Paulist seminarian Tom Gibbons reflects on his formation experience and his life as a seminarian right now. Along the way, some questions will be will be answered, and a lot more will come up.
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This continues a series of entries that describes the time when I first entered seminary in the Fall of 2006.
Leaving Chicago, I am in a bit of a mood. Learning that Fr. John left the community served as a reminder that my reasons for resisting priesthood all of these years extended well beyond prohibitions against kissing Marie again, let alone anyone else. This is a hard time to become a priest; the ten years I spent in putting off this decision give testimony that I am all too aware of this fact. I had been able to put the issue of declining vocation numbers out of my head after a few days of this trip, but hearing about some of the stretchers being carried off the same battlefield I am about to march onto has brought those concerns to the fore once again.
So before hopping into the van, I grab a USA Today. Yes, I know the USA Today is the journalistic equivalent of McDonald’s, but given that the primary source of nutrition along the highways we have been traveling consists of the golden arches, it seems vaguely appropriate. Besides, my head is tired and needs a break… I’m in no mood for something that will make me think.
This was a good day to pick up America’s Most Read Newspaper; Section D features an excerpt from a new book on the history of U2. This piece described the making of the album Achtung Baby, one of my favorite albums from college. Because they were breaking new musical ground, the band was having a hard time; they kept smacking their heads against the wall in trying to make the new album, almost to the point where a few of them started to wonder if they were going to break up. During that time, U2 was invited by the Dalai Lama to participate in a Tibetan festival.
Bono related in the book, “I love and respect the Dalai Lama but there was something a little bit ‘let’s hold hands’ hippie to me about this particular event. I am in awe of the Tibetan position on non-violence but this event didn’t strike a chord,” He sent the Dalai Lama back a note saying, “One – but not the same.”
The album was finished within months.
The oldest member of the Grand Rapids house is in his eighties and suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Consequently, Father Joe Gallagher requires the care of nurses. Originally a male nurse was hired to take care of his needs… but that didn’t go so well. “After 50 years of celibacy I want a woman to put me to bed,” demanded the good Irishman. Other arrangements were quickly made.
Joe is also “lucky thirteen” in the never-ending list of people whose life stories we have been listening to. And while it was difficult not to have an instant affinity for the man, I was also tired. The life stories we had heard up to this point were interesting but had not done much to scratch the itches that had been plaguing my brain. I braced myself for another meticulous list of life experiences given in chronological order. But I didn’t realize at the time that what I needed most in my life was yet another talk by a grumpy Irish priest from New York.
Joe started talking about his time in the navy during World War II, which was followed by school and a promising law career in Mid-town Manhattan. Because he’s witty Joe managed to keep my attention throughout this part of his autobiography, but it was the next element of his story that stopped me dead in my tracks. “I entered priesthood in my thirties, which at that time was considered VERY late in life. I had been fighting the call for ten years.”
“Go on,” I thought to myself.
That’s when he started talking about God and today’s church. “The Holy Spirit is yelling at us – He stopped sending us vocations 100 years ago.” Vatican II started with some good changes, but now “no power goes out from Rome. Nothing’s changed. And after the sex abuse scandal, the Bishops are all gathering ranks. They’re scared – it’s the herd instinct. The laity are getting fed up and it’s going to be messy. There may be another reformation.”
Not that I thought that he wouldn’t be direct, but hearing a member to the ordained give voice to the larger concerns I have been feeling was the calamine lotion my itchy brain has been craving. Not only did this former president of the Paulists lay it all out there, he even went on to relate our Catholic experience of the Spirit to the Eastern religions that have been growing in popularity.
“They started with the Spirit, but the Eastern religions just never got beyond it.” He says that we need them now because they communicate better with the Spirit than we Westerners, “but they also need US to help them be brought more down to Earth.” I took six pages of notes during his talk; while he covered a myriad of topics in his two hour talk, they were all connected to the God and the Spirit. In the process, I received one of the first toe holds for which my brain had been screaming.
Because of his illness, Fr. Joe could only talk for two hours. His attractive female nurse eventually came to take him away. So that afternoon, we are free. Time to do the only thing three crazy seminarians are allowed to do for some excitement in the town of Grand Rapids, Michigan: visit the Gerry Ford Museum. (Actually, I’m a big history buff, so this is pretty cool for me.)
But before I partook in an afternoon of presidential geekiness, we stopped at Quiznos. Quiznos is one of the enduring proofs that there is a God and despite our recent disagreements, that that God loves me. And in the midst of eating my delightful Black Angus sandwich—complete with banana peppers and the sweet and spicy Number 83 sauce—a remake of the song “One” featuring Bono and Mary J. Blidge comes on over the store radio. It was then that I remembered how Joe closed his talk.
“The one thing about the Holy Spirit… She isn’t gonna shaft ya.”