Word Magazine February 1991 Page 9 – 10


(Part 2 in a four part series.)

Personal Perceptions”

by Dr Peter M. Kalellis

As long as a priest projects the ap­pearances of being a reasonably normal husband and father, all is well. Having a talented and beautiful wife or highly successful children, will gain the priest some extra credit. He might even be­come a favorite child of the Bishop. But the crunch comes on the deficit side. A priest who develops problems in his fa­mily life is significantly downgraded. A priest involved in separation or divorce, apart from a very few atypical excep­tions, plummets to the lowest level of public esteem. The implication is obvi­ous. Only a few priests remain celibate, and fewer still experience overtly bro­ken marriages. The expectation to be met, therefore, is that the marriage must remain apparently sound, and no fami­ly crisis must be allowed to surface. The name of the game is “Let’s Pretend.”

The clergy couples to whom I have been exposed claim that their discom­forts are due to the expectations of their congregations. There is a “blaming” at­titude on the part of the priests. How­ever, it happens, sometimes, these un­happy couples are projecting on the congregation some discontent that real­ly comes from their inner selves.

This raises some intriguing ques­tions: Are priests a particular kind of people who are driven by excessive needs to fulfill impossible demands?

Certainly the priesthood seems to have a special appeal to the idealist and the perfectionist. Are priests’ wives a particular kind of people who are driv­en by excessive amounts of piety think­ing that they can fulfill unattainable ideals?

I have not found enough evidence because I have not been counseling clergy couples for a sufficient length of time to make a determination. It seems to me that the kinds of pressures that priests and wives experience may well be producing strong compulsions to model very high standards of marital happiness and family felicity.

Perhaps we ought to consider such compulsions:

In St. Matthew’s Gospel we read: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

A central element in our Gospel is that our faith should be demonstrated in the way we live together and relate with one another. Surely, however, this is an injunction to all Christians, and equally to all Christians. Or is it? Have we any grounds for saying that a higher standard of family life is required of the man in the pulpit, and of his wife, than is required of the couples in the pews?

John Scanzoni, in his unpublished dissertation, examined this question very thoroughly He discovered that clergy were deeply divided about it. One group, whom he calls “sect clergy”

took the view that they and their wives must accept higher standards than the couples in their congregations. The other group, whom he calls “church clergy” — a rather unfortunate title —held that the same standards apply to both clergy and laity, alike.

The sect clergy believed that their duties to the Church must come first, before their duties to their families. Scanzoni, himself, is a proponent of that precept. As a newly-ordained priest, he made it very clear that he married the Church first. And he claimed that he fol­lowed that precept, behavior wise.

The church clergy held that the priest was equally responsible for serv­ing the needs of his Church and his fa­mily.

Consider, for a moment, the image of the priest that is deliberately presented to the congregation. When the mem­bers gather for worship, the priest oc­cupies the Altar. Raised high above the congregation, and apart from all others, he is marked out as special, different, representative of Christ, the authority. When he preaches, he is delivering the authentic Christian message. Sunday by Sunday he tells the congregation how to live a Christian life. He has the an­swers. “He is not one of us” — he is set apart. The very posture required of the congregation, looking up to him from a lower level, emphasizes that he is the leader, the teacher, the guide.

The obvious implication is that, if the priest is the one to tell us how to live the Christian life, he should also be the one to show us. If, therefore, the congrega­tion expects the priest’s family to be models, has not the priest, himself, by accepting an exemplary and superior position, communicated this message to his people? Are they not responding to the clear signal he is giving them?

Something else, also, is significant. The priest is not simply a leader, an authority. He is a man of God perform­ing a function that is forbidden to all other members: sacraments. Through his ordination, he is endowed with power, a holy aura which allows him entry to the Altar. As such, he must be pure.

It is evident that a priest inevitably ac­cepts two roles:

1. A modeling role: husband, father.

2. A priest role: representative of Christ.

In public office, when people do not measure up to the idealized expecta­tions of those whom they represent, they are often forced to conceal their shortcomings and build around them a system of defenses. They pretend. The result is, that soon the outward appear­ance comes to be accepted as reality. The inference is: to maintain status, you must put on an act.

Clergy couples who are under stress and complain about the unreasonable expectations of their congregations are honest and sincere couples. They don’t want to pretend; yet, they feel exploited.

These clergy couples must have the courage to affirm their humanness. Such an action inevitably involves some risks; it means making themselves vulnerable.

Some of the clergy have already had the courage to break through pretenses. At one time or another, they have faced a situation where they showed honesty and openness. As risky as such an ex­perience was, it brought out one thing: respect. Someone must have whispered to them: “Thank God our priest and khoureeye are being honest with us. Now we can be honest with them and with one another.”

Being honest about humanness is not an acknowledgement of failure. Christ, in His earthly ministry again and again manifested His humanness.

Delivered from the need to pretend that they are somebody other than who they really are, priests feel free to link with other couples and to pursue mutual growth.

The central truth that we must all sooner or later admit is the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect mar­riage, whether it be a priestly marriage or a lay marriage. The only marriage that can be perceived as good is the one in which the couple is involved in a con­tinual, ongoing process of growth.

My personal conclusion is — and I admit that my experience is limited —the reason why many clergy couples so strongly resent the high expectations of the congregation for their priest is that, secretly they cherish the same high ex­pectations for themselves but have not yet been able to realize them. (to be con­tinued)

Dr. Kalellis is the director and found­er of the Human Growth Center in Westfield, NJ.