When I was a kid
and the nun asked for an essay on “What I’m going to be when I grow up,” shrewd little Billy knew how to get the instant A. “Oh, I want to be a preeest, Sister Dearest!” Worked every time. Little did I realize God was listening. Of course, at the totally unexpected onslaught of puberty, when I discovered in an inescapable and not altogether unpleasant way just what a vow of celibacy cost, the question of a vocation became less than moot. Maybe I’d teach English or work on Madison Avenue persuading mothers to buy cereals that ruin their children’s teeth.
That revulsion, I think, can be essential in determining a vocation. If anyone finds the call blissfully irresistible, I tend to suspect he or she has no idea what a Pandora’s Box they’re reaching for. God is relentless. If God truly wants you, you’re not going to get away. If you do, that’s sure proof you’re meant to serve in some other fashion.
One (melodramatically) windy evening in my sophomore year at the College of the Holy Cross, after I thought I’d successfully eluded the Hound of Heaven, I found that Black Dog was on my back. There was no discernible reason for such a foul mood, but I stumbled up the hill behind the college and, like Heathcliff, actually shook my fist at the uncomprehending heavens. “What the hell’s going on? If You want me to do something, for God’s sake tell me what it is!” Then I stumbled down to the Jesuit chapel and sat sobbing.
Weird. Next day, I fell in with my confessor while he was saying his breviary. I hadn’t troubled him for two months; it had been a rather venturesome summer. I unburdened myself, and at the end I said, “OK, if you think they’ll take me, I’ll go.” He cocked a tufted brow and asked, “Go where?” And I answered, “Into the Jesuits.” I even surprised myself. Talk about reasoning yourself carefully to a life-decision!
So, after kicking it around with him for a few more sessions, I applied, convinced they were going to turn me down, inventing all kinds of transparent ruses to throw my roommates off the trail. But I was accepted and, on July 30, 1951, I arrived at St. Andrew-on-Hudson to become a novice. That night, I lay on my back and stared at the ceiling in a dormitory with 65 other snoring candidates and said, “Sweet Jesus! What have I done?” But I remembered what I’d told my dad: “If I’m home before a year is up, you’ll know they threw me out.” So I decided to live the life full-throttle for a year and, on July 30, 1952, reassess whether I could take it or not.
It’s now more than 50 years later, and I must have forgotten to reassess, because I’ve never doubted my vocation since that night. Not once. Not for a watch-tick. Perplexing joy
When I was in The Exorcist, I was quite an anomaly, both to the agnostics and to the non-practicing Catholics. I didn’t have horns; I could tell bluer jokes than any of them; I wasn’t shocked when a carpenter hit his thumb and cursed. More than a few asked, “Bill, not to be nosy but . . . is it true that you don’t get laid?” And when I assured them I didn’t, they invariably said, “Then why are you happier than I am?” Billy Friedkin, the director, asked me how I could be celibate, and I answered that, even though love isn’t quantifiable, my energy is. If had a wife and family, they’d deserve my best quality loving, but instead I keep it “unfocused,” so that whoever comes along gets my best loving. Five or six or even 10 people just aren’t enough for me. I guess I’m greedy. When I was on the Today show after the movie came out, Barbara Walters leaned over to me during a commercial and said, “You’re obviously an intelligent man. How can you be a priest?” As if the two were mutually exclusive. And I said, “Because it gives me such joy.” And she sniffed, “I don’t know what that means.” That lady was making more than 1 million smackers a year, and she didn’t know what joy means. No other place for me
Obviously, the priesthood isn’t for everybody. There’d be nobody left in the pews. But I do know now, after 50 years, that there is no other place for me. It’s been anything but a rose garden; it has cost me—at times profoundly. But it’s where I’ve belonged. I know I could have made a good English teacher, because I am. I suspect, from 40 years of dealing with young men and women, I’d have been a better than passable father. I hope I would have been an empathic and loving husband. But I wouldn’t have been who I was meant to be. Before he died, Saint Ignatius Loyola was asked if he would have done anything differently, and he answered that he would have made it more difficult for men to enter the Society of Jesus. After 50 years, I now agree with him. If you feel tempted to give the priesthood or the religious life a try, know beforehand that the loneliness is sometimes deeply agonizing. In the early years, the greatest gift you make is giving up active sexuality. Then it’s the realization you will never have children. Finally, it’s accepting the truth that no one will ever share your life, profoundly, intimately, not sexually, but at the deepest recesses of your soul. Virtues and vices of the religious life
If you’re considering the religious life, know beforehand that every virtue, unbalanced by its opposite, becomes a vice. Justice without mercy becomes vengeance; mercy without justice becomes maudlin sentimentality. So, too, with the vows. Poverty can turn people into penny-pinchers; chastity can deform souls into prim old maids; obedience can spawn congenital gripers. If you can’t accept that, you’d make a lot more money working in a napalm factory. The ultimate test of the ministerial or religious vocation is exactly the same as for the marital vocation: “I would rather be unhappy with you than happy with someone else.” If you think that five or six or even 10 people just aren’t enough to share your ability to love, if God simply won’t leave you alone, if after you’ve honestly wrapped your mind around all the indisputable drawbacks mentioned above, and you still feel called, one has to suspect the Holy Spirit has plans for you.