An older Jesuit once told me he felt that priests have a much harder life than laypeople. We’re always "on call," he explained, and have so many responsibilitiescelebrating Masses, hearing confessions, living in community, preparing homilies and the like. Laypeople can set their own schedules, he said. Therefore, he concluded, priests need much more vacation time than laypeopleperhaps two months a year would be adequate.
At the time, I had the presence of mind to tell my friend that he was out of his.
On the other hand, a surprising number of people have told me (particularly since my ordination) how jealous they are of my life, not because of any sort of spiritual satisfaction, but because it must be so..."relaxing," as someone put it. It must be great, one parishioner commented, to have everything you need! You never have any worries, and what’s more, the church will always take care of you. It must be nice, she said, in a manner that telegraphed her distinct disapproval for such a cosseted life. Even though this happened after Mass at the parish "coffee hour," and I was surrounded by other parishioners, I was able quietly to remind her of such things as the occasional loneliness of the celibate, the always imperfect dynamics of religious communities and the fact that I was, in point of fact, working on a Sunday.
All of this came to mind over the Christmas holidays, after spending some time at home with my sister and brother-in-law.
Almost two years ago my sister gave birth to a boy, named Charles, who almost instantly became the center of our family, or at least its joyful heart. Now, I had of course heard that grandparents go "ga-ga," as one says, over their grandchildren, but it was quite another thing to see my father down on all fours in the living room with a year-old toddler, and my mother’s face light up whenever she heard a high-pitched voice shout "Nanny!" Even more surprising was the instantaneous and intense love I felt for my little nephew. Taking the train back to New York after Christmas, I realized that just a few hours after leaving home I already missed him. Missing someone whose total vocabulary consists of 50 words! (Believe it or not, dot-com is one of them, which may give you an idea of how many Christmas gifts his parents bought on line.)
But, as any sentient human being knows, babies and toddlers and children require a breathtaking amount of attention. Shortly after my nephew’s birth, I spent a night at my sister’s house, sleeping (or rather trying to sleep) in the room next to the baby’s, who woke up four times that night. The next morning I was completely wiped outand I wasn’t the one who had to feed him! Until I witnessed my sister and brother-in-law in action, I literally could not have imagined the amount of time and effort babies demand and how dead-tired parents could get.
So when the baby woke for the third time, I suddenly remembered my Jesuit friend and his comment about a lay person’s life being easy. And I thought: I doubt that he will ever have to wake up four times a night regularly. (On the other hand, my sister and brother-in-law won’t be celebrating three Masses in a row any time soon.)
But better to consider it this way: Each person’s life has a full measure of joys and struggles, meaningful to that person. I look at my sister with some envy, but also wonder how anyone can raise a child and not be consumed with worry. (If I love and worry about my nephew, how much more must his parents?) And while religious life is often a challenge, it’s enormously satisfying to follow one’s vocation, whether you’re single or married or ordained or living the vowed life.
And so, I think, it’s good to spend time on both sides of the fence. It helps one to realize that, in the end, the grass is wonderfully green everywhere.
James Martin, S.J.