Busted: Jonathan Englert

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

BustedHalo: The five main characters of the book are Ron, Dean, Don and Jim Pemberton and Jim Heiser. They’re five guys of assorted ages with varied life experiences, and are in different stages of their formation. How did you end up settling on those people?

Jonathan Englert: These men jumped out at me as being an ideal cross section. Don Malen, who’s nearing ordination, is a model of probably ideal formation, at least as far as the seminary goes, because he came in a certain way and is leaving another way. He came in as an average man and he’s leaving as a priest. The changes were not only ideological but also relational.

BH: Can you talk a little bit about his background?

JE: Don Malen was married for 12 years. He was a parish music director and has his master’s degree in sacred music. Before he was married he thought he had a vocation to the Jesuits and they told him otherwise; they told him he wasn’t ready yet. He got married. In short, his marriage didn’t go well. He clearly struggled and struggled with it. He eventually did divorce and the marriage was annulled. I wouldn’t say he felt he had a vocation to the priesthood when he arrived at Sacred Heart. He recognized the great need for priests, and that he could serve as a priest. Many people told him he could serve as a priest very well. He was torn between two possibilities: being a composer or going to the seminary. So he arrives at the seminary with the amount baggage that most of us carry.

BH: What was some of that baggage?

JE: Ideologically, he struggled with the church’s teaching on birth control. He firmly believed that if he couldn’t accept the teaching prayerfully, he shouldn’t be ordained. Over four to five years he came to deeply believe in the church’s position. I think he believed it in part by reflecting on his own marriage and what had and hadn’t happened there. This is the kind of perspective I’m trying to bring to The Collar. I really get into these mens’ heads.

BH: It’s interesting. The diversity in the congregations that these men will eventually encounter is also reflected of the cast of characters you have chosen to talk about in the book.

JE: They’re all over the map, just like the congregations. The priesthood is an extremely social profession. There’s a misconception among the very religiously zealous that to be a priest you need to be very religiously zealous in almost a monastic sense. But priests have to interact with people all the time. Particularly because of the diminishing number of priests, many of these men deal with parishes that have 4000 families. So you need to be social, you need to love people; you have to be good with people. And in being good with people you have to recognize you’re not there for just your own kind of person. If you’re not able to see beyond your own approach to Catholicism, you’re not going to be a very good priest to those people, and you’re not going to be a very good pastor.

BH: Can you talk about Dean? He’s one of the younger guys, and he’s a fascinating character.

If you’re not able to see beyond your own approach to Catholicism, you’re not going to be a very good priest to those people, and you’re not going to be a very good pastor.

JE: Dean was a former Marine medic, and he’s a kind of jack of all trades. He’s the youngest guy at the seminary, and he comes expecting a kind of monastery with spartan conditions and a Marine-like existence. He doesn’t discover that at Sacred Heart. Instead, there’s a different kind of boot camp going on that’s very internal–the issue of obedience. It’s a huge issue. A lot of people talk about celibacy being big, and it’s an especially big deal for Dean. He’s in his late twenties, and he’s wondering how he can give up marriage. He just left his girlfriend, and that was a big deal for him.

BH: What about obedience?

JE: Dean starts banging his head up against some of these obedience issues. You can’t just speak up and say what you want as a priest. You can’t get up in the pulpit and say, “This is what I believe; to hell with what you believe.” You’re not a pastor if you do that. You’re going to alienate people. Obedience is a big deal for Dean and the rest of the guys. In our culture we have a lot of personal autonomy. We can go where we want; we can spend money how we want; we can have a house. You go to seminary and that ends. Diocesan priests don’t take a vow of poverty, but they do take a vow of obedience to their bishop. This means that if the bishop says, “I’m sending you to the north regions of the diocese,” you’re going. There is some give and take but pretty much you have to do what you’re told. Remember, these are men who own their own homes and cars and had careers. Some of them had six figure salaries. They had kids. They had dogs. These men moved into rooms that, in some cases, had recently been converted from telephone booths. These men have to eat off of cafeteria trays and they’re fifty years old. They have to go to class. And they have to be on time for Mass in the morning. They’ve got to deal with these restrictions and be good humored about it.

BH: Ron is an interesting seminarian. He’s blind, in his late twenties and he’s also a musician, a devout Catholic and also somebody who struggles with the institutional church. Can you talk about him a little bit? What was it like shadowing him?

JE: People liked Ron very much there, and lots of people came to talk to him. He’s very wise. I wouldn’t say he was a devout Catholic, because he had serious reservations not only about the institutional church but the dogmatic church. He definitely struggled the most. He’s the high-wire act of the discernment process. He’s also a marvelous musician who wins over the community early on with his violin. His talent was extraordinary. He doesn’t read music; he plays by ear, and he has two master’s degrees. He just an extraordinary human being. He definitely has an impact on the community when he shows up. But he also struggles with—and I don’t want to give too much away–obedience as well as celibacy.

BH: Jim Heiser, a Philadelphia native who ends up in Wyoming, was a unique guy. He has a 21-year-old son, and he struggles with leaving his hunting dog.

JE: Jim Heiser is a real character. As part of the reporting for the book, we went out shooting guns in Wyoming, and I can tell you, I still haven’t gotten my hearing back. [laughter] But he took me hunting and he had a real struggle. His first love is Wyoming and he’s a classic outdoorsman. If you give him a chance to camp or hunt he’ll take it. So here he’s arriving at seminary into one of these recently renovated telephone booth rooms and he leaves his hunting dog, Packy, and it’s a struggle. But he’s also extremely disciplined and he’s so committed to the idea of becoming a priest. He’s very pastoral. Not to say he’s a nature worshipper, but he’s a very earthy character a lot of people can identify with. He’s always looking out the window of the classrooms wishing he could be out there hunting or camping.

BH: Jim Pemberton is in his 60’s, and he’s one of two seminarians who has had children. Why don’t you talk about him a bit.

JE: He’s in his 70’s and he has four children, three grandchildren. He was very happily married for forty-five years and he nursed his wife through her final years with cancer. While some of the men in the seminary bring the pain of divorce and its accompanying knowledge and wisdom to the priesthood, Jim Pemberton brings a different kind of wisdom. He brings the kind of wisdom of a happy Catholic marriage. It had its struggles like any family, but ultimately he comes from a strong family life and strong commitment. He spent some time in the minor seminary in the 1950s, and he thinks that seminary formation today is much better than in the 50s. Back then it was very regimented and they had massive numbers of people so they could get rid of people at the drop of the hat for any reason. But they also had very poor and limited celibacy training. There was a big emphasis on regimentation and not as much on spiritual formation. Psychological formation makes up a big part of these guys’ formation now.

BH: There’s a great scene in the book where he’s with his children and grandkids. Did you ever talk to any of them? What did they think of their grandfather/father potentially becoming a priest?

JE: What you find in these cases is that the people who are around the men knew that they were going to be doing it before the men themselves. The Collar is not a data-driven study of becoming a priest, but I will say that one of the themes that has emerged from this is that there is a priestly quality to priests that I think a lot of Catholics in the pews understand. Jim Pemberton is a good example of that. He’s a very cool guy, but there’s also a strong sense of him as servant–not servant in the servile sense but in the sense of someone who’s there to help you and support you. I think that’s a big part of what people pick up on when they think of someone as priestly or not. When you look at Dean, you get less of that sense, although I would argue that the priesthood is wide enough that it can support a wide range of people.