We live in an age in which a young Catholic man choosing the priesthood is news, the kind of news that produces a feature story in the trendy Style section of an elite newspaper like The Washington Post.
The headline gives you a clue about the content, as in, "This Life: He never imagined being a priest. But then he felt the call -- and it terrified him."
Now, I have read my share of these secular-press features over the past couple of decades. Most of them feel like features about men who decide to go into social work, only with a few artistic flourishes about the liturgy, vestments, etc. The priesthood is all about helping people wrestle with daily life.
You almost always have -- if the seminarian is straight -- the obligatory reference to a previous girlfriend or even fiance, while leads to a discussion of celibacy. If the future priest is gay, then the sexuality angle is probably the reason the story is being written in the first place.
Like I said, these kinds of stories are rather consistent.
However, I have my own little journalism test that I perform when I start reading one of these stories online. The first thing I do is pop open a search box, enter one rather symbolic word, and look through the whole article to see what I see.
The word I search for is "Jesus." You would be amazed how often mainstream news organizations publish stories about men entering the priesthood without mentioning this word, other than, perhaps, in the names of religious orders and/or institutions. Jesus does appear in this particular Post report, but it's a close call. We will hunt for that. But, first, here is the overture, which jumps straight to the celibacy angle:
In the city around him, Anthony Ferguson’s fellow millennials were just waking up, shaking off hangovers, checking messages on dating apps and getting ready to make their way in the world.
But Ferguson was already out the door on this Friday morning -- wearing the same black shirt and white collar he always wears -- sitting in a chapel under the warm light streaming through stained-glass windows. Before 8 a.m., he’d listened to a sermon on the blessings of marriage, about how it allows spouses to love one another the way God loves each of them.
It’s an experience, Ferguson knows, that will remain theoretical, should he continue on his current path: toward priesthood.
The biographical details come quickly, describing this 28-year-old. He used to be a cartoonist who wanted to be an artist. He was introverted and, in college, he considered himself an atheist. There is the usual reference to a girlfriend.
However, at the heart of this story, there is information about "religion" and how "religion" has shaped Ferguson's life in various ways. Evangelical Protestantism plays a surprisingly important role.
Religion has always been a backdrop of Ferguson’s life. When he was a child, his family went to Mass on Sundays and prayed when a family member was sick. But his father had been raised in the Protestant tradition, so the emphasis was on the shared fundamentals of Christianity rather than the particularities of Catholicism. Besides, the stories in the Bible didn’t interest him nearly as much as the characters in “The Lord of the Rings” or the creatures crawling out of his imagination and onto the pages of his sketchbooks.
But when the veracity of his faith was challenged, it shook him. Attending the University of Richmond on an art scholarship, he took a few world religion courses that offered alternate perspectives on God, including the possibility that there is no God.
That led to atheism. But his yearning to believe led somewhere else.
That desire drew him to a campus Bible study group. Led by evangelicals, the sessions offered a much more intimate view of Christianity than the distant-seeming Catholicism of his childhood.
“That’s what I started to see in this Bible study,” he says. “That if I’m gonna follow this Jesus guy, it’s gonna have to change pretty much everything.”
And it did.
This is the story's one reference to this Jesus person. In this same context, Ferguson begins talking about his immersion in the writings -- "meditations" is the word used by the Post -- of C.S. Lewis and St. Augustine. This leads to a very, very important word.
“There was a deepening of the conversion -- kind of an opening of my eyes that, ‘Yeah, this is something that I could rest my entire life on,’ ” he says. “Those questions were being answered, and I was becoming more confident. And more prayerful.”
Wait a minute. What "conversion"?
The implication is that Ferguson at some point had a conversion experience that brought him into, or brought him back to, the Christian faith. it would appear that this happened in a Protestant context.
But the deepening "conversion" led him back to Catholicism. This is a common, but tricky, path to walk and I, for one, wish the Post team had probed at this point. Did this future priest actually start attending a Protestant church? Which one?
Most importantly, what ultimately led him deeper into Catholicism? There is this crucial -- and quite beautiful -- section of the feature.
This is long, but essential. Read carefully, because this contains a crucial hole:
He helped establish a young adult ministry in the Richmond diocese and was soon spending almost every evening in the company of like-minded 20-something Catholics, either studying scripture or volunteering in the community. All the while, he says, he was looking for “the right girl. I wanted to date and marry -- that was my goal.”
But late at night, unencumbered and alone, he also started wondering about the priesthood. “I’d switch away from the EHarmony tab to the vocations website,” he recalls. “There was a growing little ember of curiosity. At first it was horrifying. It was horrifying.”
A priest who became a friend sensed Ferguson’s interest. And in 2012, that priest invited him to take part in a Good Friday service, helping to hold up a large cross for parishioners to venerate. “Standing there, holding this cross as it was physically being pushed down by people who were leaning on it, I was moved with love for these people,” he says. “And I remember standing there in the middle of the church, thinking to myself, ‘God, if You want me to spend my life serving these people, I will.’ ”
That's the big moment and, as is often the case in these stories, the best quote points toward desires to be of service to a faith community. Maybe that motivation is easier for a reporter to understand and to discuss in a major newspaper.
But read deeper. This personal revelation takes place on Good Friday, while he is -- literally -- carrying a cross. Ferguson, in effect, decides that he is willing to make sacrifices in his life to follow his deepening faith into the priesthood.
Might this moment have had SOMETHING to do with Jesus, the cross and Good Friday? Can you imagine a moment -- out of the entire Christian year -- that carries more symbolic weight than Good Friday, if you are looking for liturgical content linked to sacrifice, the priesthood and carrying one's cross? What a time to make this decision!
I sense the need for a follow-up question, or two, or three. You think?
Or maybe Ferguson said other things at that point in the interview that were, well, a bit to Jesus-y for the news template?