Skip to comments.The Catholic church changes the way it deals with sex and its candidates for priesthood
Posted on 05/05/2002 12:58:18 PM PDT by ex-Texan
The Catholic church changes the way it deals with sex and its candidates for priesthood
Matt Fife left his dream job as an Intel software engineer to train for the priesthood at Oregon's Mt. Angel Seminary, stepping into a century-old tradition of study and prayer. Unlike past generations of seminarians, he got through the door only after surviving rigorous tests and interviews that probed his psychological and sexual history.
As he attends classes, helps at a parish and stays up late reading St. Thomas Aquinas, Fife is subject to regular examinations of his emotional and spiritual maturity. Ordination is not guaranteed.
A decade before the current revelations of priestly sex abuse rocked the Roman Catholic Church, Mt. Angel got tough about vetting potential priests. The changes followed a smaller wave of allegations against the U.S. church in the 1980s. The scrutiny and the national scandal weigh heavily on the 156 seminarians at Mt. Angel.
"I can only say that it's made me more aware of how serious I should be about making this choice," Fife says.
The accusations play on dormitory TVs, and both the victims and abusers are the subjects of prayers at Masses. The campus buzz grew so loud that the president-rector gave a chapel talk about pedophilia.
Bad news got worse in three recent lawsuits that accuse three Mt. Angel priests, one who is dead, of sexual abuse in the 1950s and in 1978.
The living priests are affiliated with the Benedictine abbey that owns the seminary, but neither has campus duties.
At 27, Fife is part of a new breed of seminarians -- older with more secular life experiences. Half of each new class speaks English as their second language. On the hilltop campus 40 miles south of Portland, they train five to seven years to serve parishes in Oregon and 22 other dioceses in the United States, Canada and the Pacific Islands.
The 19 men sponsored by the Archdiocese of Portland include the traditional Catholic university graduates and schoolteachers but also a former insurance salesman, a rabbinical student-turned-car salesman and a Navy veteran. The first Mexican-born man to be ordained by the archdiocese graduates next weekend.
Heeding the call Two years ago, Fife had it all.
His job was one he had wanted since he was 15 growing up in small-town Indiana, and it came with a $71,000 annual paycheck. His life was full of friends, parties, snowboarding and mountain biking.
He wasn't dating anyone, but he had been in long-term relationships. He knew what love felt like. Marriage, he assumed, eventually would complete the package.
A priest? Fife hadn't even considered the option since it flitted through his 8-year-old mind, somewhere between police officer and construction worker.
"I was like, I'm going to get a job and be successful, do the career thing, maybe get married and have kids," Fife says.
But as happy as he felt he should be, a sense of "missingness" had taken hold. He couldn't figure out what any of it meant. He was doing things -- snowboarding, hiking -- not to be bored.
Raised by devout Catholic parents, Fife had never stopped attending Mass. But now he dug deeper, volunteering to teach religious education to seventh-graders at his Hillsboro parish and praying with new intensity. What do I do, God?
He laughed off the first friends who suggested the priesthood. But more and more did. So after months of mental wrestling, he made a deal: I will try seminary, God, but give me two years first. Time enough to pay off student loans, to enjoy work, to live a little more. But the call he heard grew louder. It elbowed in each morning as he brushed his teeth and drowned out everything else.
"I thought I was going crazy. I thought, this is the darndest thing I've ever thought of in my life," Fife recalls.
Could he leave the job he loved getting up for every day? Was he worthy to be a priest? Could he live without marriage or sex?
"You're just like, oh, man, I don't know if I can do that," he says. "I like girls a lot . . . but it becomes this real question of what really is pulling you in your heart."
God was pulling.
Changes on "the hilltop" Benedictine monks from Switzerland arrived at Mt. Angel in 1882, settling among the ancient firs. The monks live in the abbey, own the seminary and teach some classes. But a diocesan priest, the Rev. Richard Paperini, runs the school.
Off "the hilltop," as its residents call it, the sex abuse scandals have prompted calls for tougher standards at the nation's 44 post-collegiate Catholic seminaries. Paperini, a Central Catholic High and Mt. Angel alumnus, says the way his seminary shapes priests is far different from his student days in the 1970s.
He recalls trying to tell a priest of his struggles with celibacy.
"He said, 'You just accept it. Just accept it,' " Paperini says, putting his hands up like a stop sign. "That was my discussion of celibacy."
Now, he boasts, "we're doing the best job in the country."
It begins with admission, a process that Fife says is more rigorous than the screening he received for a National Security Agency job. He applied through the Archdiocese of Portland, where the vocations director sent him to a private psychologist.
For seminarians of the past, "the completion of an application form together with a letter from the pastor, a physical examination and a copy of transcripts sufficed," wrote Archbishop John Vlazny in April in The Catholic Sentinel.
In contrast, Fife spent an hour answering the psychologist's questions and three hours with the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, which tests for a range of red flags, from a tendency to lie to schizophrenia. He left with a stack of take-home tests that probed for addiction to alcohol, drugs and sex and gauged his response to stress and authority. He submitted an autobiography, then interviewed with three priests, a nun, a University of Portland professor and Vlazny.
He thought they might reject him. Part of him hoped they would. But the psychologist had only one caution, Fife says.
He remembers the doctor saying: "You do have a really high naivete score. But that's probably pretty common for you guys."
Last year, Fife was one of six men who applied to Mt. Angel through the Archdiocese of Portland, said the Rev. Timothy Mockaitis, the vocations director. All six were accepted. Nationally, the number of seminarians has dropped sharply since the 1960s.
Questions asked To be admitted, a seminarian must pledge that he hasn't been sexually active for three years before applying. On campus, a priest-adviser pushes him regularly to think hard about what he is giving up. He asks him what arouses him, how he sets boundaries with people to contain those desires, and where he will find comfort and intimacy without a sexual relationship.
"Those are the questions you have to ask nowadays, given what's going on in the church," Paperini says. "When the student is unable to answer, you have to say you can't continue here."
Students who are sexually attracted to other men are not automatically rejected. Sexual orientation is not the issue, Paperini says. The issue is the student's commitment to living without sexual relationships.
"Somebody who is heterosexual who is very inappropriate with women -- that's a bigger red flag than somebody who is homosexual but can set appropriate boundaries and live a chaste life," he says.
For various reasons, 5 percent to 10 percent of students are asked to leave each year, Paperini says. A few withdraw voluntarily.
"Are we 100 percent on top of everything? I don't know," he says. "I hope we are."
In February, Paperini invited to campus Luisa Saffiotti, a psychologist who treats clergy with sexual problems at the private Alexander Institute in Washington, D.C.. She warned the men that their sexuality won't end at ordination.
A healthy, joyful celibate life is possible, she says, if a priest doesn't deny that his sexual urges exist and if he shares his struggles with close friends.
Researchers have generally accepted the fact that celibacy does not cause child sexual abuse. But priests who consider themselves immune to sexual desire and who don't relate well to other adults are the ones who get into trouble with children, women and alcohol, Saffiotti says.
"I tell them it's important just to be able to say to yourself on any given day, and then say to somebody else, 'I feel lonely. I crave somebody to hold me,' " she says.
Exercise, yoga, dancing -- activities that keep a priest aware of his physical nature -- are important outlets for the energy he won't be able to release through sexual intercourse, Saffiotti says. Masturbation is not viewed as an acceptable alternative in church teachings.
After her seminar, some students told Saffiotti that they miss having girls around, she says. A few said they were abused as children. Some are just lonely.
She was pleased, she says, because they were talking about it.
While the public's attention is focused on the abuse and how to prevent it, Fife's first year in seminary has been more complex. His life has changed in the routine and the abstract:
He stops for prayer a half-dozen times a day. He has reoriented himself to a world where God is the center -- not Intel, not money, not friends.
He still is the lanky, red-cheeked guy in a fleece pullover watching the Blazers on the dorm TV or driving to Salem for a movie. But he is leaving the hilltop less frequently and ending his phone calls with "God bless."
Fife has six more years at Mt. Angel to figure out if he will commit to a priest's life. He isn't certain he will. Outside the seminary, not a single friend has asked him what he thinks about the abuse scandals, he says. He guesses the subject is too raw.
When he prays, so often now, he lifts up the victims and their abusers to God. He doesn't know what else he can do.
"God pulled me here for a reason," he says. "I trusted and I have faith that this is where he wants me to be."
You can reach Shelby Oppel at 503-221-5368 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Well, Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadephia will not be happy with Fr. Paperini.
Maybe the seminaries should try advertising to that audience -- according to government reports, it should yield a rich harvest. LOL
TV? Good. THAT will contribute to forming one devoted to Jesus
This says it all, doesn't it? Share with a friend, mentor, reconciliation.
And with Portland Archbishop John Vlazny.
A priest we knew who left to get married said that lonliness was the worst part.
Contrary to popular opinion, it's not the lack of sex which makes celibacy so tough, it's the loneliness.
Getting a dog helps, but it's not enough. It's the assurance that there is SOMEBODY for you, who is there for you, and for nobody else, that makes marriage such a wonderful life.
If somebody told me I had to give up sex for the rest of my life, it wouldn't phase me, because my wife is my anchor and her presence in my life is all I need.
I admire any man who can make Jesus his temporal anchor.
The guys I know who've left all say that they just got to the point where they needed that complementarity that a woman gave them and that they could return.
It's not good for man to be alone.
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Somehow this doesn't seem like a super high standard.
That is why we faithful Catholics need to keep the priests in our Parish close to our families. have them over for meals and include them in our family gatherings. Let them talk things out.
We had the Associate Pastor over for dessert tonight. I think he appreciated being able to talk frankly and not worry about being 'quoted' around town. Sir SuziQ certainly let him know how HE felt about things, and I think Father appreciated THAT too!
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