So after spilling much digital ink over the topic of masculinity and femininity, I have officially said nothing original. I have said what the Church fathers, actually what Christ Himself, have said for millennia: Men are built to give of themselves as Christ gave of Himself to His Church, and women are built to receive the gift and be fruitful in their return.
But what does that actually look like?
I think I’ve covered mostly how that works for married people. Sex is a straightforward, tangible expression of the inner life of the Trinity: two persons giving of themselves in love until that love becomes a person. Simple.
Beyond that, it gets more personal, more relational. The traditional path is one where guy asks girl out, woos her, she accepts said wooing and leads him to deeper and more meaningful giving, receiving his love and returning it to him with mystery and allurement abounding. But that doesn’t mean that’s how it has to be.
A good friend of mine asked her husband out on their first date. Does that mean she wasn’t being feminine or is less of a woman? Of course not. But it does mean that her receptivity and fruitfulness must come out in other ways ( I saw them manifested in her career as a teacher who had a special knack for reaching kids with disabilities and am certain it is just as apparent in her marriage as well).
A guy I work with talked on a retreat about how he didn’t fit the typical masculine mold growing up; sports and toughness weren’t his method of giving of himself or his strength. But my goodness you should see that boy play the piano. It’s something else entirely, something wonderful and filling and challenging like any masculine gift is.
So it’s a “both-and” situation – Yes, there is one common way that all men can give their self (sex), and then there are a billion other ways, small ways of expression and service, that serve to share the individual in a masculine way as well. Same with women: one common way to be receptive and fruitful, and a myriad of possibilities that only a woman could know f how to welcome reality into her heart and return it better than it ever was.
But what if you’re not married? What about priests (which is who this whole question was about in the first place!)?
Priests cannot give of themselves in the sexual way (see this post for a treatment of the priest-abuse scandal if that is where your mind jumped). But they must give of themselves.
They are called to be the “Father” married to “Mother Church”, a physical representation of the Christ-Man who once died as the spouse of the Church and lives still in His servant-priests. They are called to give their lives on the cross of their calling, their vocation. I think of Fr. Bruce, my first real spiritual director, an older-than-dirt monk at St. Benedict’s Abbey who is more of a man than I will ever be. Whether it was hearing confessions after every 9:30 p.m. Mass on Sundays or hearing my confession when I called him at 2 a.m., or walking down the long hill to our dorm for a midnight rosary and still waking up in his room alone at 4:30 that morning to pray one on his own, or taking groups of us to prisons to play basketball or softball with the men there while he joked with thugs in the bleachers, the man knows how to give of himself. He is a model of Christ’s joyful ministry, one I hope to emulate more closely as I mature.
So why can’t women do this as well? Are they not strong enough? Are they not worthy enough?
No. That’s just not who they’re made to be. They are capable of being other fruit in over-abundance.
I think of the vocation director from the Sister Servants of Mary who came and spoke to my theology classes this year. She talked about all of her thousands of “children”, the people she and her fellow servants provided hospice to through the night free of charge so their families and caretakers could have rest, how they would be with them as they died and entered eternal life. She said, “People often ask me if I’m sad I don’t get to be a mom. But I am a mom. All those patients, no matter what age or faith or social class, are my children. I got to be with them the day they were born.”
That is a receptivity and fruitfulness in action that I had never even thought existed until I heard her tell of it.
And at the end of the day, we need people doing both. We need priests who can give us the sacraments, and we need nuns and sisters who can minister to the poor and sick and dying. It’s not possible for one person to do this all, and yet it is all necessary.
This is why we must learn “vocation”. It is a calling from without, something beyond us that we are welcomed into. We don’t define it for ourselves. We can’t. It is a gift, a lavish gift, that we receive the second we ask for it.
And though we, siblings, brothers and sisters in this one family of Christ, do not receive the same gifts from our Father, we can nevertheless be assured of the brilliance of the gift, the sheer thoughtfulness of it, how it matches what we wish for most deeply, how it is so carefully wrapped and delivered just so, so that the moment we see it we know it is just for us, and we can rejoice in the ripping of paper and tossing aside of bows and the squeals of childish joy that emit in the family room of our Church as we all see what is waiting for us in our package.