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Secure Attachment in Celibate Priesthood

What is it like when we who are celibate priests become truly secure in our relationships?

I’ve certainly been on a long and non-linear journey from insecurity into security. My path of healing over the last seven years has often left me feeling like Frodo in Lord of the Rings. I set out on a quest, uneasy but willing. I definitely did not realize how twisted or dangerous or difficult the paths would be. At times, the temptation swells to put on the ring – which in my case includes reverting to my familiar mode of going it alone. I’ve learned again and again to depend upon companions and guides. Little by little, I am learning to be secure in my relationship with the Father, with others, and with myself.

Like Frodo, I have found unlikely friends in unlikely places. Some of the people who truly “get” me as a human being are not priests and not even Catholic. Some have rather different world views that I do. But they absolutely respect how important my faith and my vocation are. Sometimes their childlike questioning really gets me reflecting!

One particular conversation stands out. My friend (a C.E.O. also on a long healing journey) was inquiring how diocesan Church structure works. He was stunned at the promise of obedience, and the expectation of uprooting and moving to a new assignment when the bishop asks. He asked – not with criticism but with genuine curiosity – “How do you find secure attachment in that??”

It’s not like most married couples are secure, either. But at least when there is genuine emotional intimacy in marriage there is a secure bond in which the couple can navigate life changes together. What is a celibate priest to do when it’s time to uproot?

My mind immediately raced to tidy theological answers – the ideals of diocesan priesthood. We have a strong prayer life. We are intimately connected to the Father, to Mary, and to the Saints. We have fraternity with each other, supporting and encouraging each other in love. We are co-workers and brothers with each other in the Lord’s vineyard under the loving fatherhood of our bishop. You get the idea.

By this time, I was honest enough to admit that these ideals are far from a lived reality in my life. I actually don’t always feel safe sharing my whole heart with brother priests – and I’ve often heard the same from others. In many subtle ways, we compare, compete, envy, or judge each other. We worry about how other priests perceive us. We self-isolate. We avoid going into painful places with each other. I could go on.

I’m not shaming myself or other priests here – just pointing out the obvious gap between what we believe theologically about the priesthood and what we experience in our daily lives. We are insecure human beings just like our lay counterparts! Granted, the Catechism (n. 1568) describes the beautiful bond of brotherhood established upon ordination. We get glimpses and tastes of that fraternity, but are only beginning to live into it.

What is it like for us who are celibate priests become truly secure in our relationships?

To be a priest is to be human. In fact, humanity is a prerequisite – no humanity, no priesthood. Jesus became human in order to become a mediator who reconciles us to God, to each other, and to ourselves. He can only be our great high priest precisely because he enters the heavenly sanctuary in human flesh. We who have said “yes” to the priesthood can only be fruitful sharers in Christ’s priesthood to the extent that we are willing to keep growing up as humans.

That growing up (what Church documents refer to as “affective maturity”) includes the ongoing healing of our original threefold rupture that we read about in Genesis 3 – a rupture in our communion with God, with each other, and with own integrity (the togetherness and harmony of all parts of ourselves). Each of us continues to struggle with some level of insecurity in each of those three dimensions.

Our solidarity with Adam and Eve is only part of the story. Yes, we were conceived and born into a struggle. But this threefold wounding is also personally targeted to each of us amidst our experiences of family, culture, and Church. It shows up in rather particular ways in your or my story. Just as the enemy of human nature envied and despised our first parents, ruthlessly attacked, and subtly seduced, so he has done with each of us – even as young children. The evil one perceives our amazing goodness and anticipates the ways God plans to shine in us. In his envy and malice, he then seeks to lie and steal and destroy.

In my own story, from a very young age, excruciating human circumstances became fertile soil for the evil one to sow his whispered lies: that I was on my own, that no one will protect me, that others will always disappoint, that no one will really understand, that I have to be the strong one, that I just have to take it, that I am only lovable “if,” and so on. I’ve experienced spiritual healings and have labored to mature on a human level for several years now. I am beginning to step out of those lies and into secure relationships. Both I and others perceive genuine growth and change, even though my insecurity shows up daily.

In January, I hosted the first ever “I Have a Story” retreat for priests. I’ve completed several trainings now to facilitate individual or group work that seeks healing through engagement of story. Each participant had the opportunity to write a childhood story and have the group go into the scene with him – not fixing or advice-giving or spiritualizing, but with curiosity and kindness. I’ve been in a few hundred story engagements now, but I really wasn’t sure how it would go with a group of priests. As it turns out, it was holy ground. The men quickly went to vulnerable places and showed skillful compassion in tending to each other’s stories.

At the end of the retreat, we all felt a sadness and a longing. Our sacred time together was ending. Our secure bubble was evaporating. Every one of the priest participants expressed gratitude for the safety and connection they experienced. They expressed how much they wished they had spaces like this elsewhere in their lives as priests. More than one expressed with hurt or frustration that they don’t feel this kind of safety among local priests, or even in their priest support group. Vulnerable sharing sometimes gets met with insecurity-fueled responses: advice giving, fixing, comparing, patronizing analysis, changing the subject, minimizing, or spiritualizing.

In my new work as Director of the Rebuild My Church Initiative, I’ve been invited into various priest gatherings and retreats. Each time, I share my own experiences and discuss some of these principles. I keep discovering the same longing and the same obstacles as I meet priests from all over the country. The Holy Spirit is really moving! There are many who desire deeper healing and human integration, vulnerable fraternity with other priests, and an authentic father-son relationship with their bishop. I hear similar frustrations and obstacles everywhere.

The ordination rite elicits tears from both believers and unbelievers. The beautiful rituals both symbolize and effect the secure bond into which the ordinandi are invited. First the bishop, and then all priests impose their hands on the heads of the candidates. The candidates place their hands into the hands of the bishop – promising obedience, yes, but also receiving assurance of fatherly care and protection. Once the candidates are ordained and vested, first the bishop and then all the priests embrace them with the kiss of peace. I am tearing up just writing about it. It’s all so stunningly beautiful, and evokes deep desire.

Indeed, there is a gap between our belief and our lived experience. In our teachings and our liturgy, there is a lovely and lofty ideal of securely attached sons living joyfully as brothers to each other and spiritual fathers of God’s children, as we bear fruit for the Kingdom 100 times over (cf. Matthew 19:29). But in our day-to-day struggles, we experience just as much in insecurity as most other adult humans in the modern West.

On my personal journey and in my trainings around trauma, I’ve learned a few lessons about secure attachment. Contemporary neuroscience and trauma research offer fascinating discoveries that help us appreciate why so many of us adults are far more insecure than we care to admit. All of it points back to healthy relationships, which is what our Catholic Faith is all about – and the reason why most of us became priests in the first place!

Stay tuned in the coming weeks to hear more on this theme of secure attachment for those of us who have said “yes” to celibate priesthood.

To Be Continued…

Categories: Affective Maturity Apprenticeship / Mentoring Attachment Theory Chastity Developmental Trauma Facing Heartache in Our Story Neuroscience and Trauma Research Theology

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Fr. Derek Sakowski

1 reply

  1. I enjoyed your post Father
    I understand the consequence of trauma and abuse and how it fuels insecurity even to adulthood. Rediscovering our true parents our Heavenly Father and blessed mother helps us to have a better relationships with our biological parents or adopted parents and or guardians and helps us to build on marriages and raising our own children spiritually and physically.

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