Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Lenten reading, book 1
My first book this Lent is an old favorite - The New Men: Inside the Vatican's Elite School for American Priests, by Brian Murphy.
This book is written by a journalist from the Associated Press, and although he characterizes himself as a "born and fled Catholic," one immediately senses that his own nostalgia for his childhood faith is at least part of what compelled him to write this story. He is very fair and sensitive in his treatment of the men whose lives he chronicles, and it's always been one of my very favorite "faith stories" books.
This is a work of non-fiction and it's set during the late 90's, toward the end of Pope John Paul II's pontificate. We are quickly introduced to 6 men in the entering class at the North American College, an American seminary in Rome. As one would expect, it's fairly prestigious for a seminarian to be sponsored by his diocese to attend the North American College. Often, these are men who ultimately are promoted beyond the ranks of parish priests and serve the larger Church in a post within the Vatican itself. So, as if entering the seminary in and of itself wasn't already a life changing event, there's an added bit of pressure here. Their diocese is spending a lot of money investing in them and their education; do they have what it takes to make it through to ordination and be a good priest?
Our 6 friends quickly become very dear to us. We have a former high-paid attorney who very honestly admits that he had a bit of a raucous dating life, and now struggles with his commitment to lifelong celibacy; a former Air Force pilot who broke up with his girlfriend to join the seminary, but yet can't stop thinking about a devout Catholic woman he met while finishing up the philosophy and theology credits he needed prior to entering the seminary; a Vietnamese-American immigrant whose faith was formed and solidified as a child when his father was taken from the family and placed in a Communist work camp; a man from North Dakota whose strong ties to the land that he was raised in calls him to a Benedictine monastery near his family's farm, but who promised his diocesan vocations director that he would give the seminary a try; and a set of identical twins, one with a now very uncommon boyhood vocation to be a priest, and the other who left a high-powered business career to pursue the priesthood with characteristic enthusiasm and zeal when he felt the call as an adult.
The book chronicles their lives and struggles for a full academic year, from the fall until the following summer. One man will decide to leave the seminary by the end of the year; who will it be?
The author does an *excellent* job of detailing their prayer lives, their chaotically busy daily schedules, juggling language study, theological study, Mass attendance, community service, and in the midst of all of this, trying to decide if they made the right decision to pursue the priesthood.
Ok. Now all of that is very interesting, by itself. I just love personal stories and details about how one carves out their relationship with God and what that means for their life choices. It's never uncomplicated and always intriguing. BUT. That's just the tip of the iceberg. :)
During the writing of this book, do you want to know who the rector of the North American College was? This is the head of the school, the priest who counsels all of these men through their doubts and struggles and crises over abandoned girlfriends?
Timothy Cardinal Dolan of the archdiocese of New York, and now the high profile president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
At that time, he was a monsignor, and this book offers a profound look into his wonderfully engaging personality and commitment to the faith and to the priesthood.
AND, like I mentioned, this was during the pontificate of John Paul II, and reading this book now brings him back to me just like it was yesterday. I'm not certain if I've ever gone into this on my blog before, but, well, I LOVE Pope John Paul II. I mean, I *love* him. :) It's one of the great regrets of my life that I never got to meet him before he died. I just adored him to pieces, and he was the pope for essentially my entire life until he died in 2005.
When he died, I was very early in my pregnancy with Henry. Mike and I had been married earlier that year, and we have an official papal blessing from him, which remains on our wall as one of my most cherished possessions. When he was beatified, I was very late in my pregnancy with Anne. And the other day in Mass, I looked down at a prayer card that I've had in my missal for *years* and do you know what I saw?
His birthday is May 18, 1920, exactly 91 years to the day before I delivered Anne.
I just feel a very special devotion to him, and reading this book brings back to me so clearly the end of his papacy and how he showed the world strength and courage in suffering.
So, for all of these reasons, I love this book. I can re-read it over and over. There are so many good examples in it of everyday people striving to live out their Catholic faith, in the vocation they feel called to, in the face of numerous struggles and challenges. I never fail to be inspired by them, and to feel called to do more in my own life to be a better Catholic.