Few Catholic boys grow up to be men of the cloth without drawing inspiration from their parish priests and receiving the blessing of their mothers.
Both halves of that equation have to work or the church suffers.
"When you talk about how young men enter the priesthood, you are talking about the future of the church," said Father Donald B. Cozzens, former vicar for clergy in the Diocese of Cleveland and then rector of a graduate seminary in Ohio. "At some point, it becomes terribly important what Catholic parents -- especially mothers -- think of their priests."
Find a young priest and you will almost always find a find a mother who wanted him to be a priest, like the priests she has known and trusted.
That's how it's supposed to work. Several decades worth of sex scandals involving clergy and children -- usually teen-aged boys -- have not helped. But there are other tensions, as well. In his influential 2000 book, "The Changing Face of the Priesthood," Cozzens pleads for frank talk about other painful issues, as well as the sexual abuse of young males.
Priests face skyrocketing demands on their time as church membership rises and the number of priests declines. Priests live and work under the microscope, yet they also report feeling isolated from their flocks and from each other. Lately, Cozzens has been hearing about priests who -- lashed by scandal and suspicion -- have stopped wearing clerical clothing while not "at work." The stares and whispers are too painful.
And there is another sexual secret that is making these issues harder to discuss, he said. In his book's most quoted chapter, Cozzens cites reports claiming 50 percent of U.S. Catholic priests are gay, with the numbers higher among those under 40 years of age. This "gay subculture" grew in the past three decades, as 20,000 or more priests left their altars to get married.
Cozzens is not opposed to celibate gays being ordained and he thinks most priests -- gay and straight -- are serving the church faithfully and keeping their vows. Nevertheless, he is convinced this gay subculture is affecting who is becoming a priest and who is not. Why is this?
In previous generations it was homosexuals who often felt alone and out of place in Catholic seminaries, living in a shadow culture. Today, discreet networks of gay priests thrive in seminaries and dioceses from coast to coast, said Cozzens. It's common for heterosexuals to feel confused, misunderstood and left out. Many question their calling and flee.
Meanwhile, he said, it's "likely that gay priests will be encouraging, consciously or unconsciously, more homosexually oriented men than straight men to consider a vocation to the priesthood. Conversely, homosexually oriented men considering a priestly vocation will be especially drawn to a parish priest who happens to be gay."
Cozzens said the "likelihood exists that like will be drawn to like." Once again, he said he does not believe gay priests are more likely to break celibacy vows than are straight priests.
It's also past time, he said, for Catholic leaders to start talking about how the changing face of the priesthood is affecting relationships between priests and parents. It would help to stop and consider a mother's point of view.
"Perceptive mothers may sense that something is different about the pastor ... who happens to be gay," Cozzens noted. "They may indeed like and respect the priest, but find they are not comfortable in encouraging their son to consider the priesthood."
This attitude shift is especially significant when combined with a major statistical change in Catholic life. In the past, when large families were the norm, it was a matter of pride to have a son enter religious life. But what if most Catholic families contain only one son?
"When it has become normal to have two children or less, you are not going to find many parents who are encouraging a son -- especially an only son -- to become a priest," said Cozzens. "They want him to get married, to have grandchildren and carry on the family name. ...
"So there are fewer sons and there are more mothers who are asking hard questions."