Future priests vow to make difference

Seminaries like St. Mary's under closer scrutiny amid clergy sex scandal

April 28, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

As a boy growing up in Mount Washington, Martin Burnham spent so much time at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart parish that his buddies called him "Father Martin."

He went off to college, became a psychotherapist and fell in love, with an eye toward getting married. But through it all, he was troubled by a nagging void in his life, a sense of spiritual emptiness - "a bug that wouldn't go away," he says.

So, at age 30, Burnham walked away from his normal life and answered "the Call," a supernatural summons he felt to become a Roman Catholic priest.

Now, after a grueling screening process and five years of study and prayer at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Roland Park, Burnham is about to be ordained. Next month, he will prostrate himself on the marble floor of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in a centuries-old rite that will usher him into a life of service to God and the church.

"Father Martin" enters a drastically changed landscape of priestly life, though, where church leadership is under fire, celibacy is being called into question and every priest somehow feels he is a suspect. It is one of the darkest hours for the American Catholic Church, as it reels under a clergy sex scandal.

Like many fellow seminarians, Burnham simmers with anger, shame and embarrassment over what some of his predecessors have done to tarnish the vocation. He and others about to be ordained vow to work all the harder to improve the image of the church and of their calling.

"The church has been here for 2,000 years. It's not going anywhere," he says. "And part of that is a faith commitment that Christ gave, the promise that he would be with the church. ... So it'll be here, and I plan to be a priest in it, for my lifetime."

"I think this is a time of great opportunity, where we can go out there and minister to people in healthy ways, in ways that build up their faith," says George J. Gannon, a classmate who will be ordained with Burnham.

It is to men such as Burnham and Gannon that the church, facing scandal, a clergy shortage and an increasingly independent laity, entrusts its future. They are among 100 men living, praying and studying behind the white limestone walls of St. Mary's, the nation's first Roman Catholic seminary, which trains priests for the Archdiocese of Baltimore and 27 other dioceses around the country.

Most are in their 30s or 40s, have had careers, adult friendships and even romances, which helped season them for the trials of priesthood.

Burnham worked for six years as a child and family psychotherapist at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center before he answered the call. Gannon, 42, was a lawyer in Rockville for 12 years before deciding to trade the courtroom lectern for a pulpit.

A third classmate, James Lentini, 40, who was ordained a deacon for the Archdiocese of Wilmington yesterday, taught high school in New York and Delaware for 14 years when his pastor's suggestion that priesthood might be for him started his journey.

Life of celibacy

All three say they had dated, though only Burnham came close to marriage. But each eventually decided to dedicate himself to a life of celibacy - intimacy with God and service to God's people, instead of intimacy with a spouse.

Not every man at St. Mary's is embarking on a second career. At 23, Michael S. Triplett is the youngest man at St. Mary's. He is a part of a youth minitrend reported around the country by vocation directors, the priests who recruit men to be priests.

Triplett grew up in Reisterstown, attended Calvert Hall College High School and studied philosophy at a Christian Brothers college in Philadelphia. He worked part time at Sacred Heart parish in Glyndon answering phones and pitching in wherever help was needed, and he has been affiliated with the Archdiocese of Baltimore since his senior year of high school through a college candidates program.

These men are part of an American seminary system of 4,900 students in 218 institutions. The clergy sexual abuse scandal is bringing these seminaries under closer scrutiny.

Questions are being raised about how the church screens and evaluates its priesthood candidates. During last week's extraordinary Vatican summit on clergy sex abuse, the American cardinals asked Pope John Paul II to sanction a comprehensive evaluation of U.S. seminaries, which would include a review of criteria about the suitability of candidates.

Seminary rectors say that the standards are higher and screening is more sophisticated than in years past and much stricter than what is required for the clergy of other denominations.

"We're doing everything we can. It looks like we're doing much more than anybody else is doing," said the Rev. Gerard C. Francik, Baltimore's director of vocations.

The training promotes psychological health and emotional maturity; in past generations, sex was barely mentioned.

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