[Read an excerpt from Jonathan Englert's The Collar here]
GODSPY: You’re a fairly recent convert. Can you describe the path that took you to the Church?
JONATHAN ENGLERT: Although my family heritage is Catholic, I wasn’t raised in the faith. I went to Mass maybe five times as a kid.
There was an important moment, though, as an 11 or 12-year old, when my dad took me to a Catholic retreat at a Marian shrine, when I was a boy scout. I remember, for some reason, wanting to go to confession, and the priest, as soon as he discovered I wasn’t baptized, was very short with me, very abrupt, not pastoral in the least. It was as if he really didn’t care at all if I became Catholic. My reaction to that as an adolescent was strong—sort of like, “Go to hell.” I didn’t say that, but that’s how I felt. That experience left a strong impression. It certainly didn’t make me want to become a Catholic. I guess that’s a long way of saying that I grew up without faith, in a pagan culture.
It sounds like what happened to St. John Boscowhen he as a child. A priest totally ignored him, and that’s when he committed himself to becoming a priest who “would always have time for kids.” He obviously made good on that—he basically invented child-centered education.
Do you know what’s strange about that? The retreat I was attending was at a Don Bosco retreat center. I think it was at Haverstraw, New York, the Marian shrine there.
Yes. I don’t have too many pivotal moments in my life, but that was one of them. It set up a divide between me and the Church that lasted for a very long time.
It’s another irony that you ended up writing a book about priests.
Yes, although I did have some positive experiences with priests growing up. My family had friends who were priests, and I’d always had a sense that there was something different about them.
What led to your conversion?
There were a number of things. My introduction to Catholicism was through my favorite writers—, , —which is probably not too rare. That led me to start reading about the Church. I’d also studied Latin extensively when I was at Bard College, and I found the Tridentine Mass, the Latin Mass, attractive, because of the formality and the order. I was attracted to the order of the Church. But that was not the conversion experience.
I realized the media wasn’t telling the full story about priests, that 99% of the reporters were covering 1% of the story.
That experience was a messy, intense, emotional, psychological and spiritual process, over a few months, where I just realized I needed to become Catholic. It was very powerful.
Was this before or after you went to Columbia Journalism School?
Did becoming Catholic influence your vocation to journalism?
I have to say it did. While I was on the road to becoming Catholic, when I was in the RCIA program, and I was going to mass every day—although I couldn’t receive communion—I was at a point where I felt the need to serve.
Being a Catholic, a believer, it’s not a self-indulgent thing. I think you’re called to use what you’ve been given to make some sort of contribution. I’d been writing for a long time, and saw myself as a fiction writer, but as I was going through the conversion experience I didn’t know if I would continue to write, because I didn’t seem to be able to write anymore. And I wasn’t sure if writing wasn’t a vain thing to do.
You questioned your motivation for writing?
I asked myself, “What’s the purpose of it?” The conversion experience was so profound for me that I questioned everything I took comfort in, everything that I had believed was enough.
What was it like being a Catholic at the Columbia Journalism School? Did you encounter bias there?
It was absolutely fine. I graduated from the J-school thinking that the media is not as biased as many people say. It’s guilty of many things, one of which is sloppiness. But in terms of bias, sure there’s some, but it’s a lot less than I used to believe.
I think the perception of bias is a result of the partisanship in the press, which has gotten so much worse in recent years. At Columbia the emphasis was always on doing the reporting, on being exhaustive, and being open to challenging your own assumptions. That’s where The Collar came from. I realized that the media wasn’t telling the full story about priests, that 99% of the reporters were covering 1% of the story.
When did you decide to do The Collar?
That was 2000. So it’s been a long time.
That was before the sex abuse crisis. So the scandal wasn't what motivated you to write the book?
No, that’s one of the interesting wrinkles in the book, because people tend to forget that priests weren’t held in high esteem before the crisis broke. The issues surrounding the priesthood, and the negative portrayals of priests, have been around for a long time. I knew from my own experience that most priests’ lives were very different from the public perception, and as a convert I was surprised at how little Catholics and non-Catholics knew about priests. They weren’t seen as living, breathing human beings, and their calling to the priesthood was almost unintelligible to most people. I wrote The Collar to challenge that perception, and I thought the best way to do that was to take the reader into an actual seminary to chronicle the daily lives of seminarians and priests, as well as their inner lives.
The book is set at the Sacred Heart School of Theology, a seminary in Milwaukee. Were you there when the abuse crisis exploded?
No. I had started the book at two seminaries—which I won’t identify—before Sacred Heart. In both cases I had begun work, but the situations changed and I was denied further access to the seminarians.
I only spent a few months at the first seminary. It became clear fairly quickly that nothing was going to happen there. But I made a much bigger investment of time with the second seminary, where I followed one group of seminarians for most of 2001 and half of 2002—about a year. It was pretty hard to lose access after so long a time. The diocese was very responsive; I had essentially complete access to everyone. But then the sex abuse crisis broke, and gradually I began hearing that no one was allowed to talk to me. It was pretty rough.
On some very deep level, we know that priests embody a very complex form of holiness.
What was odd was that no one at the seminary seemed to react to the sex abuse crisis, or get too worried about it.
Would you say the first two seminaries were either conservative or liberal?
I don’t really think those categories applied to them. I would rather use the term “formal” or “formalist.” There seemed to be a greater emphasis on “does it look good?” rather than “are we doing everything right?”
In every seminary these days there’s going to be an emphasis on doing things right, on how the liturgy is being done, for example. But in these seminaries there seemed to be an overemphasis on the sense of everything looking right.
Would “clericalism” come to mind in describing these seminaries?
Yes, that would probably be the best way to describe them. For instance, they didn’t have a problem with seminarians, guys who were not anywhere near being ordained, walking around in clerics. A lot of conservative people would—look, I’m an orthodox Catholic, and I just don’t think that’s appropriate. It’s sort of like they’re playacting, particularly since so many of those guys who were walking around in clerical garb eventually dropped out, got married, did other things. So it was kind of like imposing an image…
What’s more, if I had written the book about those seminaries, it would have been a disaster. It would have crashed and burned because so many dropped out. Some of these dioceses, they make a good talk of how they’re getting a good number of vocations, but you’ve got to look at how many men they’re ordaining. And they’re not ordaining a lot of priests.
You also have the issue of men leaving the priesthood after they’re ordained…
That’s another can of worms. I think the answer to that is good formation. The wisdom of the church—and it really is great wisdom—says you need to keep these guys in for five years, or at some orders, of course, even longer. Because five years is a good long time, and what it emphasizes is the spiritual formation, which is much more important than, say, grades.
Why would the book have been a disaster if it was written about either of the first two seminaries?
The reason I said disaster was that when you take a book you’re taking a chance on how the pieces will fall—but a lot of it was riding on the five men I picked, and how they shook out. I focused on them because they represented a cross-section. The men who were not ordained represent very accurately what’s happening in other seminaries. They were closest to the kinds of men I encountered there, who didn’t end up making it through. Part of it was they were younger, but the biggest issue was obedience, how they were going to be used by the church.
For instance, one of the men who adapted to seminary life best—well, he was older, and he had worked for the government, and he had done a lot of hard, self-abnegating work. This is really important. He had made very mature, and very sophisticated, self-sacrificing decisions for most of his life after his marriage. So when he thought he might be called to the priesthood, he could say, “I can’t become a priest until my kid is in college.” That was just a decision he knew to make. He continued to work for the government, and be an active member of his parish and his community. So when he came to seminary, he brought with him this knowledge, this realism—he can say “I know I’ve got a decent bishop, but I know that can change, that anything can change, because I’ve worked under different circumstances, and I know who I am, and I know what I’m supposed to do as a priest.”
Repression is not the way to go. Cold showers don't work for the long haul.
Would you call that psychological and spiritual maturity?
Yeah. Sure. I would also call it social maturity. And then there’s the alternative model, which I saw not work. There were guys who didn’t make it who fell into this category. This sort of man is very talented, but he feels like the Church is not quite right, the Church doesn’t really get what he can give. I saw this again and again. These men think their training is not working because of the seminary, or the Church, but in reality what they’re chafing against are the requirements of the priestly life, what they’re going to find out there as priests. And you can’t change that aspect of the job. You need priests who will do what is necessary—saying mass, running the parish, being obedient.
There’s a story someone tells in the book about Fulton Sheen, about when he was young priest, before he was a bishop, and had just come to New York. Although he was a very talented guy with a great future ahead of him, the bishop decides to send him up to Podunk to be a parish priest. Sheen tells the bishop that he accepts the decision, but he doesn’t understand it. And the bishop says to him, “If you’re not obedient you’re worthless to me.” This is something very important to the Church, and if you don’t grasp that, and you fight against it, then you’re going to be in conflict.
Out of the original group of guys I was following, most of them left. One of the men who did stay had worked for the church for many years, and he understood what he’d have to do as a priest, his obligations. There would be room for his unique contribution, but he saw that he’d have to carve that niche out. And I think that’s the social maturity the younger men lack, who just want to create their own vision of the priesthood.
I think this is an issue for many Catholics who don’t understand that the “Call to Holiness” involves as much orthopraxis as it does orthodoxy. It’s not just about believing in truth, but living it out, being receptive to God’s will. If we don’t cultivate humility through spiritual practice—prayer, scripture meditation, spiritual direction—we can easily fall prey to pride.
That’s right. I certainly went through that sort of spiritual development over the five years of doing this book. One of the things that became very clear to me was that good formation was about uprooting idolatry wherever it’s found. And idolatry is very pernicious. You can take something good—say the truth about birth control—and you can end up worshipping that. You can even worship John Paul II, which would be anathema to him.
Just as an aside, one of the most important examples for me, in terms of religious symbolism, was seeing his coffin, a simple casket, during his funeral, with all the world leaders there—that was extraordinary, and such a beautiful statement about that man’s humility.
One of the seminarians who did get ordained clued me into this understanding, in the way he approached his work. He was constantly weighing things. There is a great degree to which a fully formed priest has to constantly weigh the good, figuring out what would be the right position. And that’s why there can be such great violence, spiritual violence, when a priest dashes ahead with one agenda or another, cuts people off, out of ego, or whatever, because I think on some very deep level, we as Catholics—we as human beings, which is why the scandal resonated so much—know that priests embody a very complex form of holiness.
GodSpy’s theological advisor, Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, once said, in a homily during the scandal, that if the priesthood doesn’t flow from the humility of Christ it’s a monstrosity.
That’s beautiful. That reminds me of an older priest at the seminary who told a story that made a lot of sense to me. He was at a convention and he said something about John Paul II—nothing derogatory, but he was talking about him as a priest or something—and a young seminarian was offended, and came over and berated him. Now this is a priest of 45 years being dressed down, and at the end the priest told the seminarian, “You know, in the Church you think you want, that existed in the 1950s, for addressing me as a priest in this way, you would have been thrown out on your ear.”
Yes, if you read the old canon law, before the 1983 revision, you see how authoritarian it was. You couldn’t have lay people berating bishops back then, which is something many traditionalists who attack the hierarchy don’t realize.
That’s right. You know, I used to only be able to see cafeteria Catholicism, picking and choosing what you want to believe or do, on the liberal side. But now I see that it happens on both sides.
I also don’t think it’s very healthy that people are mingling their politics and their faith so strongly—particularly with the Iraq war. That came up in the book, because the invasion happened during the writing. I didn’t go into it much because I thought it would date very quickly. But it was a big issue. What was interesting was seeing the guys who were politically conservative wrestling with this, because they understood that the obedience question was really important, but their instincts said they should support the war. The Pope and the bishops were against it, so they wondered where they stood, and how could they pick and choose?
It became clear to me that good formation is about uprooting idolatry wherever it’s found.
Those are the nuances that I saw. As a priest you’re going to be meeting such a cross-section of people, and you’re going to have to minister to each one of them. That’s your holy duty! To minister to some people who are going to say the rosary during the mass, like the old-timers, and to other people who are going to think the rosary is total bunk.
You see it now in the reaction to Pope Benedict XVI, where people are surprised at how pastoral he is as Pope. They don’t understand how important unity is for anyone in a position of authority in the Church.
The thing that’s often overlooked in the desire to see the Church “purified,” to have it function like a well-oiled machine, is the role of doubt—even when it comes to dogma. People will go through processes where they will seriously doubt various aspects of dogma. They will wrestle with this stuff. They’ll be in a state of transition, which is why if the mercy aspect is not emphasized you’re in trouble, because you might find yourself at some point stepping right off the cliff, into the abyss, into the darkness, and how do you know whether or when that’s going to happen? You don’t. So for me, that was a big change, because I certainly didn’t go into writing this book thinking that…
So you went through a spiritual development yourself while doing the book?
I absolutely did. There was a deepening and widening for me of what it means to be Catholic, and I think it paralleled the formation process I attempted to capture in the book. Part of the book is a good read, it’s a novelistic read. But a significant part of it is about a spiritual process as well, because by following the men you see the complexity, how one keeps hitting a wall, and how another is able to manage things, and you get a sense of what it’s all about.
A scene from the book comes to mind. A priest presents a situation to the seminarians about a man who is gay coming to them for spiritual help. One seminarian says he’d tell the man that if he persisted in a homosexual lifestyle he’d burn in hell. The priest reprimands him, saying Jesus corrected with charity, not harshness. The seminarian leaves the room, and you write that he didn’t last the year at Sacred Heart. Was this seminarian someone who might later claim that he was rejected because he was a traditional Catholic, of the sort cited in Michael Rose’s book, ?
Before I started the book I was hearing a lot about how seminaries were getting rid of faithful Catholic men because of their rigidity, and at the time I thought to myself—what an outrage, and so on. But over the five years I wrote the book I came to learn that rigidity was a valid reason why some of these guys were being rejected. It wasn’t because they were doctrinally sound, it was because of their rigid approach.
Now, there was a person I know who was bumped out of one seminary for rigidity and was allowed in another seminary, and he’s now an ordained priest. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. He’s certainly a very bright guy.
I went in looking for this rigidity thing—because you hear conservatives talk about how it’s code for a way to blackball orthodox men—but it’s not that way. At least not during the time I wrote the book. What it’s code for is someone who they’re afraid is going to use their orthodoxy to basically pummel people. And that is not something that any diocese really wants. They do not want people like that. As I said, it’s a very social vocation, so if someone is failing at that level…
My experience in following up with these guys—I’m still in contact with them—is that the process works for most of them. Many dioceses are wise in having their seminarians do a pastoral year. So even though they desperately need priests, they want that guy to have a real sense of what it’s going to be like to work as a priest. They bring the stuff that they learn in seminary to the parish and they see how it works, why it’s so important to be a priest for everybody.
Is it like a doctor learning good bedside manner?
Yeah, except imagine if half of a doctor’s curative worth, maybe even 60%, was bedside manner. Because with a doctor if he’s a really great surgeon, but he’s terrible with people, at least he has value because he heals people. But boy, if you’re bad with people as a priest, you’re in trouble. It goes way beyond technical knowledge.
Might such people be better suited to a monastery? Is it sometimes more a matter of style, than spirituality, or a lack of charity?
Yes, sometimes it is a matter of style, or personality. One of the things I saw repeatedly is the introvert-extrovert distinction. There are some people who can just wade into a crowd and absorb it—they feed off of it, sort of the Bill Clinton thing. And then there are a lot of other men who are good with people, they’re empathetic, but they are drained by that kind of experience. On Sunday they may shine, but then they actually have to recover for a few days. But that man may still be a great priest, because he’s great on Sunday, and because he’s probably going to be good one-on-one.
But if you’re not able to deal with people at all, then the priesthood doesn’t make sense for you, because there are other ways in which you can serve. I have heard of people who left the seminary for the monastery, because they were looking for a different kind of spiritual rigor, and a different way to serve.
But still, even with the best formation, there are people who get through the system who shouldn’t be getting through. And I don’t think there’s anything that can be done about that.
You recount in the book that one of the successful priests had a conversion experience at a Charismatic gathering, where after years of “screwing up” he had asked God to “fix his life” and he felt a sense of acceptance, of God cleansing the shame out of him. This gratitude and love for God was also mentioned by Oscar, another priest, who had earlier questioned whether the seminarians at Sacred Heart had this love of Christ. Was your impression that a deep, mystical experience, or a deep personal relationship with Christ, made a difference in whether a seminarian had the grace necessary to be a priest, for handling celibacy, obedience, etc?
Well, personally, since that’s pretty much the mirror of my story, I do think it can be very important.
There’s a successful seminarian in the book who, when you talk to him, you get that feeling immediately, of a deep spirituality. Now, he’s very self-possessed, and you feel like he’s in charge about almost everything. But there was one thing that happened to him in his life, about which he talks about openly, where he was not in charge. And that was when his wife left him. He had created a very good life for himself, but this was something he couldn’t do anything about. So that accounted for his humility, I think. And similarly, Don Malin, in addition to the experience with the Charismatic Renewal, he had many difficult moments in dealing with his marriage. And another seminarian, whose wife died—he’d had 45 years of married life, raising his kids, and it was very clear to him the things he could and couldn’t do. These men were molded by their experience, by the suffering in their lives. You couldn’t really say that about some of the younger guys.
There was a deepening and widening for me of what it means to be Catholic, that paralleled the formation process I attempted to capture in the book.
I imagine you also saw this played out in terms of obedience to Church teaching.
Yeah, especially whenever there was too much liberal ideology—you know, “Oh, it doesn’t matter where the altar is.” That’s a sign of a major problem. And that’s because to me, the center of my faith is the Eucharist. Not in an idolatrous way, but in a living way. The consecration—I don’t care if it’s the Novus Ordo or the Tridentine Mass, or whether or not there are altar rails—when that doesn’t seem to be central to someone’s faith … I just think that’s crucial to priesthood.
I think in the book Don Malin talks about this in terms of the importance for a priest of saying the Mass, that it’s an act of love, almost like a marital act. It’s very interesting, because one guy who had a lot of orthodox trappings—he was up on a lot of issues—he just didn’t seem to have this love of the Eucharist, because he missed Mass so often.
The Mass is an act of humility, of gratitude and self-emptying…
That’s right, and it’s what makes things so different for Catholics, the idea of the mystical in the everyday, the inexplicable, the mystery. Which is what, paradoxically, makes change possible. So anything that doesn’t stem from that has an aridity, a dryness, or a lack of life… With the more successful seminarians, the Eucharist was very important. It meant that there was a profound relationship there.
Benedict XVI, before he was Pope, in his book, Principles of Catholic Theology, said the basis of unity in the Church, as the mystical body of Christ, is the Eucharist, otherwise it’s just a human project, and fragmentation is inevitable.
What’s interesting about Sacred Heart was that here is a place very different from one of the other seminaries I’d followed, which had 24 hour a day Eucharistic Adoration, and they were always talking about how important that was—and I believe in that—but at Sacred Heart they didn’t have 24 hour a day Adoration, but the Eucharist was, and is, a very central part of their seminary life. I think that’s because of the way they integrate it into daily life.
I think what’s amazing is that Michael Rose, who wrote Good-bye Good Men, apparently—I haven’t read the book—slammed Sacred Heart School of Theology, based on people who had dropped out, which is surprising because in my experience nothing was taken lightly there, especially when it comes to the Eucharist.
In the from your book published on GodSpy, the first part looks back on the life of a priest who had just died, who had been ordained in the fifties, when sexual issues were swept under the rug. The second part shows a very open, totally frank, classroom discussion of sexuality at Sacred Heart. Is that approach the norm today in U.S. seminaries?
I hope that most seminaries are doing this kind of formation with respect to celibacy, but frankly, I just don't know. wrote an excellent book called , and in it he wrestles with many issues that go to the heart of the celibacy issue. In a way, reading that book prepared me for reporting the nuanced, candid and quite profound formation work they did at the seminary. I hope that most seminaries aren't shying away from taking the question of celibacy on in this way, because this approach has got to be important for addressing sexuality. Repression and ignoring is not the way to go. Cold showers don't work for the long haul.
Was celibacy as big an issue for the seminarians as you expected it to be?
It doesn’t seem to me to be as big an issue as obedience, which is something you don't realize until you’re in seminary. And why it matters in seminary is that when you get out there as a priest, and you’re one priest, and you have four thousand families in your church, you’re going to have demands on your time, and decisions, and an emotional drain on you … It’s beyond the comprehension of most people. That’s why they need to get you ready for that in seminary, and you have to see that your life is to some extent not your own. And for a younger guy, who maybe wants to just hop in his car and go for a road trip at times, that’s going to chafe. For someone who’s been married, who knows that you can’t do that when you’re married, maybe that’s not as big a deal. But some of the older men, guys who were fifty, who have been calling their own shots for a very long time, that’s a problem for them too.
Was there a particular aspect of seminary training that was especially good at preparing men for the life they would lead?
Yes, a big part of what the men do in seminary is called CPE, Clinical Pastoral Experience. They go to a hospital for ten weeks, and they essentially have to act as the pastors, or the assistant pastors, at the hospital. They’re faced with death and dying issues, all sorts of things, and if they’re at a really busy hospital, they really get an experience. Almost all the men come back changed, and it deepens their sense of what it means to be a priest. Some dioceses, unwisely, don’t have their men do this. But the consistent complaint I’ve heard is that priests, ironically, are not good at dealing with death. So here they’re the priest in the gap, the priest at that moment, when it really, really matters, where if you came running at someone with doctrine, you’d be thrown out on your ear. So they learn what they can do and what they can’t do. And usually it deepens them tremendously. It gives them a strong sense of that pastoral tension.
The point is that priests roll up their sleeves, and they have to deal with things that are ambiguous, that will test them, and they are seeing things that are quite different than what the lay person sees. If the lay person has a few opinions about liturgical music, or where the altar should be, or where the tabernacle should be, that’s fine. But that person is only seeing one small cross-section of the priest’s life, what that man has to do on a daily basis. The things that he keeps from everybody else … For instance, why doesn’t he, at the lunch time homily, get up and say I just baptized a baby today who died? Why? Because it wouldn’t be pastoral to everybody else he’s supposed to be serving. And when you start thinking of that … and how they’ve got to make allies with people in uncomfortable situations, for the greater good, it’s rough…
One reaction I had to the book, and the experience of the seminarians, was that being a priest is almost an impossible job, that it’s impossible—one a human level—to find someone qualified, who can handle every aspect of the job, the theological, the spiritual, the social…
Yeah, I think that’s true. And my hope for the book is that people would come away with a new appreciation for what it means to be a priest. Most people only see a small cross-section, and they don’t understand everything that’s involved. In a way the priest is a microcosm of the church. And that’s why priests may feel uncomfortable about endorsing my book. And I understand that, because they have a role to play in a community, and they know that there is a very fine balance there. And that’s why the Church may not be able to endorse the book. They might welcome the book, but they might be constrained from endorsing it.
Given the shortage, should priests be doing only those things priests can do, like say Mass, hear confessions, etc?
I think you’ll see more of that. The laity will have to do the rest, so that priests can be freed to focus on what only they can do. In a strange way, it might bring back the importance of the sacraments, the role of the priest as priest, rather than administrator.
The role of priest as facilitator, whose training in spiritual ascesis, in persona Christi, makes him uniquely capable of stepping back and empowering the laity—that fits perfectly with the symbolism of the washing of the feet, for instance, the servant leader.
Yes. If there are any egos on the parish council, hopefully it shouldn’t be the priest’s! Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
My guess is that we’re going to have a different church, and it’s not going to be as priest-centric as it was. Simply because I don’t know where this change is going to come from…
In the end, do you think your book will achieve your goal of showing the human side of the priesthood?
I wrote this book in part because I was tired of reading the sugar-coated stories of priests and seminarians in Catholic publications. I am a reporter by training and a humanist by inclination. I believe that most people can smell propaganda—I actually think that is part of the problem in recruiting new priests. I mean, the stories people would respond to about religious life just aren’t being told.
People simply don’t buy fairy tales, nor do men commit themselves to lifelong religious service based on a fairy tale. The real vocation story is almost always messy, filled with ambiguities, and it can do more than any fairy tale to underscore the triumph of faith. The real story is not only a better read but a corrective to the widespread misperceptions about this incredibly difficult occupation. I certainly emerged from writing the book very hopeful, because there’s a lot that’s positive going on.