In case anyone takes issue with my sense of humor, I maintain that I at least thought this was funny. But I did learn it from a seminarian, and I have to admit that seminarian-humor can be something of an acquired taste! So here’s the joke:
Six different priests were on retreat together. They were celebrating the Office of Compline (Night Prayer), when suddenly the lights went out. So what did they do?
The Benedictine priest continued on with the liturgy as though nothing had happened, since he had the breviary memorized;
The Franciscan priest assumed the power was cut off because the retreat house was unable to pay its electrical bill, and he rejoiced that they shared his love of evangelical poverty;
The Carmelite priest had a profound mystical insight as he connected the lack of exterior light with his own interior experience of darkness;
The Dominican and the Jesuit priests got into a heated debate about the theological implications of the lights going out…
…And the diocesan priest went downstairs and changed the fuse!
Obviously, part of what makes this a joke is its play on stereotypes. I think all the descriptions of the religious priests are fairly self-explanatory. But even though most people who “get” this joke laugh right away when they hear about the diocesan priest in the punch line, it takes some thought to articulate exactly why it makes sense.
I think we can assume that all of the religious priests at our fictional retreat house would have thought to change the blown fuse eventually, once they had completed their respective prayers/reflections/theological discussions. So the fact that the diocesan priest only changes the fuse, and does so right away, alludes to his focus on the essentials.
In general, the vocation of a religious priest is thought of primarily as the commitment to a community and a specific style of spirituality and way of life. For religious priests, the priesthood itself is a secondary (though very important) facet of their vocation—a sort of “call within a call.” Even in specifically clerical orders like the Jesuits, men are only ordained after they have made their solemn or final profession.
In contrast, the vocation of diocesan priests consists solely in their participation in the ministerial priesthood of Christ through the sacrament of Holy Orders, grounded within the context of service to a particular diocese. But the simplicity of their spirituality does not denote a lack, as is commonly thought. Rather, it indicates a certain universality, as the priesthood is not defined by any one culture or historical period; as well as a more intense, “streamlined” focus on the awesome mystery of their Ordination. (For more information on the diocesan priesthood, the Vocation Office of the New York Archdiocese has an excellent website, “NYPriest.com.”)
Consecrated virginity in the world is of course very different form the diocesan priesthood, since consecration is not the sacrament of Holy Orders and consecrated virgins aren’t part of the hierarchy. Yet in many ways, the spirituality of a diocesan priest and the spirituality of a consecrated virgin in the world are analogous.
Similar to a diocesan priest, in not taking on the spiritual traditions and way of life of a specific religious community, a consecrated virgin is free to devote more attention to the “core” of her vocation as a consecrated woman: the call to be a spouse of Christ. (Interestingly, where the priesthood is the only vocation in the Church open only to men, solemn consecration to a life of virginity is the one vocation reserved exclusively to women.)
In my own discernment, I have often been asked by diocesan priests, “Why can’t you just become a nun?” I found that the best response was to ask (respectfully) in turn, “Father, why didn’t you become a religious?” More often then not, Father would give an answer along the lines of, “Well, I don’t know. I guess didn’t feel called to that. I just wanted to be a priest.” Usually, this was all it took for my point to be understood!