Faith and foibles along path to ordination

A walk in the footsteps of five seminarians draws back the curtain on a mysterious world

Review Clergy


The Collar

A Year of Striving and Faith Inside a Catholic Seminary

By Jonathan Englert

Houghton Mifflin / 320 pages / $25.95

It's late summer 2002 when a group of seminarians gathers in a dining hall at the Sacred Heart School of Theology outside Milwaukee. The rector of the school has just celebrated a Mass to open the academic year, the first since the eruption of the sexual-abuse scandal that has shaken the Roman Catholic Church. As Jonathan Englert recounts it, the Rev. James Brackin's homily about mystery and hope has fired up at least one new student.

Dean Haley tells his fellow seminarians that there is no better moment in history to join the priesthood. It's the dawn of a new millennium, he says, and post-Sept. 11 America is hungering for religion. The scandal, meanwhile, has made the need for good priests capable of bringing healing greater than ever.

His listeners are skeptical. The cover-up remains a problem, fellow first-year seminarian Bob Brooks says, as does the amount of money it appears dioceses are going to have to pay out in lawsuits. Several at the table agree that the new zero-tolerance approach approved by U.S. bishops could priests who might be unfairly accused.

"May you live in interesting times," Brooks concludes.

It's not a blessing, as Haley points out, but a curse. In the four decades since the Second Vatican Council, the church in the United States has weathered declining attendance at Mass, diminishing attention to church teachings in areas such as birth control, and finally, the scandal - one effect of which has been to transform the image of the priest in the minds of many from a figure of admiration to a target of suspicion.

What is it that could compel a man at this moment in history to give up the possibility of family, to submit to the authority of a bishop - to surrender much of the autonomy he has exercised over his life - to join the priesthood?

First-time author Englert, a convert to Catholicism, spent a year at Sacred Heart to explore the enduring mystery of the vocation. His approach is to focus on five seminarians through the formation process, following them through classes, worship services and late-night bull sessions.

Sacred Heart is one of the nation's leading seminaries for second-career vocations - those held by men well removed from college, often after they have raised families and held jobs outside the church. The choice of venue is apt: Such men represent a growing percentage of the nation's seminarians.

It also makes for an interesting variety. Two in Englert's group are divorced, and one widowed. But the most compelling characters are the two younger men, both single and nurturing new and fragile vocations.

Haley, a hyperactive former Marine from East Texas, chafes against much of what he finds at Sacred Heart, from the silliness of an orientation ditty to the liberalism he detects in the faculty. At the same time, he struggles with his medications, with the formation process, with showing up to appointments on time. Classmates doubt he'll last the year.

Just as Haley appears to be rededicating himself to the challenge, Ron Kendzierski is questioning his desire to go on. Where Haley grates, the blind Kendzierski ingratiates, relying on musical talent and self-deprecation to weave himself into the fabric of Sacred Heart. But he hungers for more attention to the social-justice teachings that have attracted him to the priesthood. And he finds himself enjoying long, late-night telephone calls with a single mother who shares his commitment to activism.

Englert's closely observed portraits of Haley, Kendzierski and others during the seminary year make gripping reading. His treatment of the larger issues confronting the church is less satisfying. He raises several but seldom to pursue them to the depth they deserve.

To take one example, he alludes to conflict between liberal seminary faculty members and conservative seminary students but doesn't fully explore what this means for the church. What friction results, what types of priests are produced, and how might they affect the institution over the long term?

Similarly, celibacy doesn't get much more attention than it receives in the Sacred Heart formation handbook: Haley thumbs ahead to that section, only to find a blank page. How will Haley, Kendzierski and other young seminarians - those not dealing with divorce or the death of a spouse - deal with the requirements of the job? And how does the church balance an increasingly dire need for new priests with an increasingly stringent process for vetting out potential problems?

The strength of The Collar lies in its finely detailed renderings of its subjects, at once critical and sympathetic, through which Englert deftly illuminates a milieu foreign even to most Catholics. And through the dedication of the seminarians in the face of the challenges they confront, he is able to convey some of the mystery of the vocation. By the end of the academic year at Sacred Heart, the ordination of one of Englert's subjects, Don Malin, bound for a parish in Colorado, reads as a triumph of faith and hope.

Matthew Hay Brown covers religion for The Sun.

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