6 Answer Call to Priesthood Despite Church Struggles

By Kathryn Marchocki
The Union Leader [Boston MA]
Downloaded April 8, 2004

BOSTON - Why would six talented New Hampshire Catholics want to enter the ranks of a shrinking priesthood during what has been a humiliated church's darkest hour'

'(There) is no greater time to be a priest because there will be a lot of people who need healing,' explained former Milford and Merrimack resident Steven M. Lepine, 36, one of six seminarians at St. John's Seminary in Brighton studying to become priests in the Manchester diocese.

Scandalized by decades of child sexual abuse by clergy that shattered the trust of many Catholics in their church and its leaders, these men embrace the daunting task ahead.

Former Manchester resident Sean Thomas, 34, said that while it's a 'very humbling time to be a priest,' theirs is a 'higher obligation' to serve.

'We were called to be priests at this time especially because the church needed mending and, certainly in the United States, the church needed to be re-evangelized,' added Thomas, who left a 10-year career in New Hampshire politics to enter the seminary in 2002.

'The church in the United States had gotten complacent and, to a certain extent, we had lost a lot of the focus of what we are about. This gives us the opportunity . . . to rebuild it the right way,' Thomas continued.

'It's going to take a long time to rebuild the trust of the people. I hope and pray that, at the end of my life, that the church will be stronger and better than it was at any other time.'

Jeffrey P. Statz, who will be ordained a deacon next month, said the crisis greatly harmed the church, but it also is helping to purify it. The priesthood, especially in the United States, is undergoing a re-examination of purpose, he said.

'What it is about is fidelity, faithfulness to the church and holiness of life,' said Statz, a 1994 Merrimack High School graduate who entered seminary after graduating from Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.

David L. Kneeland, 32, a Lawrence, Mass., native whose family moved to Windham, was at St. John's four years when the clergy sexual abuse scandal broke in the media in early 2002.

'I ran through the whole gamut of emotions, from disbelief ' 'It can't be true' ' to anger, to 'Is this really happening'', to depression,' Kneeland said.

Still, he said, 'it didn't shake my faith.'

Kneeland said he is encouraged by positive changes in the church.

'I can see the church doing a lot of good now in this area to assure it won't happen again. I think that's been a great consolation,' said Kneeland, who expects to be ordained a priest in 2006.

The six men are among 11 seminarians now studying to become priests in the Manchester diocese. For each, their decision to join the priesthood followed considerable reflection and prayer.

'It's not that I want to be a priest. It's that I have to be a priest. My life won't be complete unless I follow the vocation,' said Thomas, who was an aide to former Manchester Mayor Raymond J. Wieczorek from 1995 to 2000 and then became property and contract manager at Manchester Airport.

'When I was in politics I was still a young kid and that was really exciting stuff. But, as I grew older, I realized how empty it really was,' he added.

The idea of pursuing the priesthood, which first came to him as an undergraduate at Saint Anselm College, conflicted with a strong desire to marry and raise a family.

'There was a real struggle,' he said.

Thomas said he is more certain than ever he made the right decision. Doubts and fears now focus on whether he will be successful.

'The worst case scenario for a priest is you lose a soul. I never want to be that priest. So, in a way, that is a great struggle, whether I can effectively guide souls,' said Thomas, who expects to be ordained a priest in 2007.

In talks with five of the six seminarians, each said he came from devout Catholic families, prayed and attended Mass daily and knew priests influential in making their decision.

'When you have a calling, sometimes you get hit on the head . . . but other times it's a gradual realization that God may have other plans for you. Mine was a gradual and a natural unfolding,' said Paul B. Boudreau, 25, who grew up in Merrimack and graduated from Saint Anselm College in 2001 with a bachelor's degree in politics.

'You get to the point that this could really be for me,' added Boudreau, who expects to be ordained a priest in 2007.

Others said they remained haunted by the call, despite their best efforts to deny it.

'I kept pushing it in the back of my mind,' said Kneeland. 'This call kept lingering in my heart and mind.'

Kneeland, who studied to be a chiropractor at Scott College in Iowa, returned to New Hampshire after he graduated in 1998 and entered the seminary in 1999.

Lepine was in his mid-20s when he first considered becoming a priest. He worked on the Patriot missile system at Raytheon's Tewksbury, Mass., facility for one year and then as a cook and manager at his parents' restaurant, the Lobster Boat in Merrimack.

After years of thinking the priesthood was 'always for the other guy,' Lepine entered the seminary when his parents sold the business five years ago.

'Perhaps . . . I was haunted. You will never know until I try,' he said.

'I didn't want to live a life that I was going to regret. There is something greater than cooking fish and killing lobsters. And that is for the salvation of souls and also my soul,' said Lepine, who expects to be ordained a priest in 2006.

Statz also struggled for years between priesthood and marriage.

As he cultivated his own spiritual life, he realized he wanted to help guide people toward Christ in a culture that 'is very much materialistic, and yet there is a spiritual poverty.'

'It's just such a countercultural thing,' he said of his decision to join the priesthood. 'People are sometimes surprised to find that young men are willing to give up their lives for something . . . greater than worldly possessions and worldly longings.'

Russell Gosselin, 28, of Manchester is the sixth seminarian studying at St. John's. He entered after graduating from Norwich University in Norwich, Vt., and expects to be ordained a priest in 2006.

Life at St. John's, a four-story, 19th century stone and brick structure, revolves around the 'liturgical offices,' or daily Masses and morning and evening prayer, Thomas said.

Noon Masses are held in the monastic-style chapel with its marbled columns, stained-glass windows and carved wood. Scattered among the wooden pews recently were about 35 of the approximate 50 seminarians currently attending St. John's.

'Obviously, this was built for a time when you had hundreds of seminarians,' Thomas said of the recently renovated seminary.

'The scandal really harmed Boston's vocations,' he added.

When their studies are over, the seminarians will return to New Hampshire to be ordained first as deacons, then as priests, a process that involves promises of obedience and celibacy to their bishop.

The five seminarians said they are prepared to make these promises even if John B. McCormack is still bishop of the diocese.

McCormack came under harsh criticism for his role in the clergy sexual abuse crisis under Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston.

'We don't truly know what Bishop McCormack did or did not do . . . But that doesn't matter to us because, in the end, he is our bishop and we owe him loyalty,' Thomas said.

Said Lepine, 'The model would be St. Peter, how he made mistakes ' he denied Christ three times. But he also had a chance to prove his love for him by guiding the church.'


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