Busted: Jonathan Englert

An interview with the author of The Collar: A Year of Striving and Faith Inside a Catholic Seminary

The Collar chronicles the journey of five men who have left their careers and former lives behind to begin formation for the Roman Catholic priesthood. In his realistic, human, and at times, gripping account of seminary life, Jonathan Englert gives a fly-on-the-wall perspective on the faith journeys of these five individuals, including a recently widowed father of four, a blind violinist, and an avid hunter from Wyoming.

Due to the shrinking population of ordained priests, a growing number of Catholics, and the aftermath of the clergy sexual abuse scandals, seminary life is a topic that promises to continue to fascinate Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

With a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and a spiritual path that includes a conversion to Catholicism, Jonathan Englert is uniquely situated to write this thoroughly researched and deeply human story.

BustedHalo editor Bill McGarvey recently spoke with Englert about the men he came to know so well, the ins and outs of seminary life, and Englert’s own personal faith journey.

Busted Halo: What was the genesis of The Collar? It’s an account of a year spent with seminarians in a Wisconsin seminary, which is an offbeat topic, and you spent five years researching and reporting for this book, which is a lot of time. What inspired you to choose this topic?

Jonathan Englert: Someone asked the other day, “What was the target audience for this book?” And I was thinking: Catholics, non-Catholics who like a good story. But then I thought, “No, the real target audience for the book was me. Me before I wrote the book.” I was a Catholic, but I had a lot of questions that I think a lot of people share. Like, what would motivate someone to become a priest today? And once they were motivated to become a priest what would that process be like? What was the seminary like? Against that backdrop are diminishing numbers in vocations, fewer priests and of course the sex abuse scandals.

I wanted to answer these questions and I thought the best way to do that would be to tell a story–first, to learn the story of these men who wanted to become priests, and then to express that in a narrative, in the context of a year. Once, at Mass, I heard a young seminarian make a plea. He said, “Look we don’t have a lot of people entering seminary and please pray for vocations.” And I thought, there’s got to be more here.

BH: You are a convert to Catholicism. Can you talk a little bit about your own journey and how writing this book affected your faith?

Once, at Mass, I heard a young seminarian make a plea. He said, “Look, we don’t have a lot of people entering seminary and please pray for vocations.” And I thought, there’s got to be more here.

JE: This is the million dollar question. In brief, I wasn’t really raised Catholic. I come from a semi-Catholic heritage, but I can count on one hand the number of times I went to Mass as a kid; I just wasn’t raised in the faith at all. My introduction to the faith really came through literature, through writers like Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, also to some extent T.S. Eliot, although he was Anglican. Basically, I came in from the outside.

This book changed my way of looking at the church. I think Catholics run the risk of missing the good things that are being done in different quadrants of church, whether you’re liberal or conservative. I don’t know how valuable those terms are, but in writing this book I discovered all these different ways of ministry in the priests and professors at the seminary–the church has all these different kinds of people, and it’s great. Most are committed Catholics. This mix is what gets overlooked so much of the time. There’s this idea that diversity is a bad thing and that if you’re not hewing to an overly pious line, or if you’re not constantly expressing orthodoxy, that you’re not somehow a good Catholic. That’s absurd.

The church is doing good work in so many places, and the structure of the church allows debate and allows people to wrestle with things and to be themselves and to be individuals.

BH: We’re in a time when the church has experienced a lot of difficulties in the media, and I’m sure some people picking up this book might think this is a book about scandal. And it really isn’t.

JE: Oh no. Not at all.

BH: And yet you began it during a time of intense scrutiny of the church and the priesthood. Can you talk a little bit about how the trajectory of the book might have shifted, since your reporting on the book started before the scandal broke?

JE: I started the book about a year before the scandal broke, and I found my seminary a year after the scandal broke. That academic year in question, the year I reported on and the year that I spent at the seminary was just a year after the scandal. So the men were living under a shadow. It was a horrific time, and I still think it’s something that has deeply saddened and angered all of us. One of my seminarians said it best when he said he was “deeply shocked by it, was angered by it, but it hadn’t shaken his faith.” The scandals are a backdrop to this book, but they don’t occupy most of it. They’re what’s going on during this year, but they’re in the background. I discovered a reaction of deep sadness, disappointment, and also a sense that it wasn’t the full story. The story of the priesthood or seminary life didn’t begin or end with these scandals. In any kind of profession, you are going to encounter people who do horrible things, but it doesn’t mean the value of that profession is thrown out. These men were mature and sophisticated and faith-filled enough to know that.

BH: I found it fascinating that Sacred Heart Seminary, just outside Milwaukee, isn’t the traditional kind of seminary–they call a second-career seminary. So, a lot of your characters have had marriages and are widowed with grandchildren. Can you talk about the seminary population?

JE: Sacred Heart, in Hales Corner, is technically the second largest second-career seminary in the country, and it trains men who, twenty or thirty years ago, would have been out of the question for the priesthood. These are men who were married, had been divorced and had their marriages annulled, men who had children and grandchildren. Although it is a second-career seminary, I was very careful in trying to tell the story. You’ve got to remember that in 2004, the average age of the ordained man in the priesthood was 37. So already you’re talking about the average age being second career. If it takes five or six years for seminary training, these people are coming in at 31. What did they do in their twenties? They had other careers and experiences. In a sense, the priesthood is already made up of second-career men.

BH: It sounds like your attempt to get permission to spend a year at Sacred Heart was a journey for you as a reporter. I read that you were allowed to go to a couple of seminaries, and then your privileges were somehow revoked?

JE: I don’t want to name names because a lot of the seminarians I did work with have since become priests and are doing good work in the diocese I began in. But both as a journalist as a new Catholic it was difficult and disillusioning. Here I was saying, I essentially want to explore things in a way that is not being explored in the press, in a way that is not knee-jerk or a negative. I thought telling the real story was going to be more powerful, true, and interesting. I suppose it even had some evangelical components although that wasn’t necessarily my goal.

The sad thing about both the revocations is that they were never clear cut. It’s not as if I received a letter from the two different dioceses saying “You’re not welcome here.” It was much more subtle. I was doing all this work and building these bridges to these interesting men, these articulate characters who are able to talk about their vocations, and then I started losing that access a little bit at a time. All of a sudden, I couldn’t visit someone at a seminary or someone couldn’t speak to me or didn’t return my phone calls. And then I would learn from one of my characters that “They don’t want us to talk to you for any number of reasons.” I never got clear answers. The way it all happened was disillusioning.

BH: And, of course, it was impossible to write the book under those circumstances.

JE: The book was not going to happen because the book depends on complete access; it depended on me being a fly on the wall. I needed to follow someone through their whole day of classes, and to talk to them whenever I wanted to, to see whatever I wanted to. Ultimately I got that kind of access at Sacred Heart. Sacred Heart is run by a religious order, the SCJ’s, a French order, so they didn’t necessarily have all of the same pressures, even though they train diocesan priests.

BH: So a lot of the men in formation were not in formation for Sacred Heart? Were any of them in formation for the order?

JE: None of them were. The order doesn’t do formation at the seminary. One of the things I loved about the seminary was that unlike the other seminaries, these men were arriving from all across the country. So I had probably a better cross-section of men, men coming from California, Colorado, from New York, from the South, from Texas, from the Midwest. So I had a sense of the entire American church, as opposed to a seminary that has people from a specific region, which is the vast majority of seminaries.