A positive message about priestly vocations has come out of a surprising source: The New York Times Magazine, on Easter Sunday no less.
The article by free-lance writer Jennifer Egan explored the state of vocations in the Catholic Church and what it portends for the future. By focusing on seminarians at Mount Saint Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., she offered a bullish portrait of what lies ahead.
Egan had been told by her Times editors simply to do “something” on the Catholic priesthood.
“I thought the seminary would be an interesting environment,” she told the Register. The result was “The Last Counterculture,” a piece that focuses on a group of seminarians who will serve the Church of the 21st century.
The teaser on the cover told much of the story: “No one lives at further remove from consumerist, sexualized, technocratic America than its Catholic priests. And nobody feels the disjunction more acutely than young seminarians.”
Egan, who calls herself an “inactive” Catholic, said she didn't start off to write a pro-Church piece, but felt the approach she took was correct. “I thought the world [of a seminary] is so alien to most people that it was important to bring it to light.”
In her article, Egan reports that what she found at Mount Saint Mary's was an institution “scrupulously adherent to the Magisterium of the Pope.” But “conservative does not mean grim,” she added.
She reported that “a mood of buoyant optimism surges among the men — a sense, accurate or not, that the bad times are over for the priest-hood, and something new and momentous is in the making.”
Father Kevin Rhoades, rector at Mount Saint Mary's, told Egan: “We've had 20 years of a very strong pontificate. I think we're at a new era, and these men represent it.”
The article more than touched on issues confronting seminarians and the Church at the close of the millennium, from the lack of vocations to homosexuality and pedophilia among priests.
Flying in the face of popular assumptions, Egan pointed out: “Despite the high profile of the scandals involving the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, there is no evidence that the incidence … is greater among priests than among clergy of other denominations or the population at large.”
In its anecdotal opening, the Times feature takes the reader to a diner in Maryland, where three Mount Saint Mary's seminarians have stopped for coffee and dessert. At the sight of the seminarians, who are in clerical garb, some people look up, while others deliberately avoid eye contact. The various reactions express the ambivalence that many Americans now feel about religion, especially as personified by a Catholic priest.
The article goes with an in-depth look at the seminarians and how they came to their vocations. For starters, they tend to be older, mostly in their late 20s and 30s, even older.
Brian Bashista, for example, was an architect and had contemplated marrying his girlfriend before answering God's call. His biggest problem was facing the prospect of a life of celibacy, something that initially turned him off.
“I really felt I was called to be a father and husband,” he said. “I thought that was why I was placed on earth.”
Tom Fesen, now a deacon, commuted to work on two buses, the first of which dropped him across the street from a church. He started attending Mass while waiting for his connection. One day, a priest asked him to read at Mass, and Fesen declined. The priest immediately asked, “Well, do you want to become a priest?”
Initially angry, Fesen could not get the question out of his head. It was the beginning of his vocational journey.
Deacon Michael Dobbins had fallen away from the Church and attended a Baptist church. But one day he read a passage from John's Gospel which reported that many of Jesus’disciples, after being told that they must eat the very body of Christ and drink his blood, “returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” He said the words struck him “like a big brick. And I was, like, holy cow — that's me. I cried like a baby.”
Father Rhoades, whom Egan described as “the cheerful rector of Mount Saint Mary's,” said the article revealed that “men entering the seminary today are zealous and excited about their faith and about prayer. They're good, healthy and understanding of the celibacy requirement.”
He added: “The article showed where the Church is going. The article didn't stereotype us. It's a secular newspaper, but they did a fine job.”
Equally enthusiastic was Paulist Father James Lloyd of New York. “For a change, seminarians were not presented as screwballs and wimps,” he said. “I really liked the fact that those seminarians are not bending to the secular agendas.”
Father Lloyd said there is a “fascism among the intellectual left. They have closed minds. When those on the left talk about ‘diversity,’ that does not include an opposing viewpoint. Their minds are closed to the fact that Jesus Christ came to save the people. The Church is not run by polls; it doesn't bend to the times. That never changes.”
Not everyone goes along with Father Lloyd's optimism or enthusiasm.
Sister Maureen Fiedler, a member of the Sisters of Loretto congregation, is co-director of the Quixote Center, a self-described “progressive Catholic organization seeking to encourage reform in the Church.” The group calls for married priests, ordination of women, inclusive language in the liturgy, and a “rethinking” of papal infallibility in matters of faith and morals.
In reading the Times article, Sister Maureen said, she wondered how those seminarians are going to interact with today's parishioners. “Our surveys show today's Catholics are very progressive,” she said. “They want a married clergy and women priests. And, they don't want to hear about contraception.”
She is convinced that the seminarians featured in the article, now very conservative, will change once they begin to serve in a parish. “When they see what the people are thinking, they'll change the way they think,” she said.
Another group that takes a similar stance is Call To Action. Bob McClory, a CTA board member, said he found the article interesting, but biased. “The article is sort of fuzzy in saying this is what priests in general are like,” he said. He cited one of Egan's statement, that the Catholic priesthood “remains becalmed in a zone of otherworldly preoccupations relatively un-buffeted by present day vicissitudes.”
“The statement is nuts,” McClory said. “A good chunk of the Church is scarcely becalmed.” He added that he would have liked to see more opposing viewpoints in the feature.
Father Lloyd counters that the people will follow orthodox teachings, and the Church will experience a new calm when a majority of priests are at peace with the fullness of her doctrine. “If they tell the truth, the people will follow them,” he said. “The spiritual hunger of the people will be fed by those seminarians in the article. I'd like to see their numbers multiplied by a thousand.”
Mount Saint Mary's seminarians know they have a tough road ahead as priests, Egan points out, especially as they work with a laity that is accustomed to a certain amount of dissent and is willing to entertain moral positions contrary to the Church's. She cited a University of Maryland Survey Research Center study that found that two-thirds of American Catholics say that, when their conscience is at odds with the Pope, they should follow their conscience.
Mount Saint Mary's Bashista said his obligation, and that of all seminarians, is to preach and teach the truth in charity and love, and to be patient. Last summer, he preached a homily at a parish in Omaha, Neb. His topic was contraception.
He asked the congregation, “‘What is the nature of marriage? To give oneself.’I didn't use the word ‘contraception’until the end. People came up to me afterward and said, ‘No one ever preaches on that. Thank you.’”
Jim Malerba writes from North Haven, Connecticut.