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Posted July 19, 2011

Jubilee and thoughts of Uncles Jim and Bill

By Father Peter J. Daly
Catholic News Service

This year brings the 25th anniversary of my ordination.

Lately, my thoughts have turned to how and why I became a priest in the first place. Today it seems a strange vocational decision. But in the 1950s and 1960s, it seemed as natural as breathing.

Every Catholic boy considered it.

Why not?

The priests of our experience were the coolest guys we knew. Everybody liked them. Everybody knew them. Moreover, they brought us Christ.

Who wouldn't want to be a priest?

I had two uncles who were priests.

My Uncle Jim was a Dominican. He was an intellectual who played chess and talked to me like an adult.

My Uncle Bill was a Jesuit. He was a Golden Gloves boxer and had been a missionary to India. He was the very spirit of adventure.

But, like many of the priests of my childhood, both of my uncles left the priesthood for a while.

My Uncle Jim was lonely and disillusioned with his community. He held a doctorate in philosophy, and they offered him a teaching and coaching job in a high school. They gave him little friendship and support.

My Uncle Bill became an alcoholic when he returned from India. He entered a monastery to deal with his alcoholism and to reflect on his future.

Both uncles returned to the priesthood as diocesan priests. Jim went to New Orleans, and Bill to Kansas City, Mo. Both seemed happier. Their experiences probably had something to do with my choice of the diocesan priesthood.

In the past 20 years or so, the priesthood has been battered. The "cool" priesthood of my youthful illusion is gone. Our faults have been laid bare for the whole world to see. The scandal of recent years has made us realize that we are a priesthood that is often in need of reform and always in need of renewal.

When my Uncle Bill died in 1991, I had a sort of epiphany about the priesthood. Bill never became a pastor. He was never named a monsignor. He never held any prominent diocesan job.

His ministry was to the broken, to alcoholics like himself. He was the chaplain to Catholic Alcoholics Anonymous groups. He gave retreats at Leavenworth Prison. He organized AA meetings for the longshoremen on the docks along the Missouri River.

At his funeral, I was in the sacristy vesting when Bishop Charles H. Helmsing, the retired bishop of Kansas City, came up to me. Someone told him that I was Bill Daly's nephew.

He put his hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eyes, and said, "Your uncle was an alcoholic."

"I know," I said.

The bishop continued, "I wish all my priests were alcoholics. Bill knew how to embrace the cross." Then the bishop turned and walked away.

After the funeral, weathered-looking men with tattoos all over their arms came up to me and said, "Your uncle got me through 20 years of sobriety." Others said things like, "Your uncle helped me through 10 years of hard time in Leavenworth."

It was an epiphany for me. I had a better vision of the priesthood.

This was not the priesthood of the "cool" guy of my childhood; this was the priesthood of the broken guy who gives everything. It is a priesthood that boasts not of strength, but of weakness.

Like St. Paul said, "For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor 12:10). It is then that God's grace is manifest.

That insight was a comfort to me. Despite my weakness, sin and failings, God has a use for me.

After 25 years, that is the vision of priesthood that sustains me.