Eyes on Jesus

Many years ago, I used to pick up some extra cash by doing short interviews with priests, asking for their stories about how they heard the call to enter the seminary.

This was maybe 10 years after the first news of the sex abuse scandal broke, which meant that these men were in elementary school when they first started hearing headlines about predatory priests and widespread coverups.

I am not sure how it hit all over the country, but we lived just a short jaunt down the highway from the absolute epicenter of this earthquake, and from the endless aftershocks as more and more news was revealed of how the bishops hid and lied and dissembled and suppressed the truth.

The horror and misery and shame and shock and rage of those first years is something I will never forget. I thought I knew that the Church was a human institution as well as divine, but I was not prepared for just how human it was. Just how ready some humans are to say the words of heaven, while building up hell.

So, that was the atmosphere. Those were the clouds that lay low and heavy on the ground around the words “Catholic Church.” This was what would come to mind first, and maybe only, when you thought about Catholic priests.

The job I had, interviewing priests, wasn’t the kind of job where I was supposed to ask about sex abuse, but it came up anyway, because how could it not? Many of these men told me that their mothers, in particular, were terrified about how they would be treated.

Not so long ago, being a priest in the community meant getting a certain amount of respect and deference. Suddenly, understandably, it was just the opposite. People automatically viewed priests with suspicion or even disgust. They treated them as if they were all molesters, or at very least as if they condoned and were comfortable with molestation.

And you can understand why. Listen, you can look up statistics and show that pediatricians and public school teachers and gymnastics coaches are equally or more likely to be molesters than Catholic priests. But show me the gymnastics coach who claims to act in persona Christi. The proportion of abusive priests shouldn’t be comparable to the proportion of abusers in the general population; it should be zero, throughout all of history, forever. And it’s not.

It’s not fair to individual innocent priests to be treated with contempt. But the Church as a whole has more than earned it.

So imagine being a young man at this time, and knowing that this is how people think. Imagine growing up while this is the norm, and still hearing that call to the priesthood, and still answering it. I think about this all the time, because it’s surely something that comes up for priests all the time. Any time a priest says anything in public online, you know that at least one person is going to make a pedophile comment. It doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. And still, they answer the call.

Most people don’t meet priests in person very often, and it’s only online that they make any contact. There is an exception that I think about a lot: On the feast of Corpus Christi, we make a procession out through the streets of our small city. We live in one of the two least religious states in the country, and it’s pretty rare to see any kind of religious expression in public, except for maybe the vaguest kind of nods toward crystals and nature fairies.

You certainly don’t see embroidered vestments outdoors every day, and you don’t hear a Salve Regina in the open air. But there went the monstrance, under its satin canopy, squeezing its way down the sidewalk in the midday sun. Shining.

While I tried to focus on the rosary we were praying as we walked, it was hard not to take a peek and see what effect our procession was having on people, as they tucked their feet under their cafe tables to let us pass. You could see they were wondering: Do I keep eating this taco? Do I pause? Most people averted their eyes, and most pretended they didn’t notice us. Many looked uncomfortable. A few looked glad. A few laughed.

My kids felt uncomfortable, and I told them it was okay to feel that way. It’s weird for the people on the streets to meet this way, and it’s weird for us. But I told them not to worry too much about feeling weird, because Jesus was at our head, and that is who we were following. That’s the only part that matters.

Sometimes it feels like we are following him up out of hell. Sometimes it’s a hell other people have made; sometimes it’s a hell we have built ourselves.

I know it’s easy to look back and pine for the days we see in old photographs, when even the old man sweeping the streets knew enough to stop and fall to his knees when the blessed sacrament went passing by. And now we’re in such disarray that half the Catholics I know can barely bring themselves to go inside a church building, because the hidden sickness is finally out in the open, and it’s too much to bear.

But one thing has not changed. Jesus is still calling men, and men are still answering. They are still following him, knowing how normalized it has become for people to treat them with contempt. Many of them are answering the call because of this, because they see the carnage and they want to accept the honor of helping us find a way out of it.

A priest was once giving me some spiritual direction. We met several times, and although we talked for hours, the only thing he said that I clearly remember is, “Eyes on Jesus. Eyes on Jesus.” What else is there to say? Where else is there to look? Who is else there to follow? Where else is there to go? You find out where Jesus is, and you go that way. 

Jesus is still calling, not only priests, but everyone. Right now. Not only on his special feast day, but every day that starts with the sun rising. Calling and shining. Come up out of hell.

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Photo of Corpus Christi procession by John Ragai via Flickr (Creative Commons)

A version of this essay was first published in The Catholic Weekly in November of 2022.

Discerning out: What happens when a Catholic leaves seminary or religious life?

Joe Heschmeyer was once so sure of his vocation to the priesthood that he forgot he was supposed to be discerning it.

Everyone around him thought he should be a priest. His mother, he discovered later, had offered him to the Lord as an infant the way Hannah did in the Old Testament. Mr. Heschmeyer wrote about his vocation frequently on his blog Shameless Popery, speaking of his ordination as if it were inevitable. Things were going so well, he lost track of the idea that he was in seminary to test and explore his vocation.

“Pretty soon after I entered [in 2011], I stopped asking God if this was what he wanted. I felt like the question had already been answered. My grades were good; I was well esteemed; everything internal to the seminary felt successful. That felt like enough validation. I forgot to ask, ‘Are we still on the same page?’” Mr. Heschmeyer said.

It was not until friends and family had already bought airplane tickets and reserved hotel rooms for his ordination to the diaconate that he began to feel some doubt. He tried to assign his misgivings to “last-minute jitters,” but a black cloud of unease hung over his head.

He described riding on a bus on the way back from a retreat.

“The archbishop has an open seat next to him. A sort of rotating spot, where you can share whatever’s on your heart. It’s usually pretty short, out of respect—a 10-minute thing. I was there for half an hour, pouring out all these difficulties,” he said. The archbishop immediately reassured him that if he had any doubts, he should take more time before making a final commitment.

“It was a tremendous load that had been lifted off my shoulders. It was an illuminating and painful experience. I realized I was happy I wasn’t getting ordained. It wasn’t what I wanted to feel, or expected to feel,” Mr. Heschmeyer said.

He decided to take time off and then consider rejoining—a plan which, according to the Rev. Matt Mason, the vocations director for the diocese of Manchester, N.H., is not uncommon. But nine days into a 10-day retreat, Heschmeyer knew for sure he was not meant to be a priest after all.

Leaving the seminary or religious life can feel like freedom followed by disorientation, or like rejection followed by clarity. For many, the experience eventually bears fruits of self-knowledge and a more profound relationship with God. But first comes suffering.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine. This article is also in the July print edition. 

Lent Movie Review Vol. 3: THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS

See previous installations of our Friday Night Lent Film Party series: I CONFESS and THE ROBE

Everyone disliked The Robe pretty thoroughly and we wanted something very different, so we went with The Trouble With Angels (1966). No one in our family had seen this one before. We streamed it through Amazon for $3.99. Warning, this post will contain a spoiler.

 

The plot: Mary, a born leader and troublemaker (Hayley Mills), and Rachel, a willing follower (June Harding), are high school girls deposited at St. Francis Academy for Girls, where they immediately begin to hatch “scathingly brilliant ideas” for how to subvert the peace and stability of the school. The imperturbable Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell) is their particular nemesis whose patience is put to the test more and more.

The story is an episodic series of pranks and escapades, but it is gradually revealed that the various teaching nuns aren’t just all quirky in their own ways, but many of them have poignant, sometimes tragic pasts that led them to the convent. This is not lost on Mary, even as she continues to torment them and flout their rules. Eventually, Mary and Rachel’s mischief goes too far; but when their guardians are called in for an expulsion interview, Mother Superior discovers that Mary, too, has her reasons for being the way she is, and she has mercy on her (and sees promise in her). At the end, when the girls are graduating, Mother Superior announces that two girls will be joining the convent as novices, and one of them is Mary. Rachel is furious and feels betrayed, but Mary is at peace with her decision, and it’s clear that she can be who she is but may still have a true vocation. 

So, this is a very 1966 movie. It’s very mannered, and some stretches are tedious, and the some of the sight gags are painfully dated. There are some uncomfortable moments where the camera lingers on young girls’ thighs and bottoms for laughs. The accents are a mess, and it’s unclear exactly where the school is. There’s not a scrap of subtlety in sight.

At the same time, the movie doesn’t steal any bases. All the elements are there for the story of Mary’s gradual maturation, and Mother Superior’s growing affection, to make sense and feel real (and it is, in fact, based on a memoir, Life with Mother Superior by Jane Trahey). Haley Mills is a much better actor than I realized, and there were a few truly moving moments, as well as several funny ones. I liked that it showed true friendship between the nuns, as well. I would have liked it better if they cut about twenty minutes out, but I did like it.

Overall, recommended. The animated opening and closing credits are a lot of fun, too.

Next up: I don’t know! I’ll probably push for Babette’s Feast.  The kids somehow manage to read subtitles when they’re watching their Dragonballs, so they can’t beg off on those grounds.

Some of us also re-watched Hail, Caesar, which I appreciated even more after having seen The Robe. I love Hail Caesar so much. The Cohen brothers are upfront about not knowing what to do about God (“Divine presence to be shot,” it says on the screen of the religious epic they’re filming, to mark the place where they’ll add in God later), but it’s less nihilistic and less yearning, overall, and very sweet and very funny. Everyone is just doing their best, according to their very varied abilities. Recommended all to pieces, probably for ages 10 and up.

 

 

Do we ask priests for things only they can offer?

A priest who’s too busy to focus on the sacraments is either a priest who’s squandering his vocation, or a priest whose vocation is being squandered.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image by kisistvan77 via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

Have you ever thought of being a priest? An interview with Fr. Alan Tremblay

I’ve been interviewing pastors around the state for Parable, the magazine of the Diocese of Manchester, for a series called “Have You Ever Thought of Being a Priest?” This article was originally published in Parable. It is reprinted here in extended form.

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Fr. Alan Tremblay grew up in the small, heavily French Canadian town of Biddeford, ME, the third of four children. His family was Catholic, but no one ever talked to him about becoming a priest, and so he never even considered it until he was 19 or 20 years old. Now at 41, six years after his ordination, he’s the pastor of the Parish of the Holy Spirit and Mary, Queen of Peace, which includes churches in Keene, Troy, Winchester, and Hinsdale.

In his rare free time, Fr. Alan likes to take in a baseball game, or, true to his rural upbringing, he will occasionally go hiking, kayaking or skiing. He recently travelled to Northern Quebec to go fly fishing for brook trout with his father and nephew, and he loves to have dinner or a cookout with family or friends. I asked him:

What would be your ideal meal?

I love lamb and lobster. Lamb is definitely a favorite when it’s done well. I cook. I do Blue Apron. I just finished cooking and eating chicken tandoori with cucumber yogurt, with potatoes with poblano peppers.

Who was your hero, when you were growing up?

John Paul II and Mother Teresa were huge in my life when they were alive. I had comic books of both of them. I miss them. I look back with fondness and wish they were still around.

What attracted you to them?

It was their visibility. You could see them, hear them, watch them, get a sense of their holiness. That’s why I fell in love with them. It’s not more deep than that.

When did you first hear the call to become a priest? How did you get from there to here?

I was 19 or 20, and had never thought about it before then. I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 18. I struggled through high school, not academically but motivationally. I didn’t want to be there. I was kind of shy, and wanted to get out. College was not something hot on my list right after high school.

I moved in with my best friend, and that lifestyle was leaving me not just unsatisfied, but kind of unhappy. I never questioned the Church, but I was not as faithful as I wanted to be. This contributed to depression and unhappiness and unease with my place in life.

I was watching Mother Angelica one night, and she was talking about how I was feeling. She said, “It sound like you have to go to confession!”  So I made an appointment with the parish priest. He was talking about the Life In the Spirit seminar. I had never heard of it. It was charismatic, which took some getting used to. But I was open to it. I went through the seminar, and by the end I kept hearing this question in my mind and heart: “Do you think you’re supposed to be a priest?”

It wasn’t earth-shattering; it was just a question, like Elijah and the whisper. I put it away for a while. I went to college, was in a relationship for a while. I started working, and found myself working at Catholic Medical Center [in Manchester, NH]. By then it was seven years later, and the question was still there.

I was loving my faith and practicing, wanting to serve God. The question was stronger than ever, and I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I applied in April, went to seminary in August. Doors flew open once I turned and looked at it seriously.

How did people respond when you told them you were entering the seminary?

It’s a funny story: I hid it from my coworkers. I was relatively new there, and it would have meant leaving. I went through months without knowing if was accepted [to the seminary] yet. Everyone thought I was looking for a new job or had an illness, because I kept missing work to do interviews.

Then there was a computer glitch to print out my bio for the diocese, and I came back to work, and it had printed while I was away. My coworkers read it and found out. They were floored. It was foreign to them, but they were supportive.

 How about your family?

My mother’s old school French Canadian. She would never have asked that of God. She couldn’t imagine something like that happening. It was overwhelming in a good way.

Did anyone respond negatively?

Only a couple of people, both Catholic, both dissenters. One was a woman I worked with who had a crush on me. She said, “What a waste.” That made me angry. The other one was an older woman who had a chip on her shoulder. She said, “Why would you want to do that?” This was post-2005.

What was the most challenging thing you faced as a priest?

Probably something that isn’t unique to the priesthood: Self doubt and insecurity. Am I up to the task? What will people think? These are temptations you have to face. There’s strength and grace that comes through walking through that. Each time, it’s like the cross, and then there’s a resurrection, life after death. It gives me strength to pray through those interior places, when I have to look to God for help.

What is the most rewarding? What’s your favorite part of being a priest?

When someone who has been hungry or longed for something for a long time breaks open and you’re there to offer that to them, or walk with them through it. People melting, and finally receiving. It’s always happening in one form or another. You walk through it with lots of people, counsel them, direct them. I’m always walking with someone, always looking for it.

When’s the last time something about the priesthood really surprised you?

Every day. People are predictable and surprising at the same time. About my priesthood: I’m noting, especially within the last couple of years, losing myself in it more and more, and finding myself. It’s so who I am, but there’s still so much to discover. It’s a mystery. The closer we get to Christ, the greater the awareness of that mystery.

What advice do you have for those contemplating the priesthood today? 

Talk to people about it. Find someone you trust, and talk about it. Because it seems so strange and foreign, we don’t necessarily see ourselves that way. There’s the obvious answers, like prayer, but I think I went through it alone a lot; and no on in my life, no priest, no family member, no one ever approached me and told me they thought I should do this. It wasn’t until I came forward.

What advice do you have for their family and friends?

It’s about being supportive without expectations. Let the person figure it out on their own, but let them know you’re there with them.

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This article was originally published in Parable, the magazine of the Diocese of Manchester. It is reprinted here in extended form.

 

We want more priests. Have we tried asking?

The one thing all these priests had in common: Someone had made the idea of being a priest seem reasonable. Someone had said, “Have you ever considered being a priest?” or “Wow, you sure look like you want to be a priest!” or “Face it. You’re gonna be a priest.” Someone had asked the question.

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly.

Image by U.S. Air Force photo/ Airman 1st Class Ashley Tank via Mountain Home Air Force Base

Is Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger worthy of the priesthood?

The great Elizabeth Scalia points out that prophets, like seminarians, tend to have something in common: they are mighty reluctant to take the job that heaven foists on them.  They may certainly feel called, but they do not feel worthy — and they do not expect to slither comfortably into their vocations.

We start with our unworthiness, and we proceed to God’s mercy. That is the only path. There is no other path.

Read the rest at the Register.