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The secret lives of seminarians

By Diego Ribadeneira, Globe Staff, 10/31/1997

The New Men: Inside the Vatican's Elite School for American Priests
By Brian Murphy
Grosset/Putnam, 292 pp., $25.95.
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ame old song and dance. That's the initial reaction when you pick up a book about Roman Catholic priests. It's been a fairly steady diet of bad news. There is a dire shortage of priests. An increasing number of parishes, particularly in rural parts of the Midwest, have no resident priests. Mostly, we are told by religious scholars, the shortage is attributable to the church's unwavering demand for priestly celibacy.

Then there are stories about priests who sexually abuse children, usually boys. The issue of clergy sexual abuse is one of the most controversial and costliest problems facing the Roman Catholic Church today. Such sex scandals have been prime fodder for writers.

But Brian Murphy's book, "The New Men: Inside the Vatican's Elite School for American Priests," is a delightful surprise. Murphy, an Associated Press reporter, takes us inside the walls of the Pontifical North American College in Rome -- the Vatican's West Point for priests -- and into the minds and souls of seminary students wrestling with the momentous decision of whether to give their lives to the priesthood.

The seminarians, many of whom gave up comfortable lives in corporate America to seek the often difficult job of parish priest, wrestle with themselves and, ultimately, with God. Murphy's story is gripping, wrenching, and poignant. His is not a lament about the glory days of the church, when the pews were filled with the faithful and parish priests were as much a fabric of neighborhood life as the corner grocer or the cop walking the beat. Instead, Murphy opens a new world, one little known to most Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

He introduces us to six seminarians as they struggle to leave behind their worldly lives to achieve a state of holiness. There is an attorney who lived a good life of girlfriends and high-class restaurants in New Orleans. There is a Vietnamese immigrant who survived the fall of Vietnam. There are twin brothers from Lowell who go to Harvard and then are reunited in Rome after following different roads. There is a North Dakota farm boy painfully homesick for the wide-open lands of the Great Plains. There is a hotshot Air Force pilot torn by his love for a girl he left behind.

Murphy weaves an engrossing narrative, giving readers an intimate glimpse into the onerous first year of seminarians at the North American College, where only the best and the brightest from American dioceses are sent for training.

More than anything, he helps us realize that men preparing for the priesthood are not automatically blessed with some kind of divine mantle of holiness. They don't have a secret shortcut to God. They are not religious robots. Murphy gets close enough to them to make us feel their sorrows and their joys, their frustrations and successes. He puts us face to face with their humanity.

These seminarians are young men grappling with the demand placed on them by Reverend Timothy Dolan, the gregarious, compassionate, and wise rector of the North American College who, Murphy tells us, played priest as a child, erecting a makeshift altar in the basement of his home. "You have one task," Dolan tells the awed and frightened seminarians early on in the year. "That is to configure yourself to Christ."

For Chris Nalty, the up-and-coming lawyer from New Orleans, the issue of celibacy nearly causes him to abandon the seminary. "I joke with my spiritual director that I wear sunglasses to class all the time so people don't see my eyes wandering on the way," Nalty tells Murphy. Seven months later, after countless hours of prayer and hashing out his concerns with other seminarians and some professors, Nalty finally realizes he can live a celibate life. As Nalty explains it, he isn't hit with a lightning bolt. He doesn't undergo some grand epiphany. He just comes to know that he wants to follow Jesus, even if it means embracing celibacy and leaving behind the memory of former girlfriends.

That's part of the success of Murphy's book. He helps us appreciate the mystery of the faith and understand that there aren't necessarily clear explanations for what compels some men to dedicate their lives to God. In a society where secularism seems to reign supreme and where the Roman Catholic Church suffers its share of woes, it is perhaps a comforting and hopeful conclusion.

"The past three decades have been a crucible for the Church," Dolan says. "Now that can do one of two things. That can kind of quiet the Church and make her shut up and become very timid and climb under a rock. Throughout history the opposite has happened. The tougher the Church has had it, the stronger it usually is, you see."

This story ran on page C6 of the Boston Globe on 10/31/1997.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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