Jesuit priest's staying power Struggle: The Rev. Frank Ernst's ability to overcome life's dramas has kept him committed to a vocation he began almost four decades ago.

August 28, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Frank Ernst has been a Jesuit priest for nearly 40 years, yet when asked about any dramatic spiritual events in his career he answers softly: "None that I can remember."

Looking back, the 69-year-old product of St. Brigid's parish in Canton thinks that perhaps the whole of his career -- the day-in and day-out effort to fulfill a decision made as a teen-ager -- is quiet spiritual drama in itself.

"There were times when I felt I was at a dead end. Sometimes I think: 'Should I have been a priest?' But it's irreversible at my age," says Ernst, who was ordained in 1957. "I've had periods where things were pretty rough with insecurity, depression and anxiety, but my struggle was always to stay. I wasn't going to join the parade of those leaving religious life.

"It was a sacrifice. You get lonelier as you get older; you see children that might have been yours and wonder about what you didn't have the fact that I've struggled is to my credit. Giving up was non-negotiable."

In an age when the number of American priests is in sharp decline -- only one will be ordained in the Archdiocese of Baltimore next year -- the church is grateful that old-timers such as Frank Ernst decided to stick it out.

Last month, Ernst landed what may be his final assignment: associate pastor at St. Ignatius Loyola Church on Calvert Street in downtown Baltimore. Most weekdays find him celebrating noon Mass in the chapel. The Jesuit parish draws an eclectic crowd from around the metro area, and "Father Frank" hopes to become a part of their lives the way he was for so long at Our Lady of Victory on Wilkens Avenue.

At that church, where he served as associate pastor from 1976 to 1993, he still is thought of as a member of many families. Getting invited to dinner, attending weddings, being remembered on holidays and simply being remembered at all seems to have helped him as much as he helped the faithful.

"Just being alive was sometimes painful for me. You would think with that attitude I would have been a hermit, but I'm almost compulsively social," he says. "Because of my own difficulties, I'm quite compassionate and a good listener. I've known priests blessed with more gifts than me, and some of them have been so arrogant and self-confident it might have hurt" their ministry.

Francis Paul Ernst was born into a virtual Catholic ghetto on the northeast corner of Hudson Street and East Avenue just before the Great Depression.

His father, a mailman named Austin, had no interest in religion and his mother, Nellie, was devoted to the church. Among the boys his age at St. Brigid's school -- across the street from his house -- Ernst knows at least seven who went off to seminary.

There was "a deep atmosphere of faith in the neighborhood -- you could almost touch it," he remembers. The catechism he learned from the School Sisters of Notre Dame in the 1930s and 1940s was, if not infallible, certainly indelible.

He decided to become a priest in his junior year at Loyola High School, soon after a car hit and killed his cousin, Jimmy Coyne, 16, in front of Patterson Theatre.

"We were born the same month of the same year, and his death got me to thinking that this world is passing," he remembers. If life on Earth is fleeting, he reasoned, why not dedicate it to the God who awaits us in the world to come?

Still, he wishes he'd at least known what it was like to date a girl before delighting his mother, who'd lost two sons in World War II, with his decision. He doesn't find similar regrets among the new generation of priests. Today's newly ordained are usually older than 30 and the priesthood is at least their second career.

"I think that's much healthier," says Ernst. "They're more mature and their decision is more mature. Some of the guys going in are not virgins. They know what they're giving up; we didn't. I've had to renew my decision to be a priest over the course of my life."

Despite the scholarship he achieved as a Jesuit -- graduating from St. Isaac Jogue's in Pennsylvania and earning the equivalent of a master's degree in philosophy and theology from the order's now defunct college in Woodstock, Md. -- it's the things Ernst absorbed as a shy boy that marked him.

Of the days when the parish priest wielded more authority than the cop on the corner, he says: "I always have good memories of that period even though we were taught things that were a bit silly, like your hand would burn in hell if you masturbated or that God is a traffic cop waiting to pounce on you as soon as you did something wrong. I must confess, that stuff is still a part of me and I'm not really happy about it.

"There was a lot of emphasis on sins of chastity, yet charity, social justice and racial justice -- serious issues -- were things we didn't hear much about," he says. "I was extremely happy with the changes [made by the] second Vatican Council. I found it a great relief."

And over the years, from daily Mass in the old neighborhood to sabbaticals that have allowed him to study in Rome, his favorite Gospel story remains the Apostle Peter walking on the water.

"Peter begins to sink and cries out to Jesus, who takes him by the hand and pulls him up," he says. "When I say 'Lord save me,' I come up again. I like that."

Pub Date: 8/28/96

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