and blood comes home tired and weary in the evenings and washes the dishes and gives your wife a back rub, youre being priestly.
Your presence in your family, neighborhood, and workplace ought to be priestly. Your words, attitudes, actions, and recreation ought to have one goal in mind: to sanctify yourself and the world around you. All of society and creation is meant to be redeemedfrom the back grill at McDonalds to the boardroom at Microsoft. You can go where the ordained priest doesnt have time to goto classrooms, football fields, family gatherings, stock meetings, and your sons bedroom. You can bring the presence of Christ through your body and blood. You can be an alter Christus.
Will it be difficult? Yes. Will you suffer? Yes. Will you have to give up things youd rather do? Yes. But you dont sacrifice alone. Laboring right beside you are the Christian women that God has called to be spiritual motherswho make hidden sacrifices for the moral, cultural, emotional, and spiritual life of others and society. Spiritual motherhood and spiritual priesthood go hand-in-hand: as men lay down their bodies and blood to purify the world, so women lay down their lives for union. The results are astonishing: the more we are purified, the more we can live in union with each other and God. And the more we live in union with each other and God, the more we want to be purified so as to deepen that union.
During this season of Lent, the Church gives us the ideal time to meditate on the priesthood of Christ. Our redemption didnt have to be accomplished via the cross. It could have been accomplished another way. And yet, I think God the Father was lifting the veil of eternity to show us not only the depth of His love, but the essential nature of the maleto be priest, to offer his body and blood for the redemption of the world.
Yes, Jesus, the sacrificial lamb and the Great High Priest, had to be male, just as Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, had to be female. What a wonderful gift our faith gives us in not reducing Gods actions and the created world to a homogenized gender-neutrality. Male and female, redemption and incarnation, purification and union are all complementary dimensions of the mystery of God, dimensions that explain and complete each other.
It was worth pondering the nature of the male for a couple years, because, when the answer came, it was far richer and deeper than I ever expected. It will take at least another couple years to penetrate this insight, and by that time I might be ready to return to Trinidad. If I do, you can be sure Ill ask for a window seat and have my Kleenex ready.
7 Suggestions for a priestly life:
1. Read the book of Hebrews.
2. Try to make one priestly act a day.
3. Read "A Call to Families" by Pope John Paul II.
4. Pick an hour a week to watch the kids, so your wife can spend the time in prayer or recreation.
5. Make a conscious effort to join yourself to the offering of the Eucharist at Mass.
6. Ask God everyday: "What does it mean to be priest to my wife, family, and co-workers?"
7. Read an account of Jesus passion and death and meditate on: What happened when Jesus died?
Originally published in Our Sunday Visitor
, February 21, 1999.Katrina J. Zeno, a freelance writer and speaker on topics such as the nature of men and women, singles and romance, the culture of life, the new feminism, prayer, and parenting, is also co-foundress of Women of the Third Millennium, an organization that promotes the dignity and vocation of women through one-day retreats. Her articles and interviews have appeared numerous periodicals, including Our Sunday Visitor, New Covenant magazine, Catholic Parent, and Franciscan Way, and she has spoken in the U.S., Canada, England, and Trinidad.