They’re in St. Peter’s Square and at the Spanish Steps, sipping cappuccino in cafes and riding the trams, chatting on cell phones and texting deftly.
Sometimes in swishing cassocks or cowl habits, more often in tidy black suits with white clerical collars — the fraternal uni.
Whatever their shrinking numbers elsewhere, Rome has no shortage of Catholic priests. This city is the mother ship, welcoming in and sending forth legions of pastoral troops, the Jedi of Jesus.
For many priests from around the globe, Rome is a place of scholarly pilgrimage, men selected by their bishops to pursue advanced degrees at the Vatican’s many pontifical universities.
And, just as a side perk, to enjoy the splendours of the Eternal City.
“I think this speaks for itself,” laughs Father Seamus Hogan, two fingers of each hand bracketing his plump belly. “Quote unquote right here. Next question?”
It comes with the territory, an indulgence in Italian cuisine. “You go into a restaurant and they always want to give you extra food. That’s the Roman way.”
Most especially for priests, who are widely treated with proprietary fondness, as if they all were all starving mendicants, or maybe it’s just a way of depositing pennies in heaven.
The jolly 37-year-old Hogan, studying church history, is a resident at the Pontifical Canadian College, elegant home dorm for about 20 diocesan priests — as opposed to those attached to an order with a generalate house here, such as the Franciscans or Dominicans. Diocesans are also known as secular priests, which sounds like an oxymoron.
Five of them from the Toronto archdiocese met with the Star this past week to talk about their vocation, the challenges and benefits of obedience, chastity, poverty, in a world where such virtues are often perceived as anachronisms.
We’ve gathered in the pretty courtyard of their coral-painted college, not far distant from the Vatican, on a sun-burnished afternoon. It does feel like a bit of paradise in the tourist-congested city.
After completing their academic degrees and returning to Toronto, these five will likely not be sent abroad to do classical missionary work, assigned to specialized duties in the archdiocese, instead perhaps, teaching in a seminary or employed in the chancery, perhaps sitting on a marriage tribunal to consider annulment applications. All have already served as associate pastors in GTA parishes.
Father Fred Chung, 42, immersed in Old Testament biblical studies, grew up without any religion and embraced Catholicism at age 12, his own choice. His father originally opposed a son joining the clergy, but eventually came around.
“A lot of us struggle with the question, is this for me? Maybe we even fight it for years. I was in my early 20s when I realized I really did want to become a priest. My mother said she’d always sensed it but didn’t want to tell me so that the realization would come from within.”
Father Thomas Lim put in a decade as a financial adviser and had drifted from his faith before listening to a homily by the rector of St. Michael’s Cathedral and hearing his own calling.
“I’m what you’d call a revert. I thought I would find happiness in my career and personal relationships. I reached a point in my life where I had all those things but still felt an emptiness, so I started to reevaluate things.
“If someone had told me earlier, ‘you’ll leave the business world, become a priest and end up studying canon law,’ I’d say — that’s crazy.”
It is, in fact, becoming more common, particularly in the West, for men to become ordained later in life, after having successful careers.
Hogan recalls playing priest as a child. “I celebrated mass with Wonderbread and Coke for the Eucharist.” But it wasn’t till his mid-20s that he felt the genuine stirring in his breast to serve.
“For me, it wasn’t so much sowing wild oats and living life to the fullest because, whoa, soon I’m going to be working for The Man, I’ll have no freedom left, I have to accept chastity. It was more like falling in love with God.”
Yes, well, we do have to inquire about that whole chastity vow. It’s what everybody wonders about — how can they do it? Why would anybody want to?
“I don’t think that celibacy is necessarily self-denial,” says Hogan. “It’s a choice, just like marriage. When you decide on that one person you want to marry, you’re excluding everybody else, right? I’ve chosen this one good thing and closed myself off from other good things. It’s a joyous decision, to be honest. I’m more satisfied in my relationship with God than I’ve ever been in a relationship with any woman before I entered the seminary.
“Celibacy has real value, which is something Pope John Paul II talked about a lot. It’s maybe not going to be the utilitarian value that most people gauge things by. But it has a value of being prophetic because it reminds us that there’s a world beyond this world, a world beyond our day-to-day lives of having to eat and drink and do the things we do. When you consecrate yourself to that world in that way, that’s a powerful sign to our culture, especially our materialistic society, to say, I dedicate myself.”
There have been times, in the past, when the Catholic clergy did marry, as in fact deacons, who can perform marriage and baptisms, still do. Many have strongly advocated the Church allow priests to marry again.
These guys don’t wish it.
Father Kevin Belgrave, 34 — he’s studying ethics — suggests that the wider public doesn’t know what’s best for priests, what they want.
“I’m only going by my own experiences and the priests I know, but I don’t think there are a large number who want things to change. We’ve all had so many years in seminary to really understand what we’re doing here, what is this thing called priesthood, what are our lives going to be all about?
“So, you start to understand celibacy more deeply and love — love — it more deeply, and see its life-giving nature, absolutely. It gives life to us as we interact with families, with people going through their happiest moments, their saddest moments, and you’re there in this special way with them as a priest.
“More than anything, people want to know that they’re loved, that they’re lovable. I enjoy that. And I just enjoy being a priest, the reality of knowing that I’m intimately united with Christ in a way that’s unique and beautiful.”
If celibacy, as a demand, is costing the church younger generations of capable priest candidates in the West, so be it. There’s certainly no dearth emerging from Africa and South America. It really is a geographical imbalance more than anything else.
“I really believe that, as goes marriage, so goes the priesthood,” Belgrave continues, referring to waning popularity of the clergy as an endangered vocation. “If there are troubles in society’s understanding of families and marriage, there will be troubles in the priesthood. There will be troubles in anything that requires commitment.”
Among the men here, only Father Giuseppe Scollo, a Sicilian now with the Toronto diocese, went directly from high school to the seminary. The scriptures scholar, 32, has not an iota of regret.
“It’s not a prison, you know.”
On his cell phone, Scollo keeps a photo of cloistered nuns. “They’re full of joy and peace. I just like to look at their faces sometimes.”
With mention of nuns, the discussion moves towards the exclusion of women from ordination.
For Scollo, the reasons are obvious. “The catechism says that the Church has no power to do what Jesus did not do. Jesus did many things with women that, in his day, were scandalous. He had women touch his feet, he had women disciples. If he had wanted women to be priests, he would have done it.”
He offers an analogy. “Why didn’t Christ choose pizza or spaghetti to make the Eucharist and say, ‘this is my body?’ He chose bread. Why was it wine and not beer?
“The reason why Jesus chose only men to be priests, I don’t know. Maybe some day I’ll ask him.”