"Where Do Priests Come From?" It’s an excellent question at a time when priests are under fire, under-appreciated, and under the gun. Who would ever want to be one? How would the idea even get in a healthy young boy’s head?
Hopefully, through the example of a trusting, loving priest and his family’s love for this spiritual father and the Church. But his presence is not always a given in American family life - and even where it is, educational aids are welcome.
This is where Elizabeth Ficocelli comes in. The author of numerous books, including "The Imitation of Christ for Children" for Paulist Press, she’s just published a children’s book, "Where Do Priests Come From?" and talks about it, priests and the boys in her life.
Lopez: What made you want to do "Where Do Priests Come From?"
Ficocelli: I literally woke up to that question back in 2002 and felt inspired to answer it in the form of a children’s picture book. As a Catholic convert, I had plenty of questions myself! I created a brief survey and gave it out to several priests. Their input was so precious that at times, I used it directly in the book. My hope is that the book will inspire awareness of and appreciation for the priesthood, both among young boys and their families.
Lopez: Do people think you’re odd to do such a thing, now?
Ficocelli: Inspiring vocations to the priesthood is something that is important to do in all ages, particularly now. When I first wrote the manuscript in 2002, I had the interest of a New York publisher until the media began releasing headline news about scandals involving certain priests. After that, no one wanted to have anything to do with the project. It has taken several years for a publisher to finally realize that priesthood is still an admirable vocation and a necessary one for the growth of the Church.
Lopez: It’s particularly bizarre that a woman would write such a book and another woman would illustrate such a book in a misogynist church, isn’t it?
Ficocelli: As a Catholic convert since the year 1983, I do not share in the view that the Catholic Church is misogynist. Yes, the religious leaders are male, but on the parish level, most of the catechesis of young people is done by women, most of the roles of the laity are filled by women, and most of the prayer and devotional practices are performed by women. Personally, I would like to see more laymen come forward in leadership roles on the parish level. The Church esteems many females throughout history for their contributions to the Faith, first and foremost, Mary, the Mother of God, as a role model for all. As a Catholic woman today, I am affirmed in my authentic dignity as a woman as the Church proclaims (particularly through the writings of the late Pope John Paul II) which stands in direct contrast to the objectified image of woman that the secular world portrays.
Lopez: What’s the age range you’ve aimed your book at? I got the sense you were aiming to keep the reading and maturity level broad.
Ficocelli: The book is targeted at young boys -- grades 1-3 -- and their families, but it is intentionally not "dumbed down." There is important vocabulary throughout the book that is explained in easy to understand ways.
Lopez: Were you writing the book, in some ways, for adults as much as young boys?
Ficocelli: Every children’s book I have ever written is written with the adult parent or teacher in mind that will share the book with the child. Especially today, adult Catholics need to be educated starting with the most basic tenets of the Faith.
Lopez: I thought sentences like "Maybe the idea was suggested to them by someone else" might be aimed almost directly at adults – parents, Godparents, priests, religion teachers … ? Am I reading too much into your children’s book?
Ficocelli: Not at all. God speaks to us through many ways -- homilies, songs, spiritual readings, and quite often, through the words of others. Many priests tell me they were invited to consider priesthood by someone they knew. That is something all Catholic adults should think about and act upon.
Lopez: Do boys need to know about celibacy as early as they may be reading your book?
Ficocelli: I think it’s important to understand the promises a man makes when he becomes a priest. I try to handle the idea of celibacy simply and delicately by describing it as promising not to get married and have children so that the priest can fully serve his people with undivided attention. I think that’s all the information needed at this level.
Lopez: Not only are you writing a positive book encouraging boys to consider the priesthood normal, you talk about mothers and fathers and all kinds of traditional concepts. Are you intentionally trying to push the countercultural envelope?
Ficocelli: At one time in American (and European) history, the priesthood was seen as a "step up" in social status and dignity. While this attitude still exists in third-world countries, industrialized nations over the years have placed greater emphasis on materialism, consumerism, and individualism than on the notion of serving others. Many parents today are reluctant to encourage religious vocations among their children. A part of this I think has to do with Catholics becoming lukewarm about their faith and no longer invested in it. With smaller families being the norm, many parents don’t want to see their only son making such a sacrifice and ending the family lineage. However, with greater education through radio and television on the truths of the Catholic faith, more and more parents are returning to the Church and its traditions, and I predict this, too, will have a positive impact on vocations over the long term. (On a side note, I am always trying to push the countercultural envelope!)
Lopez: Service seems to be a big theme in your book. Is that by design?
Ficocelli: Service is a big theme in priesthood (and for that matter, in Christianity), by God’s design.
Lopez: As does the concept of being called by God. How do you explain that to a child who maybe can’t even follow your explicit instructions!
Ficocelli: In my 10 years of writing and speaking to children, I find young people surprisingly able to process and accept many concepts that cause the rest of us to stumble. Regarding the idea of a calling, I try to show the different ways it might happen: through prayer, while doing a kind act, in conversation with another person, or actually felt in one’s heart. This is a personal and mysterious process, but I hope at the very least it will inspire conversation between the child and his parent.
Lopez: "A priest is still a man … So he goes to Confession to be strengthened, just like this people. He tries to be the best person he can be. He prays daily for himself, and for you!" Was that crucial to include?
Ficocelli: It was vital for me to establish throughout the book that priests are human beings, people like the rest of us (although chosen for a special role). When I do presentations on Confession for children, I find they are always surprised to hear that priests go to Confession, too, and that their faith is strengthened when they see the faithful struggling to overcome spiritual obstacles. I think it helps take some of the anxiety out of this sacrament for those preparing for it for the first time.
Lopez: Are we grateful enough to our priests?
Ficocelli: While some Catholics are, I would say the majority are not grateful enough. But I think this stems from many Catholics not understanding the amazing power, protection, and necessity of the sacraments priests make possible for us -- particularly Eucharist and Confession. Priests need our prayer, love, and support today more than ever.
Lopez: Are you comfortable with your children being around priests?
Ficocelli: In the age we live in, I as a parent always have to have a watchful eye with every adult my children might encounter, be it a priest, teacher, coach, neighbor, relative, or even a scout leader. We simply cannot be too careful in this area. I am grateful for the concerned efforts made by the Church that require adults who interact with children at the parish or parish school to be fingerprinted and go through an educational process to help recognize warning signs that could indicate potential dangers for our children. In my personal experience, every priest I have encountered has been holy, dedicated, and trustworthy.
Lopez: What would you say to a son who might feel called to the priesthood?
Ficocelli: We have four children, and they are all boys. What we have always told them is to pray daily to discern where God is leading them, whether it is to the married life, the single life, or the priesthood. We encourage them to be open to any of these vocations and try to impress on them that they will only be totally fulfilled and at peace when they are following God’s plan for their lives, not their own. As long as they keep God at the center, they will be on the right path. If any (or all) of our sons feel called to the priesthood, we would support them 100 percent.
Lopez: How about a girl who feels called to religious life? Do girls even know sisters today?
Ficocelli: If we had a daughter, we would be equally encouraging. To answer the second part of your question, I think there is even less of an awareness of and appreciation for sisters today because so many of them are no longer identifiable by their clothing (although that is changing, too.) This is why I’ve written "Where Do Sisters Come From?" (based on surveys from sisters) that will be published if this first book does well.
Lopez: What is Bezalel Books and how did you hook up with them?
Ficocelli: Bezalel Books is a small Catholic publisher based in Michigan that has produced a number of delightful and important books. I had been aware of them for some time, but I only thought they did self-publishing, and I was not in the financial position to self-publish my books. When I found out they did standard publishing as well, I submitted the manuscripts and found they enthusiastically shared my vision of restoring dignity to the priesthood and encouraging vocations.
Lopez: You’ve written books for adults. Do you prefer adults or children?
Ficocelli: One of my first publishers cautioned me about writing for both children and adults -- that I might be more successful if I created a niche for myself. But my writing is a ministry, and my ultimate editor is God, and I follow his promptings for each project. I find I can easily switch from writing for young children to teenagers to adults and find it equally challenging and rewarding.
Lopez: You’re a convert. At what age did you start talking to your boys about that? The hows and whys?
Ficocelli: I entered the Church at the age of 23, long before I had any of my children. From their perspective, I have always been Catholic, and a good one at that (they firmly believe I am on my way to sainthood!). But I do make it a point to contrast the secular lifestyle I was raised with to the strong Catholic foundation in our current family. As the boys grow, they can see quite plainly the advantages of being a family of faith as they witness the negative effects that divorce and other family problems are having on their friends. Our goal with our boys is to teach them why we are Catholic, what makes us different from other Christian religions, and why that gives us a unique advantage in navigating through life.
Lopez: How old are old are your boys? What do they teach you about the faith?
Ficocelli: Our boys are 19, 15, 12, and 10. They continually teach me about patience, flexibility, trust, practicing what you preach, and what it means to love.
Lopez: What’s the hardest thing to convey about faith to children?
Ficocelli: I think the hardest thing to convey about faith to our boys is that we don’t always understand God’s ways. Things don’t always turn out the way we would like.
Lopez: The most rewarding?
Ficocelli: But the most rewarding thing to convey to them is that we as parents are not the end-all, be-all. God is ultimately in charge and he has our best interest in mind. All we have to do is be obedient and trusting, discerning and courageous enough to follow where he is leading. When we do that, it is freeing and brings us true joy.