As I approached the end of the fourth grade at Our Lady of Fatima grade school in Seattle, I looked forward to becoming an altar boy. I looked up to them. Those older boys got to wear the white albs, stand up near the priest, and be in front of the entire church. They looked somehow more dignified (as they served), as if they knew what they were doing was not something to take lightly.
After I had completed “basic training,” I began to serve Mass, and as I served I began to like it more and more. Towards the end of Mass, I would hold the book for old Father Lane or Father Ryan (they seemed old at the time) and follow their footsteps down the stairs to bow in front of the altar. It was then that I first had an inkling that I might want to follow their footsteps in another way—by being a priest. Yet as I was to discover, such intentions are not easily realized for the orthodox.
When I got older and entered college, I began to make inquiries. Was the priesthood where God called me? If so, as a secular priest or a religious? A couple months into my junior year, I called the vocations director of the Redemptorists. He asked me a few introductory questions, such as what was important in my spiritual life and in my understanding of the Church. I replied that obedience to the Church’s teachings was important to me, particularly those teachings most often disputed—its sexual teachings. I told him that Mary, the Mother of God, was important to me, and that her absence was a weakness in the modern American Church. I told him that the supernatural was important and, by and large, also underemphasized in the American Church. After listening quietly to all I had said, the Redemptorist exclaimed with surprise (and maybe a bit of disdain), “You’re practically another Cardinal Ratzinger.” He added that many, (in fact, most) of the young men he speaks with feel the same way as I do—they’re orthodox.
Next, I attended a Jesuit “information night” at Boston College. The gathering was an informal get-together to explore the possibility of life in the Society of Jesus. I walked into the meeting room and saw a surprising number of young men, perhaps 20 of them. Some I had seen at daily Mass, others were active in working with the chaplaincy, and still others work on the Catholic journal at Boston College, The Observer. So far, so good. But then I looked at the Jesuits present. There were probably about six or seven of them, none of whom wore clerical garb. I suppose they were trying to put us at ease, but I don’t imagine policemen with hopes of recruiting new officers would come to a law enforcement information night in their civvies. There was, however, one priest wearing a Roman collar. He was an old-timer with grey hair and a wise air about him. I figured, “This guy probably thinks along my lines.”
We chit-chatted, and in the course of the conversation he discovered that I wrote for The Observer. The old priest launched an extended and bitter criticism of the paper as “conservative” and “too right-wing.” I asked him when he had last read the paper, and it turned out that he hadn’t read it in over five years. So I tried to fill him in on what had changed about the paper since he had last read it. It is a Catholic paper now, I explained, not merely a conservative one. For instance, I told him, an article recently appeared in The Observer on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He responded that such an article was “useless” because “everyone knows that.” Apparently, the good father does not know the present state of catechesis.
In any case, I went on in an effort to find common ground. “Last month our entire issue was devoted to social justice.”
“Whose social justice?” he retorted.
“Well, we featured an article about the pope’s encyclical On Social Concern. So, I guess I’d say the pope’s social justice.”
With a roll of his eyes, he grinned, “Well,… there you have it.”
I decided to drop the issue, but he pressed on. In fact, he gave me an extensive instruction on the meaning of orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is a wide thing, he told me; one doesn’t need to obey all the teachings of the Church. One can go astray quite a bit without being a heretic. His attitude towards obedience and orthodoxy was a little like my attitude towards sin when I was younger. In one of my first confessions, I asked a priest, “How much can I get away with, without committing a mortal sin?” This Jesuit likewise exhibited a similar minimalism. Soon (but not soon enough), I was able to sneak away from him to a quiet corner where I intended to sit and watch an up-coming movie about Jesuits. Before I reached my seat, however, another Jesuit chastised me for exposing witch-craft rituals performed by feminists in the Women’s Resource Center because my article “didn’t contribute to dialogue on campus.” Finally, I made it to my seat.
The movie was upbeat, but disappointing. The sacramental character of the priesthood was swept under the rug of activism and social justice. The life of the Jesuits was sold as a way to self-fulfillment, not as a way of self-denial in imitation of Christ. I remember thinking, “I can probably be a lot more self-fulfilled without vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Why bother being a Jesuit?”
Things went from bad to worse when I inquired about being a priest for my home archdiocese of Seattle. I was already a bit suspicious when a friend of mine told me of his own inquiry. After teaching more than 15 years in a local Catholic high school, he was advised by the archdiocese to spend “a year or two in service of others.” If they didn’t want him, I wondered why they would want me. I made an appointment, and the day of my interview finally came. I arrived at the chancery and waited in the lobby to be admitted. Many back copies of the National Catholic Reporter lay strewn on the table in front of me.
Behind me was a huge banner which, barring a few references to God, could have been used at a rally for the Green Party. Eventually, the secretary called me into the office at the end of the hall. There I was greeted by the vocations director—a young, pleasant-looking woman. I was a bit surprised that they would have a woman in charge of vocation awareness, but then again there are other vocations besides priestly ones. A picture of Archbishop Hunthausen hung on the wall, but I don’t remember seeing a picture of John Paul.
Our conversation began with a few questions about my background. She then inquired into my participation in volunteer work. I replied that I had been very active in pro-life activities on campus and had helped publish a Catholic newspaper. She didn’t seem terribly impressed. “Have you done any work in soup kitchens or with the homeless?” she asked. I said no; she frowned. I guess not all volunteer work carries the same weight in Seattle.
She went on to ask me why I wanted to be a priest. I told her that I wanted to say Mass and hear people’s confessions. “Well,” she began, “You do realize that there are a great deal of administrative duties involved in the priesthood.” I could only wonder: if I had said that I wanted to be a priest to be an administrator, would she have said, “You know the priesthood has many sacramental duties?” She also made me aware of a seemingly endless series of tests which I would have to undergo to become a priest—psychological, psychosexual, physiological, ad infinitum. It wasn’t sounding like much fun. In fact, it sounded as if St. Peter himself would have had difficulty passing all of them (not to mention St. Augustine).
Our formal conversation wound down, and we began to close with light conversation. I asked her innocently, “There seems to be quite a problem in this diocese and elsewhere with a shortage of priests. Do you see any shifts? Is there going to be an improvement in the situation?” She grew quite serious. With a thinly veiled tone of disgust, she retorted, “As long as Rome demands a celibate male, I see no end in sight.”
Although that vocation director saw no end in sight to the problem of the shortage of priests, I am a little more optimistic. We will have priests, and they will be good priests. Young men entering the seminary today are orthodox. Orders and dioceses with strong allegiance to papal teachings, such as the Legionaries of Christ and Opus Dei’s Society of the Holy Cross, are growing. The dissenters are waning because dissent by its very nature is sterile and finds its identity in negation—what is not orthodox. Nevertheless, it is disheartening that so many young men must undergo experiences such as I have had in order to find the place in which they are called to serve God. We can only pray that these young men do not give up the search altogether.