Sometimes, I'm asked whether being a priest is lonely. It's an understandable question considering the call to celibacy. I can't answer this question in a universal manner. I can only answer it according to my own experience.
I suppose, like every life, priesthood does have its moments of loneliness, but this is not unique to the priesthood. Some of the loneliest people I've ever met wake up every day laying next to another person. Is loneliness something that is a predominant characteristic of the priestly life? Not in my experience. In fact, I experience in my life something of a paradox. The more closely I live my priesthood and my life with others, the more I experience a profound solitude. This solitude is not a sad loneliness, but rather a deeper experience of communion.
All of this came to mind this week because of a few encounters that I had. I'd like to share those here.
Earlier this week, I received an email from a man whom I received into the Catholic Church probably fourteen years ago. With the exception of an occasional Christmas Card, we've been almost entirely out of contact. He and his wife have four children now! Before signing off from his email, he told me that they pray for me in their nightly prayers. Those words really struck me and gave me joy. In that email, I simultaneously experienced both intimacy and solitude.
This past Saturday, I received a phone call from a friend of mine whom I met when I was a deacon. He and his wife also have four children now! One of their children was making her First Holy Communion and he was calling to see if I could stop by the party. Although not able to attend, I nonetheless experienced in the invitation the joy of intimacy and solitude.
When my friend called me, I was returning from an overnight with another family whom I've met through my time here at Boston University. We had Mass together at their new home, had dinner, and spent some time in an enjoyable conversation. Spending time with families and witnessing their Catholic life together is always joyful for me. Again, at one and the same time, I experience intimacy and solitude.
I left their home in order to go and baptize the infant son of some former parishioners and friends of mine. (I'm just thinking, I was baptizing their fourth child as well. A lot of fours these days)! It was so great to baptize "Peter Francis Benedict." What an awesome name! Again, as I looked around at the people who were at the baptism, I was grateful for the privilege I have as a priest to be so close with such extraordinary people. I am close to these people precisely because I am a priest. And at the same time, this closeness brings with it a beautiful solitude.
One of the best parts of being a University Chaplain is that I spend almost all day every day close to the young people here. Whether it be through spiritual direction, the sacraments, eating meals, going for ice cream, praying, debating, or having a cup of coffee, the majority of my day is spent with them. Being close to them is a privilege. It is also an experience of joyful solitude.
I rarely feel lonely. (In fact, I sometimes joke that I wish I could have a little loneliness)! Instead, I'd say that I feel the piercing of solitude. This piercing is not sad or harmful. It is a wound that has a sweetness to it. It comes precisely from the intimacy that I share with so many beautiful people. This wound opens my heart and makes me capable of being close to the flock entrusted to me. In being close to people, I experience solitude because this closeness is not mine by right. It is mine completely by gift. It is not something I've earned, something I've created, or something to which I am entitled. It is mine because Jesus has entrusted these people to me and put me close to them. It is mine because God has placed in my path many beautiful souls who have generously drawn close to me and who live the friendship of Christ with me. Living this friendship together--a friendship of intimacy and solitude--is a cause of profound joy in my life. The people whom God has placed in my path wouldn't allow me to be lonely!
The solitude that I experience in my priestly life directs me to Christ. It awakens in me a recognition that I am united to him in a unique and powerful way. In my closeness to families, to young people, to seminarians, to brother priests, and to older people, I have been very blessed. Their friendship never terminates in itself. It points beyond itself to Christ. This is the experience of intimacy and solitude.
I do not claim that what I experience is the same for every priest. But, enough people ask about this, that I thought it might be helpful to share my own experience. That experience has been one primarily of profound intimacy and solitude, but rarely loneliness.