From Agnosticism to the Priesthood (Part II)
This is Part II to a fascinating interview with Br. James Dominic Brent, O.P., a Dominican Friar of the Eastern Province of the United States. He is currently a Deacon to St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Capitol Hill, and blogs at dominicanfriars.org. Be sure to read Part I here since some of the answers here refer to that post.
A lot depends on the educational background one brings to the seminary. If one comes without any philosophy or theology in one’s background, the formation requirements in the United States today ensure that all newly ordained priests will have two years of philosophy, and four years of theology in addition to a spread of courses in Church history, canon law, and pastoral ministry. Spanish is becoming required in places as well. That sounds like a lot, and it is, but it basically boils down to having a Bachelor’s degree with a major in philosophy plus a Master’s of Divinity. That is the minimum.
If one does not have a Bachelor’s degree, one will get that. If one has a Bachelor’s with no philosophy, one will do a kind of post-Bachelor’s major. Some religious orders have significantly more requirements. And many men in diocesan seminaries will also end up doing more if they show talent for it. But most guys, I think, do their two philosophy years and four theology years and happily go out to the parishes.
Q: Deciding that you’re called to the priesthood is such a huge decision. Did you have certainty when you made it?
Certainty of what? I was certain that my conscience was telling me to “Be a priest”. But I remained deeply uncertain about whether doing so would in the end make me happy. I did what many young guys do in our society when it comes to big decisions. I chose not to choose. I chose not to commit. Instead, I went to St. Louis to study Thomas Aquinas.
I will never forget the moment when I finally said yes in my heart. I was in my little studio apartment in St. Louis, sitting there with my books, like a lot of grad student geeks, and I was thinking about my whole life, women, marriage, professorships, the priesthood, the Dominicans, God, all of it and none of it in particular. I was not at all certain in my intellect about a lot of things. In that memorable moment, I simply consented in my heart to do what my conscience had told me to do so very long ago, and was telling me even now to do. At that moment, in my heart, I said, “alright, I’ll do it.” From that point on, over many months, clarity gradually grew in my intellect, joy grew in my heart, and peace grew throughout my being. To be a priest was becoming what I wanted. You see, what happened in that moment of consent, I now realize, was that God gave me an inclination of the heart to allow him to be in my life what he truly is — my creator. All along he wanted to create me as a priest, and I was saying no. As soon as I said yes, the creation of the priest commenced at a whole new level in my being. God began to outfit my being with a whole new set of desires, instincts, emotions, dreams, etc..The whole thing was gradual and supernatural.
Q: What made you drawn to the Dominicans?
When I arrived in St. Louis, I arrived in a town with a whole bunch of young religious men – Jesuits, Dominicans, Redemptorists, Benedictines, and more. For the first time in my life, I met peers, young men in their twenties, who were celibate and happy. That was inconceivable to me up until that point. But it was now in my face. I went on a vocations weekend with the Dominicans, and I was captivated. In the middle of the weekend, it hit me clearly: “it is impossible for me not to do this.”
I learned more about “the life” as we call it. I learned about how the Order was founded specifically to provide the Church with preachers. More than that, the Order was founded to be a place — a form of life — in which a man can live the life that a preacher needs to live in order to be a preacher. He needs hours of prayer every day, hours of study of Scripture and Tradition everyday, and hours of being with his brothers in community, all in order to be ready to stand up there and tell the world: Jesus is Lord. I can say that because I know Jesus. I found him in the life.
Q: A lot of people in our world today would look at what men give up to be priests and think that that must not be a very happy life. What would you say to that?
It is understandable that people think the life of a priest or religious must be unhappy. I once thought that. And I thought that way for a long time. I could not see it any other way even when I tried. The thing I simply could not imagine was a happy life as a celibate. A celibate life seemed so cold, so lonely, so loveless. Intuitively, everyone knows that the human heart was made for love. Even the book of Genesis says, “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). The point I struggled with for so long, the main thing that stood in my path to the priesthood, was the incredibility of the proposition that I or anyone else could ever find love as a celibate. I mean deep love. Finding love and being alone are simply contraries. It is one or the other.
I’m not sure when I realized it, but celibacy is not the same as being alone. Celibacy is being alone with God. And being with God makes all the difference in whether one really finds love in this world. That goes for the married and unmarried alike. Unless one is somehow with God, even the very best of spouses can never slake the thirst for love. How many millions of broken marriages make the same point with their tears and their grief?
About eight months after I joined the Order, as I was preparing to make my first, temporary vows in a few months, I was taking a walk on my own and praying about making vows. As I strolled along, I spontaneously said something to God that made me stop dead in my tracks and be utterly shocked at myself. I said, “Lord, I would live a thousand lifetimes of celibacy for you.” And I meant it. I still mean it.
Five years after that prayerful walk, I can look you straight in the eye and tell you that ever since I made my vows, I have known a joy and a happiness that I never knew was possible in this life. I am not talking about the mere contentment that people content themselves with. I am talking about something more. I now know the joy of Christ. He said, “These things I have told you so that my joy may be in you” (Jn. 15:11). Jesus does not give just any joy. He gives his joy – the joy he knew in the sight and sigh of the Father before the foundation of the world. If you have not tasted his joy, then you have not yet tasted what life can be. The joy of Christ, like his peace, is not of this world (Jn.14:27). He gives his joy to those who follow him, and he gives it in proportion to their surrender to him. Someone once asked Blessed Reginald of Orleans if he was glad that he became a Dominican. He lowered his eyes and said slowly, perhaps almost sadly, “alas, I think there will be no merit in it for me, since I have known nothing but joy since I entered.”
If there are any readers out there who are thinking that God is calling them to religious life or the priesthood, please be aware of this: Jesus Christ has a thousand times ten thousand secret ways of showing his love for us. God wants to do a special work inside of you. I can say that about all the baptized, but I say it particularly about those whom God taps on the heart for religious life. All the forms of religious life in the Church, all the orders, congregations, motherhouses, and monasteries, all the habits, the chant, the vows, the superiors, the communities, the difficulties, the losses, all of it is set up in order to create a place in this passing world where God can do this awesome work of grace inside you. You will not be alone. Three divine and eternal persons will be living and active in you. Christ knew this interior company completely, and he shared it with his disciples on the night before he died: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (Jn. 6: 56). “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our home with him” (Jn. 14:23). “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). “Abide in me…Abide in my love” (Jn. 15: 4, 9).
Q: What is your favorite part of your vocation?
This is the most difficult of all your questions. I love my Dominican brothers (even though they drive me crazy with some frequency). I love chanting the Psalms with them every day. I love having a tabernacle in my house, right in the chapel, across the hall from my room. I love going in there late at night in the silence. I am always inspired by my Dominican sisters – both the active sisters and the cloistered nuns.
But I must say that the very best things in the life pale in comparison with the joy of seeing someone return to the Church. As someone out there doing ministry in the Church, I have seen people come back after being away, after chasing after an illusory happiness, after living “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). I have seen people come back after five years, ten years, twenty years, and thirty five years. I have seen people come back after prison, after drugs, after divorce, after the emptiness of the consumerist rat race. Each and every time it is the same. They repent of their ways, they resolve to change their life, they go to confession, they discover the Eucharist, they wonder why they left, why it took so long, why nobody told them. The sight is enough to make a grown man cry from smiling. The Father who saw his prodigal son off in the distance coming back home did not just open his arms to his son. While the son was still off in the distance, the Father ran to him (Lk. 15:20). Now I see why. God the Father actually loves us. He wants us to be happy. He wants us to be happy not at the level we can comprehend by our finite vision, but at a much higher level – the level that only he can comprehend by his vision.
8. A lot of people worried that the scandals of a few years ago would scare off young men from considering the priesthood. What is your impression of the other young men who are entering the priesthood?
I hope that everyone else has found this interview to be as fascinating and inspiring as I have. A big thank-you to Br. James, and be sure to check out the Dominican vocations blog at dominicanfriars.org.
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