Busted: Jonathan Englert

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

BustedHalo: You’ve mentioned that a lot of people weren’t aware that divorced and widowed men can become priests.

Jonathan Englert: A lot of people are surprised by that. I was at the ordination of one man who was married and divorced. You never stop reporting, so I was in the bathroom at this big feast after the ceremony and there was a guy talking on his cell phone to someone. And he said, “I’m at this ordination…” And of course I’ve got my notepad out writing things down. And he says, “This guy’s just been ordained and he’s been divorced. I think that’s wrong and that shouldn’t be happening.” Basically some people think that if you’ve been divorced, it shows you can’t keep commitments and that you’re going to fail or not be able to keep a commitment to the priesthood. It’s a very flawed way of looking at this.

A recent study shows a 15 percent attrition rate after five years among newly ordained priests–that’s a pretty high number. Priests can leave. You can have a guy who’s a perfectly window-dressed priest, but the formation directors may not have scratched below the surface. So the guy might either have some sexual hang-ups that haven’t been looked into or some other issues. Then they turn out to either be a lousy priest or to be a problem priest or they just drop out.

What I think will come as a shock to many Catholics is the great deal of flexibility and mercy and compassion in the formation process…The church is not so desperate for priests that it’s willing to take anybody.

In the case of a man who faced divorce, he went through the trauma of it, faced it with a Catholic response via the annulment process, then via spiritual formation in the seminary and in other places. He deals with it. He’s going to go out there as a priest who is much better prepared to deal with the rigors of today. Priests often live alone. They don’t live in community. It’s very seldom that you have more than one priest in the rectory. These are guys who are already going to be Lone Rangers, and they need to have the resources inside themselves that they will need to serve the people, to be there for the long haul and be fully realized human beings. That’s why taking the anti-divorce stance is ludicrous. Don Malen and Jim Heiser are good examples of men who had it all together.

BH: In both those cases it’s clear that these are not men who sniffed at commitment or took it lightly at all.

JE: Nobody wanted to get divorced.

BH: There’s this sense from the seminary faculty and administration that–though the seminarians are taking classes–this isn’t simply a school. The faculty isn’t just looking for the smartest guys with A’s. Can you talk a little bit about that?

JE: What I think will come as a shock to many Catholics is the great deal of flexibility and mercy and compassion in the formation process. For example, a seminarian can struggle with pornography for a few years in the seminary and is not going to be thrown out on his ear necessarily. It’s not cut and dry. The church is not so desperate for priests that it’s willing to take anybody. There are all sorts of hurdles, psychological testing and police finger printing, but once you’re there, there’s something called spiritual direction. The seminarian can talk to the spiritual director about anything and helps them develop their spiritual life.

BH: I don’t sense any of the divisions along liberal and conservative lines in The Collar.

JE: Being Catholic gave me the empathy and vocabulary to understand these men and what they were going through, but being a journalist gave me a starting point of objectivity. I didn’t jump in and judge anybody. I simply had them tell their stories and I put them in the book. It’s solidly non-fiction. I didn’t make things up or twist them to make it better, which is damn difficult at times, because when you’re dealing with the truth you can’t just tweak things to make them more interesting. But it reads like a novel most of the time, I think. It has that movement of story, and story is a great ancient way to capture people’s attention and to bring them into a world that’s alive so they can experience what I experienced.

BH: I’ll be interested to see if The Collar becomes required reading at seminaries. Did you get any reactions from seminary people?

JE: I have heard from vocation directors and priests who want this story to be told. In terms of the church saying “This is required reading,” that may take a little while. There’s always the corporate issue of, “Do I want to go out on a limb and do this if I haven’t vetted every single page?” But the overall reaction has been very positive because there hasn’t been a story like this before.

To read more about The Collar, including reviews, interviews and excerpts, visit the book’s official Web site, www.thecollarbook.com