Dear Chicago, You’ll Never Guess…

This continues a series of entries that describes the time when I first entered seminary in the Fall of 2006.

I’m thinking that my earlier college analogy doesn’t feel quite right; this time of my life feels more reminiscent of the years I spent after college as a full time volunteer. The adventure of meeting new people, having a fairly open schedule, being able to do work that directly matters, and seeing new places… for some reason, the times in my life when I have had the least amount of money have also been the times when I have seen more of the world; this new chapter in my life is proving to be no exception.

I do feel more “plugged in” than I have felt for, well, nine years. When I moved back to Baltimore nine years ago to resume a “normal life” after the challenges of full time ministry had burned me to a pretty fine crisp, I felt that it was important to unplug from activities involving religion and saving the world. I’m very glad that I did, both for the experiences I’ve had in the worlds of working, dating, and mortgages as well as because that time made me a much more complete person. Yet I do have to confess that during those in-between years, there had always been a part of me that had been missing the “old life.”

We met Father Rick in Chicago, who himself was a novice last year. Having served as a parish priest for roughly 20 years in Virginia, he joined the Paulists as a novice last year and was sent to Chicago half way through the year. While I can say that practically all of the Paulists I have met so far have turned out to be really solid, down to Earth guys (and trust me, I am not grading on a sliding scale for “down to Earth”). But Fr. Rick was especially great to talk to because he is someone on both sides of the fence in the process; a full-fledged priest who is also going through the formation process in order to enter the community… he’s already been around this track a few times but the specific car he’s driving is as new to him as it is to us. I especially liked him because he is one of the few Paulists who are engaged in the social justice aspect of things, which is definitely the area of the church I feel more comfortable in.

Still, there was one other down-to-Earth person I was hoping to see. Five years ago after discovering the Paulists on the internet, one of them came down to talk with me. Like most Paulists, John was a great guy, funny, down to Earth… honest. When talking about “the gift of celibacy” during a vocation retreat, John remarked that if celibacy was indeed a gift, could he return it? He was always somebody with whom I felt comfortable talking about a vocation. I had heard Chicago associated with his name when I first arrived and since I had not talked with him in some time, I was looking forward to reconnecting on this leg of the road trip. But in Ohio I found out that John left the community about a year ago.

I’m finding that I usually have a very high “high” and a very low “low” at some point every day. Fr. Rick said that that’s normal in most any transition. But finding out that John left did throw me. For the longest time I struggled with making a decision on whether to join or not, and once I had that monkey off of my back I would just sail on. Now I’m beginning to see that this is going to be a very long series of decisions and re-decisions; this realization is more than a little frightening to me.

Like the billboards along the highway to Chicago, there are a couple of my fellow novices who are a lot more certain in their faith than I am. The Paulist who left was somebody who respected the more questioning nature of my faith and saw it as a strength. And while I do believe most of the other Paulists I’ve met are at least coming from the same zip code if not the same place, it hit me at 2 am in the morning that a guy who was a lot like me ended up leaving after several years of being a priest. I have absolutely no idea why John did leave and it is none of my business… but it served as a reminder as I gazed upon the Sears Tower that while I am adjusting to a lot of things right now, there are so many more things over the horizon that I can’t see.

Since 2009, Tom Gibbons, CSP, has shared insights on faith, pop culture, and seminary life in the Kicking and Screaming blog here at Busted Halo. On May 19, 2012, Tom was ordained a Paulist priest at St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York City. He will begin serving St. Peter's Catholic Church in Toronto, Canada beginning in July 2012.