Some parents object when their son declares an interest in a vocation. There are lots of reasons given, but I suspect that the root of the problem is lack of understanding of the priesthood. For too many of us priests are remote, mysterious figures who occupy some other plane of existence. We don’t see them as human beings. Fortunately, it’s easy to get past that – just spend some time getting to know the priests in your life.
Last year we suggested taking a priest to dinner as a way to better understand your son’s vocational journey. That advice still stands, but it may not always be practical or possible. A few months ago I stumbled across a bit of light entertainment which gives a surprisingly good insight into priestly life.
I was poking through the used DVDs at a local music store and came across the British comedy series Bless Me, Father. A quick check on Wikipedia gave me reason to believe it was worth watching and the price was much lower than retail, so I snatched it up. Kit and I watched all 21 episodes over the summer and found them to be both charming and honest.
The story – which was written by a man who had been a priest – centers on a newly ordained priest assigned to a small parish in post-war London. It begins with his first time hearing confessions in the parish and traces his life through most of his first year. The parish pastor is a clever old Irishman by the name of Fr. Duddleswell. Together they deal with a neighbor who runs a nightclub and is a bookmaker on the side, the bookmaker’s black Labrador, the local Mother Superior who completely lacks sympathy and empathy, affairs of the heart, affairs of the parish, and Mrs. Pring the rectory housekeeper.
We were so taken with the series that I dug a bit and found out it was based on a series of books which had been published in the 1970s. Fortunately, they are available as e-books. The first two Bless Me, Father and A Father Before Christmas served as the direct inspiration for most of the episodes.
There are a couple of interesting takeaways from both the books and the series.
First of all, they are set in the 1950s, so they are steeped in the Catholic world prior to Vatican II. This becomes most obvious in the area of interfaith relations. Fr. Duddleswell talks about his Anglican counterpart as a “doubtfully baptized Anglican layman.” Yet, most of what goes on in the books could be taking place at any parish in any part of the world. Fr. Duddleswell and Fr. Boyd deal with all the same human fears and failings as every other priest – and they do so with a wonderfully pastoral approach. There is a particularly touching episode in which Fr. Duddleswell contrives to find a way to comfort a child who is fearful that his grandfather is damned to Hell. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but I will note that Fr. Duddleswell’s solution is clever, compassionate, and colors juuusst inside the lines.
Secondly, Fr. Boyd is honest about his insecurities and fears in the books and it is clear that the author is writing from his own experience with only the smallest of embellishments. He meets up with old friends – including one who left the seminary to purse an outside life. He visits his family in the second book and we learn about his upbringing and vocation. We walk beside him as he struggles to understand his feelings for a pretty, young nurse when he is hospitalized for an extended period. By the end of the two books I had tremendous sympathy and respect for both of the priests.
The books are authentically Catholic throughout, fully faithful to the teachings of the Church and also authentically human, fully faithful to the characters. Reading them is about as close to spending a year with priests as you could get without actually moving into the rectory. If you want to better understand the priesthood, you’ll find your time well invested with this series.