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What I Gave Up By Not Being A Priest - John Clark

What I Gave Up By Not Being A Priest

2 minutes


John Clark turns the too-often used counsel for young men upside down with this advice to his sons: ‘Think of what you will give up by not being a Priest’.

From the "Top 20 All Time Most Popular Articles."

Editors Note:Originally published March 7, 2014.

Like many Catholic fathers, I often pray that if my boys have vocations to the priesthood, they accept their callings.  Sadly, as Jesus told us, many do not.  The corollary to my prayer is the additional plea that I be given the graces to properly assist them along their way.

There are some obvious ways to do that: talk about my (very imperfect) love of God, pray with them, and take them to liturgy and the sacraments.  But I also believe that part of that grace is the ability to explain the priesthood in a positive and encouraging light.  Historically, we fathers might not be too good at this.

Given the dearth of seminarians in America, I wonder if we fathers are presenting the priesthood to our children in the right way.  I’m guessing that, far too often, we begin with talking about the perceived negatives of the priesthood.  Specifically, we may not be doing justice to the vocation by starting with saying that, as a priest, “you are giving a lot up.”

This has become a Catholic cliché.  “You’re thinking about becoming a priest, Billy?  Sounds great, but just remember, you’re giving a lot up to become a priest!”

It’s odd that, with all the magnificence of the priesthood, we begin so many discussions—not with what the priesthood is—but with what it isn’t.

My sixteen-year-old son Demetrius and I were talking about this recently.  And I explained to him that every commitment involves giving up something else. Even on a natural level, things like becoming a good basketball player require the time and effort of practice.  Shooting one-hundred free throws means giving up something that might be more fun.  But if you hadn’t given those things up, you wouldn’t end up hearing too many cheering crowds.

I explained to Demetrius that when his mom and I were married, we both gave things up, too.  We were giving up regular sleep (although we didn’t quite understand how much at the time).

We were giving up many freedoms.  For instance, once you have children, your freedom of travel is quite restricted.  You can no longer hop in a car and drive to Atlantic City for the weekend.  You are also giving up a lot of time you used to spend with your friends—time that is now devoted to your family.


You are giving up the financial rewards known largely to the single life.  Had I never gotten married, for instance, I could easily have afforded to travel the world and drive a Mercedes.  But, as I explained to Demetrius, his mom and I don’t sit around and wonder what it would have been like if we had never surrendered those freedoms.

We believed that we were receiving something better in return: the unique form of friendship that is found only in marriage, the cooperation with God to create life, and the love and happiness of children.  And that is what we received.

We call that fulfillment.

I would conclude that, for their own states of life, priests have that feeling of fulfillment, too.  I am not a priest, so I can’t speak as though I am.  But I can speak as a man who seems to be gaining an increasing understanding of what it’s like not to be a priest.

I’ll never know the joy of forgiving the sins of the penitent.

I’ll never know what it is like to regularly bring babies into the state of sanctifying grace in Baptism.

I’ll never know the unique intimacy with God that is accomplished in confecting the Eucharist.

I’ll never know what it is like to comfort one in death with the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.

I’ll never know the happiness of helping husbands and wives unite in love before God in a wedding ceremony.

Men do give up a lot to be priests, but we married men give up a lot not to be priests.  Yes, priests give up many goods by taking their vows, but I stand in awe of what they gain.  So should we all.

Here begins the discussion.

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About John Clark

John Clark

John Clark is a homeschooling father, a speechwriter, an online course developer for Seton Home Study School, and a weekly blogger for The National Catholic Register. His latest book is “How to be a Superman Dad in a Kryptonite World, Even When You Can’t Afford a Decent Cape.”

  • Catholic_Mom_of_6

    I think much of the “fault” for the dearth of seminarians lies at the feet of those in the Church who tampered so much with the liturgy as to make it banal. Why would a man give up “the world” for the honor of celebrating an insipid liturgy? Young people are naturally idealistic and happily sacrifice for things that are great, but for years we’ve offered young men the opportunity to sacrifice for the mundane. Thanks to dear Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, our liturgies are becoming great again. Between an attractive Church and the encouragement of good Catholic fathers like yourself, Mr. Clark, we are beginning to see an increase in vocations to the holy priesthood again.

    • Any dearth of seminarians in
      any age is due to cultural pressure and liturgical abuse, and this last
      century has had it pretty rough. The Church in her wisdom has given us a
      new liturgy for a new historical epoch, and it has taken 40 years for
      the rot that began long before the Council to work itself out. We are
      now seeing the fruits of a slow, worldwide return to a more fully
      Catholic expression of the liturgy, combining the best of both forms.
      The plot was lost long before the 60s, and its taken a fresh, ecumenical
      approach and three fantastic popes to make the modern world see it. Don’t blame the fireman for the fire.:)

    • KevClark64

      A priest is given the ability to speak the words which turn bread and wine into the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. I have seen new priests weep with joy during the Consecration at their first Mass. I hope that no young man, contemplating the priesthood and understand the gifts he is being offered, would turn away from his purpose due to the liturgy.

    • Sandra Lee

      A holy priest cautioned parishioners that parental criticism of priests and the Church contributed greatly to loss of priestly vocations.
      If a man discerned a call to be a priest, wouldn’t his answer best be based on Who is calling him rather than on the form of liturgy? How can it ever be considered “mundane” to let Jesus Christ choose you and use you to change bread and wine into His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity?

    • Rae Marie

      I agree, a large part has to do with the liturgy. When young men see nothing special about the Mass or the priesthood, they will not be interested in it.

    • Thomas Gallagher

      Ah, the tampering with the liturgy. The permissiveness towards artificial contraception. The culture of divorce. You’ve rounded up the usual suspects, I suspect. But you are perhaps too young to recall that the priest shortage was in full force before the Vatican Council had completed its work. And many of the wonderful young men who have entered the priesthood in recent years attribute their willingness to say “yes” to the Lord to the example of John Paul II (though Benedict XVI’s example has been a wonderful one too.) It’s fine to speculate on the state of the Church today, but we need to get our facts straight.

      • Alex

        Thomas, you weren’t around then either. The numbers don’t lie:

        Yes, wonderful men have joined the priesthood since then, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem.

        • Thomas Gallagher

          Oh, yes I was around then! I’m 71 years old, well old enough to have been an adult at the time of the Vatican Council. Watch what you say. And watch the signs of the times: don’t you see the flowering of the post-John Paul priesthood? It’s all around you.

          • Alex

            Are you not the same Thomas who posted at the link below? I must have had you mixed up at that time with a different Thomas Gallagher.


          • Thomas Gallagher

            That was me. Were you offended by what I said there too?

          • Alex

            Not offended, just disagreed. There is another Thomas Gallagher who I am good friends with. We sometimes disagree on matters of tradition and Vatican II, but remain close friends. Sorry to mix you guys up!

          • Alex

            We had a combox conversation months back… I thought you were somebody else… which explains a really strange conversation I had with the person I thought you were. I feel really dumb now.

          • Justice

            Where where where??? I see priest more in love with eastern religions than the catholic faith. I see popes welcoming the followers of Islam to the Vatican. I see no roses flowering but a lot of onions.

  • Christopher Manderino

    I think that this is both dangerous and self defeating to view priests in the common addage of “look what they gave up.” The reason priests are celibate is that they are chosen among celibates. The men who are priests are celibate some time before their priesthood became a factor. If the Roman church so discerned to regularly ordain married men, as it already does, it wouldn’t be about what they gave up, but about what they’ve accepted. This is where discussions on the celibate priests ought to begin as well. And, for holy celibates in general, for that matter. There is more than one reason to be celibate, but not all are for holy reasons, when speaking about the priesthood it should be from be from a positive theology.

  • MarcusRegulus

    Books used to tell of the joys of being a priest. “The Left Hand of God”, “The Keys of the Kingdom”. And, when was the last time you saw a book, or even a pamphlet which extolled seminarians? If young men do not value the idea of being a priest of God, it is because the ordinary layman does not value his priests. Perhaps in the past, priests were venerated too much, but today, they are despised too much.
    And when was the last time anybody ever said, “Thank you, Father”?

    • John Clark
    • Vincent Gustafson

      There is a recently released book for pre-teens that does just this. It is called “The Gate” by Nancy Belanger, and my son really loved it! It is about a middle-school boy who has all the struggles of a normal kid, but (spoiler alert) in the end finds his vocation as a priest.

    • Justice

      The left hand of God was a book? I thought it was a movie with humpry bogart.

  • Catholic_Mom_of_6

    I think some here misunderstood my comments. I’m not blaming the firemen for the fire, nor am I ignoring the problems from before the council. But it is unrealistic for young men to know what the liturgy is about if they do not see it witnessed by the priests in their lives. Archbishop Sample says it better than I in this homily:

    • Vonier

      What a magnificent homily. Thank you for sharing. I hope it is heard far and wide.

  • CRS

    My dad once considered the priesthood sometime before marrying my mom (he is now a deacon and thus I call him “Deacon Dad”), and he in turn hoped my brother would become a priest and that I would become a nun. Neither happened, though I seriously considered it. Now I understand how my dad felt and excitedly ask my kids if they want to become a priest or a nun. My little girl (almost 6) seems excited at the idea of becoming a nun, and my 3-year-old says he’ll become a priest (though I doubt he understands too fully what that means yet). But I don’t plan on explaining the religious vocation to either in terms of what they may lose, at least not in the beginning. I think that’s a good way to discourage young people. I do like the positive approach you took in explaining it to your son. And the way you put it into perspective for us made me think more gratefully of the priesthood.

  • Nexus

    The “fault” for the dearth of seminarians is the environment of the seminaries. Instead of being a place which should abound in charity, piety, and the advancement of knowledge, many seminarians are caught in a constant, stupid ecclesiastical-political fight where the power brokers are do-it-yourself (untrained) wanna-be psychologists who end up throwing out a good number of seminarians for reasons such as ‘rigidity’ (which usually means they don’t have anything specific, so they need a rather nebulous category to throw out people they just don’t like) while playing favorites with other seminarians (who can do no wrong, and often end up falling apart psychologically within five years of their ordination). Seminarians must either figure out that they better not make manifest that they are even remotely interested in traditional Catholic things, they better not talk about the out-dated 70’s music, and they certainly must NOT read any authoritative Church documents (except social justice documents, of course) or they will be suspected of ‘rigidity’ and be eventually thrown out (or have multiple, unnecessary obstacles thrown in the way if the seminarian’s bishop is financially or politically important to the seminary’s existence).

  • At my parish we don’t have a shortage of seminarians. We do have a priest who sets a good example, a boys-only corps of altar servers, and families that support their sons in following God’s call wherever it leads.

  • There has been a decline in the number of priests and in the Catholic Church in general in the Western world because the Eucharist has been marginalized.

  • John Flaherty

    I’ll ask you to forgive me if this seems a bit crass. If I think back to my teens, one key thought that stood out from all others was…if I became a priest, I would give up sexual intimacy. As a teen, that thought alone provided ample deterrent from considering any possibility of seminary. Throw in the miscast ideas about equality that have thrived in the Church, and it’s no wonder that young men do not seek priestly lives.

    St John Paul II gave us an incredible gift with his Theology of the Body as an explanation of the love between married couples. We really need someone to present the same topic in as great a depth for priests.
    We cannot expect young men to pursue priestly vocations if we do not make clear that priests sacrifice their bodies in manly ways every bit as much as do married men.

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