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This week I gave a lecture on fallacies, one of which is the Fallacy of Ignorance.  My example for this fallacy is “I see no proof of God, therefore there is no God.”  Unsurprisingly, some students wince and I make it clear that I’m merely giving an example of false logic, and I offer what they as the opposition might argue as a response:  faith is a commitment made without concrete evidence, so proof is irrelevant, or as some believers might say, the evidence of God is found in our very existence.  I also make it clear these are illustrations not divine instructions and that I’m not proffering one side or the other.  Preaching the belief or disbelief in God is not my job as an English professor.

The lecture seems always to linger with me days after, in particular the example I give for the Fallacy of Ignorance.  It lingers because my relationship with God, my thoughts about organised religion, and my feelings about the priesthood are unresolved.  Perhaps there is some truth, after all, to the saying, “Once a priest, always a priest.”

At some point in a Catholic boy’s life, he thinks about the priesthood.  I began to consider early in my boyhood the mystery and wonder of the priesthood, and discerning a vocation has never truly ended for me.  I was an altar boy, I rang church bells for mass, helped with holy communion, and did a lot of kneeling.  When I moved to Washington, DC the first thing I sought was a Catholic community, which I found at Saint Matthew’s Cathedral on Rhode Island and Connecticut Avenue in Dupont Circle.  There, I joined the Young Adults group, and the first person that welcomed me, a man named Chris, told me he could tell I was discerning.  Like attracts like, I suppose, because he soon gave up his career as an engineer to take holy orders as a contemplative monk.  At St. Matt’s, I also continued as an acolyte, serving mass with Monsignor Ronald Jameson.  I wore an alb and was often taken for a priest, which is a real compliment in ways too personal to describe.

I first saw the statement “Once a Priest, Always a Priest” on a banner in a school gym where dinner would be celebrated after new priests had been ordained.  Out of respect for the order, I won’t name them, but I will say I spent a lot of time with these men in black cassocks.  They intrigued me.  Many of them were my age, early to mid 20s, and they did a lot of studying, especially in foreign language; they also played a lot of sports, and recited morning and evening prayer together.  I volunteered to help clean and decorate the gym with some of the brothers and some of the sisters from their women’s order.  It was a nun, standing on a ladder in a long gray and blue habit, tacking up one side of the banner, that called to me, “Father, does the sign look OK?”  I was pleasantly startled by her calling me Father, paying little attention to the sign, that I answered a quick and clumsy yes.

I was 23, perhaps the right age to start discerning a vocation.  For Catholics, a vocation, a calling, isn’t just for holy orders.  Each one of us has a vocation.  Some have a vocation to married life, some have a vocation to parenthood, to lay ministry, to teaching, and so on.  Motivational speakers or life coaches might call a vocation that urge you feel the moment you wake up.  If all you can think of when you wake up is writing, then you’re a writer.  If all you can think of when you wake up is singing, then you’re a singer, a dancer, a counsellor, a doctor, etc.  Whatever that unyielding pressure in your gut tells you to be, that’s who you are, that’s your vocation.

Two weekends ago my dear friend Lindsay was married in a church wedding at St. Aloysius Gonzaga on Capitol Hill.  Her vocation is wifehood and perhaps even motherhood, and she accepted her vocation through the sacrament of marriage.  Witnessing someone special to me surrender her life to the calling of God to be partnered with a husband was truly beautiful.

Lindsay and I used to joke about the prayer to St. Anne, the mother of Mary.  It goes, “St. Anne, St. Anne, find me a man.”  And for the more urgent among us, add, “as fast as you can!”  Well, tidings and thanksgiving to St. Anne for finding Lindsay a good and decent man.

This is where my story gets bumpy.  I’m openly gay, have been since I was 16 and I’m sure it was detectable to my family long before that age.  The order didn’t mind that.  Religious Orders make their own rules and guidelines for accepting novitiates and what was important to them was to know them on a personal level, have meals and say prayers with them, spend time with them at their house in DC and at their retreat house in upstate New York.  I did all of these.

At the house in New York, I was instructed with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  The basic assignment was private reading, individual prayer, and solitary contemplation.  The exercises made all that alone time painful, as St. Ignatius repeatedly chastises the reader by calling him a serpent, stating that sin is his natural disposition, and that he should praise God for being so forgiving of a creature so vile.  In a real way, the exercises were meant to strip me of my arrogance, vanity, or pride, and make me humble at the feet of God, kind of like boot camp.

I took notes and after finishing the exercises, I met with Father Moreno, the head of the house (not the order).  I pulled excerpts from the text, asked questions, and challenged answers.  After all, I was embarking on a life-changing decision and needed assurance.  Father Moreno said, “You think too much.  You ask too many questions.  You have to give up all your ideas and surrender….” And that’s when I took a moment,  bowed my head, and asked to be driven to the train station.  In the dark of night, I rode the train from New York back to DC, feeling a sense of despair the entire way.

For weeks thereafter, Father Moreno reached out.  He called many times; he wanted me to join and I thought I did too, but not at the cost of my own thoughts and ideas.  I felt like a soldier, wiped of his own ability to think so he can take orders.  Now the parallel between a soldier taking orders and a priest taking orders seems clear, even sensible.  After all, aren’t priests God’s soldiers?

After that experience, I was determined not to give up.  I asked the rector of St. Matthew’s to become my spiritual director; we met many times and talked and prayed about discerning a vocation to the priesthood.  I went to lunch or dinner with many diocesan priests in Washington, most memorable of all was a long and honest dinner with then Father now Monsignor Ed Filardi.  He was charming, smiled and laughed a lot; his joyful presence inspired me and encouraged my faith.

My meeting with the arch diocese’s vocation’s director turned everything around though.  I told that priest about my trip to New York, my talk with Father Moreno, my decision not to join that particular order, and my interest in diocesan priesthood.  He talked to me about the diocesan life, which comes with a salary and a commitment to serve the arch diocese.  It felt like a job interview.  Then he asked about sex.  I told him I was an out and active homosexual, and in one subtle move he closed his notebook and set it squarely on his lap.  I would need to be celibate for at least three years, he said, before I could be considered for the seminary.  We thanked one another, shook hands, and I left the church.

I became an English teacher shortly thereafter.  I’d wanted to teach English since my junior year in high school.  In one last meeting with my spiritual director, I shared how interpreting literature in a lecture is similar to interpreting the gospel in a homily.  He smiled and in some ways I think he understood my decision not to go further in my exploration of religious life.

I sometimes think back to my boyhood days when I so easily imagined a life of commitment to the Church.  It was so simple then; the mind so easily looked ahead at the promise and peace of the priesthood.  It’s harder to imagine myself as a priest today, because to be gay and Catholic is an oxymoron.  I long for a partner, someday perhaps even children, a home with a fine garden, and the prosaic lifestyle of going to PTA meetings and helping with homework.  And, as a teacher, I feel I’m living my vocation.  Like a priest, as an English teacher, I interpret texts, counsel students, value social responsibility, encourage equality, fairness, and good will toward humanity; I find these lessons in poetry and prose just as I might have found them in the verses and parables of the gospels.

My life is fulfilling and valuable to me.  I’m a teacher who is compassionate with his students and who is respected by his students.  I find inspiration in the poetry of man and I continue to find encouragement in the words of the Son of Man.  Sometimes, though, in quiet solitude, in private contemplation, usually after unexpectedly attending mass, or after giving a lecture on fallacies, I think again about the mystery and wonder of the priesthood, and I remember that banner hanging above a room full of happy, newly ordained priests, ready to live a life of service and spark change in the world:  once a priest, always a priest.

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One thought on “Discerning a Vocation to the Priesthood

  1. Zach, I finally had a chance to read this post, which you told me about last month. It’s incredible. I have often wondered about your long-ago journey towards and away from the priesthood. As one who is barred from such a calling because of my gender (as if the Church could stop it), I appreciate the complexity you describe: we are called to so many vocations, multiply, and find our personal “priesthoods” in myriad places. Most certainly in the classroom, most certainly in our writing, and most certainly in marriage. Toby and I got a book called “Prayers of the Domestic Church” as a wedding gift, and it is inscribed from the giver “For the priest and priestess of the Jacoby Domestic Church.” I’d never thought about “church” or home in that way – but it is our little world, our little garden and table, where we are called to be always priests, ministering to each other and all who cross our threshold. I think you shall have your own domestic church, too, Zach. I hear you’ve already got started on that great garden…

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