Thoughts on vocations V: one story

In my local paper this morning I found an interesting profile of a local seminarian which I wanted to share.  This complements my earlier posts on vocations, which can be found here, here, here and here.  Michael Bovino is 25 and in his first year of seminary studies at Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary.  He is a candidate for the Diocese of Norwich, CT.  If he is ordained, he will be the 19th vocation from his parish in its 150 year history.  (Referring back to my original post , this works out to about one every eight years.)   He attended a public high school (Stonington) and then a public university (UConn).  If he was an altar server it is not mentioned in his profile and did not play an obvious role in his vocation.

His vocation discernment came in two parts:  first in a deepening of his faith, and then in a call (or possible call, as he is not completely sure that he has a vocation):

As he grew older, his feelings about his faith began to change, dramatically so during his junior year at UConn. That spring, he joined college students from around the country on a mission trip to Kentucky.

“These students that I encountered, they talked about their faith, and God and Jesus, like they were real people you could know, and I found it kind of weird at first,” he said. “But reflecting back later, I realized that they had this sense of joy, of contentment, that I didn’t have, and their witness really resonated with me.”

Back in Storrs, Bovino couldn’t get them out of his mind.

“For me, it was this kind of awakening to this sense that these people were living their faith, and this realization that there was substance to why they were doing it,” he said.

He had been going to Sunday Mass on campus since starting at Storrs, but after the trip he began attending daily Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel there.

“I was seeking other people like them, and I went looking at church.”

This brought him into contact with FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students.  This is a lay run organization which sees itself as part of the New Evangelization of Pope John Paul II.   I am not very familiar with them—my only contact was a student from UConn making a fundraising appeal at mass to support her work as a FOCUS missionary.   On their website they describe themselves as follows:

Recognizing the dire need for Catholic campus outreach, and inspired by Pope John Paul II’s call to a “new evangelization”, Curtis Martin and his wife, Michaelann founded FOCUS – the Fellowship of Catholic University Students – in 1998 at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

Sixteen years since its launch, FOCUS has grown from four missionaries serving one campus to over 400 missionaries serving 99 campuses in 35 states across the nation. Today, FOCUS continues to encourage young men and women to develop and invest in their relationships with Jesus and to go out and share the Good News, transforming the culture for Christ.

Michael Bovino found their outreach to be what he was looking for in his life.  After graduation he decided to become a FOCUS missionary.  at Monclair State in New Jersey:

here, he and another missionary lived on the third floor of the Newman Catholic Center, one floor above a Catholic priest who also worked on campus.

“I think that helped me to see the priest as a human being,” and to realize the obvious, he said, that a priest has parents and siblings, and does ordinary things like paperwork, shopping and watching television.

“It just expanded my scope of seeing a priest not just as a priest celebrating Mass on Sunday, but all the other things they do.” And as he began to believe that God might be calling him to a vocation, that was eye-opening and appealing.

While, as I have said previously, the plural of anecdote is not data, Michael Bovino’s story does shed some interesting light on the questions that I raised, and that were raised in the commboxes of my previous posts.  He comes to the priesthood from an undertapped source:  Catholics who went to public schools.  His vocation came after college and seemed to be strongly shaped in relationship, both with lay missionaries from FOCUS and (implicitly) with the chaplain at Monclair State.   His vocation was born out of a deeper faith experience as a layman, which in turn strengthened by a missionary trip:  he found his faith in service to others.

What other lessons can we learn from his experiences?  How can we build on them to encourage more young men to discern vocations to to the priesthood?

Please pray for Michael Bovino that God will send forth His Spirit and lead him ever closer to His love and His will.

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  • Mark

    As long as current inessential restrictions on the priesthood remain in place, the best way to target vocations campaigns would really be to use certain very narrowly focused personality tests. The current policies are a healthy fit only for a very specific “type” of personality/psyche, and one doesn’t need to mystify or obfuscate to find him: empirical testing would reveal him quite well.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Mark, I am not sure what you mean: are you saying that the current selection criteria are too narrow and only catch a certain kind of candidate? What do you think we should be looking for?

  • Alexandra

    I am always amazed that people who talk about attracting more to the priesthood would not be pushing for the ordination of women and for the rejection of the celibacy requirement.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Celibacy is an interesting question but I am not sure that it is central. On the other hand, if all other things remain equal, that the vocations crisis would be solved by ordaining women. This is a question I meant to blog about when I wrote the first post, but somehow never got around to it.

    • emmasrandomthoughts

      Celibacy would definitely be a part of it, but not necessarily for the obvious reasons. There was a high motivation for families to send second (or third or fourth sons) to become priests so that more wealth could be past to the eldest son. Now there is less economic motivation to keep sons from marrying.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        The problem with this “dynastic” argument is that historically few families had that much wealth. And what of primogenitur, in which the oldest son automatically inherited everything anyway?

        • emmasrandomthoughts

          1 Different countries had different inheritance laws. My French Revolution professor talked about how the law of primogenitor was not in force the way it was in England. (We also see examples of the variety of inheritance laws in the laws of royal succession. In Spain and England, women could inherit the throne. In France (and modern day Lichtenstein) women are forbidden from inheriting the throne.)

          2 I grant that the number of men who joined the priesthood for this reason were a relatively small number of the ordained. However, they were far more likely to become bishops, cardinals, and even popes. (Hence the Borgia and Medici popes.) They were also more likely to become abbots. This means that their influence was disproportionate to their numbers.

          3 My main point is that people in the past joined the priesthood (and religious life) for perfectly practical reasons distinct from vocation. So many times faithful Catholics look at the large number of priests and religious in the past and they assume that this is because these people had much greater faith than we do. They ignore the very real, practical reasons that motivated men to become priests.

  • emmasrandomthoughts

    It sounds as though the best way to encourage vocations to the priesthood is to invigorate the faith of the laity.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      At the end of the day, it really may be as simple as that. Of course, simple solutions are often the most difficult.

      • emmasrandomthoughts

        True, the simplest solutions are rarely easy. I also admit, I find it a little counter intuitive that a laity involved in the faith would foster vocations. (After all, if you can be involved in your faith as a lay person, why not stay a lay person?)

        • Thales


          I see that on the surface it may seem counter-intuitive that a laity who is more involved in the faith would foster vocations, but I think it makes tons of sense. Consider a lay person becoming more involved in his or her faith and finding real meaning in serving others — and who then realizes that he or she wants to be able to serve others full-time as a vocation, and to devote himself or herself to faithful service. What is the natural position or “job” where you can live a life of religious and faithful service, and where you might be able to serve others in a more significant way than as a lay person? The religious life, obviously, say as a Missionary of Charity or as a Franciscan priest.

          Even as a matter of mere practical concern, the religious life seems to make sense in many cases over staying in the laity. You like being a lay FOCUS missionary to college students? You could do it for one year or two, but eventually it becomes impossible as a practical matter because you’re going to have to eventually stop asking for money from the pulpit of your church and you’re going to have to get money for your food by yourself by getting a “real job” making widgets at the local factory (unless you luck out in finding a position with a charitable organization that pays you for your service.) Religious life as a sister or a priest gives you a roof over your head and food in your belly that you don’t have to pay for, allowing you to devote your life to service.

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

            Thales, I see your point, but I do want to point out that Protestant churches, particularly evangelical ones with a strong missionary bent, support long term missionaries who are married and have kids: in some sense, being a missionary is their “real job.”

        • Thales

          I know, yes, Protestant denominations have a tradition of supporting lay/married missionaries — I suppose because they had to fill the large hole that was usually filled by the religious missionaries found in the Catholic church. But today, even the Catholic church has a growing practice of full-time lay missionaries — for example, the full-time employees at FOCUS (the leadership) or other Catholic charitable organizations. Even so, a religious order devoted to service is a naturally attractive place someone wanting to spend their live in religious service.

    • Tausign

      Emma, your simple Rx of ‘invigorating the faith of the laity’ really is at the heart of the matter. But it is not true (IMO) that an invigorated laity would get caught in its own spirituality and leave religious and clerical vocations lacking. I am certain the opposite is true.

      We have been on a prolonged downward slide in all sorts of vocations and religious commitments in general. The priesthood (both secular and religious) are down. Male and female religious of all stripes are down (conservative, progressive, contemplative and active). And finally, the vocation to the family life of marriage and family are in a seemingly never ending nosedive. All of this seems highly correlated and I would expect the eventual recovery will happen in all categories simultaneously.

      As we recover our spiritual lives (i.e. the Church rebuilds) individuals will find themselves questioning and discerning where God is calling them to serve…and choosing vocations accordingly.

  • Ronald King

    Priests do some ordinary things but are not ordinary guys. Since we are wired for sexual desire and attraction, I would like to hear how priests and those who are thinking about the priesthood have coped with this influence. Have they had intimacy on this level or have they avoided this type of intimacy?

    • Tausign

      Since we are wired for sexual desire and attraction, I would like to hear how priests and those who are thinking about the priesthood have coped with this influence.

      I would imagine that the foundational decision must be made regarding the desire for family and children with its commitments versus the desire for freedom to serve the faith community. This will ultimately inform us in how to form our intimate relationships.

      I may be completely wrong, but I am taking your term ‘intimacy’ as suggesting conjugal relations. If so, we may confusing the issue by assuming that such encounters are truly intimate when in fact they may be superficial, immature, selfish, degrading, etc., especially if they are primarily motivated by a ‘wired sexual desire’.

      • Russell

        That is true to a point tausign, and a necessary corrective to Ronald’s constant invocations of modern psychology, which just isn’t in the end Catholic.

        But. I’ve dealt with a lot of seminarians and young priests and novices and young religious…and a whole lot of them are “weird.” Like, creepy or pathetic.

        And the ones who aren’t are a very specific type of “steady” that is stable but incredibly bland.

        I’ve found this is less true with older priests; a lot of different personalities came in back before the 90s.

        But nowadays visiting a seminary gives you a strange vibe, and any normal person would know what I’m talking about.

        And doesn’t this just make sense? These men are literally institutionalized. In many ways seminary and religious houses of formation…are minimum security prisons. Sex-segregated, curfews, constant monitoring and observation, a closed society of petty little cliques and disavowed grudges.

        But on top of that, it’s a minimum security prison filled with men who have CHOSEN it deliberately. So the pool of personalities is even more weirdly skewed.

        I’m all for dropping the celibacy requirement. I’m all for making the priesthood more “volunteer-part time” like the Mormons, the Jewish temple priesthood, or the permanent diaconate…rather than a salaried totalizing career.

        But more than either of these, they need to reform the training. The “adult boarding school” model is creepy, and attracts the dysfunctional.

        This commonweal article isn’t an anomaly:

        Seminaries everywhere would give any normally socialized person the heeby-jeebies. There’s just too much an attitude of totalizing repressive control. “Human formation” and “discernment” are words that still give me the willies. They’re coded ways of describing a type of psychological grooming.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          An immediate problem with your argument is that the older priests you discuss came out of a seminary environment essentially the same as the one you condemn.

        • Ronald King

          Russell, I am confused by your comment about my “constant invocations of modern psychology”. What, in particular, is your objection?

        • Russell

          True David, but the world has changed too.

          It was a more “normal” choice back then to enter such an environment, as many more such institutions existed (many more men had served in the military, employers were more heavy-handed before labor conditions improved, schools were a lot more rigid, etc etc)

          Society as a whole was more repressive, so these men weren’t necessarily making an extraordinarily self-flagellation get choice.

          But normal has changed. Society has become more open and free, while seminaries have maintained certain bizarre affectations. I heard one seminary had a no cell-phone policy, another had “lights out.”

          A friend who went for a discernment weekend has some bizarre stories about the very seminary you mentioned in those post. They involved seminarians being discouraged from socializing with the undergrads at the associated college, a lot of really forced activities that seemed designed to try to “butch up” the atmosophere, and a faculty member who pranced around stroking a little pug dog like an evil villain.

          You search online enough and these stories are all too common.

          And I never said priests from before the nineties weren’t or aren’t a bit strange by our standards of normal personalities today, just that there was more diversity.

        • emmasrandomthoughts

          I’m all for making the priesthood more “volunteer-part time” like the Mormons, the Jewish temple priesthood, or the permanent diaconate…rather than a salaried totalizing career.

          Oh boy. One of my good friends is Mormon and she has told me about the prevalent spiritual abuse that happens in Mormon wards. No thanks.

      • Ronald King

        Tausign, intimacy in this comment refers to being vulnerable. So it would involve openness and honesty with self and another as a part of one’s interpersonal maturation.

        • Tausign

          Thanks for the correction. Turns out I was completely wrong.

  • Tausign

    I want to back up to an earlier comment:

    Emma said: It sounds as though the best way to encourage vocations to the priesthood is to invigorate the faith of the laity. I would like to suggest a slight variation: It sounds as though the best way to encourage vocations to the priesthood is to invigorate the vocation of the laity.

    It’s my contention that the ‘vocation crisis’ is misunderstood in that the rebuilding of the church (a la Christ’s instruction to St. Francis…’go and rebuild my church which you can see is in ruins’) needs the re-formation of the lay vocation more than it does the clerical or religious vocations. Or perhaps its better to say that the recovery of the lay vocation will/must come prior to the other categories of vocation.

    Every Catholic begins and develops their spiritual lives in the lay state and it is this vocation that must be cultivated before one can choose the priesthood or religious life. This overall sense of ‘vocation’ among the laity has shriveled. Many of the laity see the church as a place to be fed, to have their wounds bound, to receive solace and support in their burdens, and as an institution to be used as an ally in social concerns and justice. But far too few have understood the necessity of conversion (metanoia) and are simply relying of the evangelizing labors of a few. In other words, the greatest lack is in authentic vocations among the laity…not the priesthood or religious.

    The profound movement that St. Francis began in his time did not arise from the clergy. The primary impulse was a lay movement of penitents who were responding to the young saints vision of renewal. Francis received his inspiration from the Lord and made a fateful decision to present it to the Church for approval. The Church embraced the lay Francis and appointed him to the role of ‘sub-deacon’ in order to give him the authority to speak in church. But he did not enter a formation program (clerical or religious).

    My overall point is that the Church’s new renewal will arrive in time and assuredly it will come from a lay movement that is striking enough to cause whatever reforms are needed in and from the hierarchy and not the other way around.

    • Brian Martin

      Exactly….the whole idea of vocation needs to be broadened. Rather than talking about vocation and meaning priest, deacon or the religious, what would happen if we started talking about the vocation of the person..who ever they are. Talking about vocation in the sense of seeking God’s direction in your life. Discernment…gosh, not a new concept…St Ignatius, St. Catherine of Siena. The idea being, if we started talking to kids in religious education about asking themselves, and God, what direction he wants for their lives…ie. what might their vocation be, asking teens the same, and adults the same…that seems like the start of renewal. The whole manufacturing of a Call to the priesthood seems misguided. Our Parish had a wall in the school with pictures of the priests, deacons, and men pursuing priesthood, and asking for prayers. How about the lay people working as chaplains, pursuing degrees in theology…what about the carpenter…if people are doing God’s will in their lives…if they are seeking it, they deserve prayers as well.
      Yves Congar, in his True and False Reform in the Church talked about true reform coming from the people. Maybe it is time for Bishops to start following the Pope’s example, listen to the people rather than sending down “programs” developed somewhere else.
      We have video presentations about topics rather than tapping into the people who have knowledge and expertise…but if there is no interest in the call of the laity, the gifts they may possess, then it is the same stale meal wrapped in fancy wrapping, passed of as gourmet food.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I hear what you are saying, but do see the comments that Fr. Michael Dolan made in Part IV on the subject of vocations to the priesthood vis a vis the vocation of the laity.

        • Brian Martin

          I am not sure specifically what comments by Fr. Dolan you are referring to, i just read the interview for the third time. He spoke of “Vocations” specifically in terms of the Priesthood, and the involvement of the laity was toward formation of priestly vocations. I am suggesting that the concept of vocation has become so limited, that it is, as hinted at there and elsewhere, unusual for people to be considering vocation, or looking to God for guidance in their life. If our children grow up with the idea that we all are called to serve, to a vocation…(not a career, not a job…but something more-influence by God through the Holy Spirit in us) it becomes part of ordinary language, it becomes normal, and people will then be more involved, more alive with the spirit. Priests have a specific Charism, but they are not the only ones called to serve. I still feel like I am not saying what I mean to say very well, but I have work to do.

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

            It may be that I am conflating the interview with Fr. Dolan with one of several conversations we have had about priestly vocations. His point is that we are all called to live out our baptismal promises, but that the call to the priesthood, this particular vocation, is sui generis, and that too closely identifying it with the “lay vocation” does not accomplish anything good. I think the problem is that the word vocation is being called upon to mean too many things.

        • Tausign

          David, I believe you are referring to the last question and answer in your Fr. Dolan interview (part IV). The question was very well put. Yes, the priesthood is unique…very much so…and thankfully so. But it doesn’t follow that one should deny an ‘organic union’ in the dramatic decline of the understanding of ‘calling and vocation’ that is common to all the baptized.

          In some sense our various vocations are complimentary and dependent upon one another. The so called ‘top gun’ film itself made several references to the connection of a strong Catholic culture, family, and identity as a nurturing environment for a priestly vocation. Uniqueness of the priesthood is a given…but how can it be so distant that it is ‘unrelated’ to other forms of Catholic life?

          While I understand Fr. Nolan’s intent, in my opinion, he wasn’t describing a theology as much as a strategy or tactic for pursuing priestly vocations. The goal is to capture attention in a male culture mired in short attention span; therefore the ‘top gun’ approach works. And that’s fine with me. However, one must be very careful in asking the question…’What can I do that no one else can do?’ The video referred to, was not as ‘counter cultural’ as some would imagine. It played as much off the power and hero themes (‘real men do such and such…’) as the sacrificial servant.

    • Ronald King

      Tausign, “My overall point is that the Church’s new renewal will arrive in time and assuredly it will come from a lay movement that is striking enough to cause whatever reforms are needed in and from the hierarchy and not the other way around.”
      Here I am once again invocating modern psychology to present another possible alternative for understanding the dynamics of vocations and the renewal of the Church. I believe it is extremely important to begin with investigation of human development as it relates to attachment theory and interpersonal neurobiology. The development of our cognitive processes which includes the development of expectations for all aspects of our lives begins in the first year of our lives and is influenced by the quality of our attachments to our parents and others who are responsible for our development. The quality of our parents attachment to each other and our genetic predisposition to respond to significant environmental influences and how our responses are interpreted by our caregivers contributes to the development of identity and our expectations for belonging and meaning in life. Based on this brief description of development I believe it is important to focus on church authorities influence the expectations of how the laity live out the faith. Authorities are models of how the faith is to be lived. Beginning with the Pope and throughout the religious ranks we are taught how to act and think through observation of those who hold the highest positions. I believe it to be extremely important for each member of the laity to begin the process of introspection in order to identify our expectations for living the faith to determine if we are in line with Christ or with something less than Christ.
      I believe we would not have a problem with vocations if our leadership lived a life of passionate sacrifice and service to those who live under the threat of death and suffering on a daily basis.

      • Tausign

        I believe we would not have a problem with vocations if our leadership lived a life of passionate sacrifice and service to those who live under the threat of death and suffering on a daily basis.

        The fact that church authorities fail in testimony or even participate in corruption is at best a partial explanation of declining vocations. The inspiring witness of authorities is exceptional and not the norm, and yet the Church has emerged over and over again with renewal. Indeed the most inspiring stories of Saints revolve around those figures who usually lack authority but somehow lift the Church from its moribund state and foster new zeal and timely reform.

      • Tausign

        I believe it to be extremely important for each member of the laity to begin the process of introspection in order to identify our expectations for living the faith to determine if we are in line with Christ or with something less than Christ.

        Yes, I agree…and it has to be more than a thumb-twirling introspection of how others have failed to inspire us. Ultimately, we have to examine ourselves and the quality of witness we are giving…our own spiritual formation, however poorly it has been handed on to us…and strive for gospel living and conversion to Christ, as you say.

        • Ronald King

          Using introspection as a path towards clarifying the expectations of our faith, I believe it to be important to have specific ongoing group experiences whose purpose is to develop a safe and open environment to discuss what may inhibit or promote the deepening of faith. This is something which has worked well in group therapy for treatment of many psychological conditions.

  • Mark

    I’ll add this: any system in which such a high rate of turnover is taken as a GOOD sign (ie, that the “filter” is working and people are “discerning” that they just aren’t called to it…even when the fact that they’d even consider it is pretty remarkable in our society, and retention should thus be a priority)…clearly has something weird going on.

    • Sam Rodgers

      Mark, you think that it is a problem that seminaries have a low retention rate? I think it’s healthy that men, having entered, feel free to leave if they find it doesn’t suit them. They can always return. The rate of priests leaving ministry, on the other hand, is far, far too high.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        For what it is worth: CARA reports that seminaries have a 75% retention rate. Not great by the standards of an elite liberal arts college, but quite good, I think. It means that the initial formation period is screening out the men who do not have strong vocations.

        • Mark

          That’s sort of the problem.

          I don’t want a priest with a “strong vocation” if by that you mean someone who becomes thoroughly invested in an “identity” as a priest and becomes an “institutional man.”

          The problem remains that it’s unclear if we’re filtering for life as a priest, or filtering out men who would make good priests but just couldn’t stomach seminary life. It’s unclear to me in what sense modern seminary has anything to do with the life one would live as a priest other than a sort of hazing or hoop to jump through.

          Priests go 6 years after undergrad to school (unless they did college seminary). That’s ridiculous. Med school plus residency is about that long. But priests aren’t brain surgeons or rocket scientists, and the human skills they should be expert in…are not things you can really teach.

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

            Well, given my short stint in Diaconate formation, I get your point. However, we have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. There needs to be some institutional identification, some esprit de corps, associated with the priesthood. This is one of the psychic rewards that helps get through the long days, cranky parishoners and low pay. (Academics need similar psychic rewards: the collapse of faculty morale is much more critical than a faculty that grouses about low pay and high workloads.) The trick is to make sure that it does not degenerate into clericalism.

        • Mark

          Well 6 years is ridiculous. What justifies so much more training than a deacon?? Honestly, priests I meet have no special skill I can discern, not even in theology. Certainly no more than deacons.

          And “low pay” is another question too. What does justify having the priesthood be a full-time salaried thing? If all the permanent deacons in the U.S. were allowed tomorrow to say Mass and hear confessions (ie, be ordained priests)…how many full-time salaried pastors would we even need?

          Maybe not none, but I suspect a lot fewer. Most priests, especially associates, seem to largely exist just to say one or two masses on Sunday.

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

            While there are priests who do nothing but say a couple masses each weekend, my experience has shown me that they do a lot more and the good ones I have known complain bitterly about the day to day management of a parish because it keeps them from pastoral work.

            As for training: deacons spend 4-6 years in part time training, depending on the Diocese and how “part time” their course work is. Priests have, or should have, a ton of special skills and I am not surprised that it takes a while to prepare them. I do not know any deacons (or very few) who are prepared to hear confessions tomorrow. Also, I think six years is only for folks whose undergraduate degrees do not provide sufficient prep in philosophy and theology, but I am not sure.

        • Mark

          I don’t know where you’re from, but I have heard of dioceses in which the diaconate program is only 3 years of night-and-weekend training.

          I’d much rather confess to some of the deacons I know than some of the priests I know.

          I’ve rarely experienced much wisdom in confession, nor are you supposed to (it’s not supposed to be quickie spiritual direction). For most priests it’s “let’s thank God for a good confession,” some canned terse advice on one or two sins they highlight, and five Hail Mary’s.

          It does not take much.

  • Atheist Max

    I find this interesting:

    “But reflecting back later, I realized that they had this sense of joy, of contentment, that I didn’t have, and their witness really resonated with me.”

    It is almost like someone talking about seeing the influence of a spell or a trance. I can’t be the only one who finds this unnerving.

    • Thales

      I don’t find it unnerving. Perhaps you haven’t encountered many people who are happy with their religious vocation.

      • Atheist Max

        Well, I certainly have known many happy priests in my life. I was a devout Catholic for 44 years. My beloved uncle is a retired priest. So on one level I do understand the notion of being within the belief – that sort of exhilarating “Easter Morning feeling”.

        But as I reflect back on my Christian years and re-examine it all, the concept of “witnessing” looks less wholesome.

        I guess that is what I found unnerving. I don’t begrudge people their happiness – don’t misunderstand – I have no doubt that priests find joy in these beliefs as I did once. I’m happy for them.

        But with religion there is great comfort in “convincing oneself of the goodness of a belief” and in finding others who can do the same – without questioning whether the belief is truly good or not.

        It was just my reaction.

    • Tausign

      The seminarian’s full quote was: “These students that I encountered, they talked about their faith, and God and Jesus, like they were real people you could know, and I found it kind of weird at first,” he said. “But reflecting back later, I realized that they had this sense of joy, of contentment, that I didn’t have, and their witness really resonated with me.”

      Clearly, you are mirroring the first half of his response; so be careful…you may be under the same spell.

      • Atheist Max

        Fair enough,
        but he attributes the communal atmosphere to a shared belief: ‘their witness’.
        It is the ‘witness’ which I find interesting. What exactly is ‘witness’? Can we pin it down?

        How does ‘their witness’ differ from “their shared belief in belief”?

        Can it be determined whether joy comes from “actually witnessing Jesus” or from “agreeing it would be good to believe we witness Jesus.”

        I’m not sure I see a difference. But it is important.
        Because if we do not witness a real Jesus and only experience joy in shared “belief in belief” there is no real witnessing happening.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          I am a bit tired and out of it as I check on the blog, but I have to admit I am really not sure what you are getting at here.

        • Dante Aligheri

          I think I do, to some extent – please correct me if I’m wrong. To witness authentically would mean to have an experience of an external reality which brings joy versus a “closed bubble” scenario where the group self-confirmation of belief, which brings confirmation and hence security.

          So, it’d be like, if I may say so, a kind of Nietzschean “will to believe” (in a non-pejorative sense) that creates the phenomenon, choosing to believe in something within a group setting. So, an instinctive optimist might will himself or herself to view the world a certain way, against all available evidence, without “witnessing” an external reality to confirm that or being converted to that point of view. The optimist is reconfirmed by other optimists. Is that correct?

          I think it’d be nearly impossible to discern objectively between these. The only thing I can think of, maybe, is whether in the process of witness leads someone to act against himself – or do something he or she wouldn’t normally do, or break with the group or at least experience tension or movement. In that sense, one is moving outside of oneself and experiencing a paradigm shift. If the witness merely reconfirms where one is already at, then that person is doing it wrong. It shouldn’t be about self-contentment but creating discontent with oneself.

          Admittedly, this still would not be witnessing in a positivist sense, but I don’t think it would be merely “belief in belief” either, which all too often does occur. Healthy witnessing wouldn’t be that, in my opinion.

          • Atheist Max


            “If the witness merely reconfirms where one is already at, then that person is doing it wrong.”

            Very interesting comment. Thanks for helping to clear this up for me.

  • Atheist Max

    I’m not being very clear and I’m coming at your blog from a very different perspective. If it is an unwelcome question, by all means please ignore me – I mean no offense.

    I was moved by your blog – this story of Michael Bovino who appears to have found his calling (good for him).

    But the experiences he describes are interesting; the trip to Kentucky in particular where he has a sort of insight as he watches the FOCUS seminarians “living their faith.” I’m supposing he sees a strong support they give each other. He liked this and he wanted to be part of it. I don’t blame him.

    Since I have left religion I am curious about such experiences, not because I doubt they are genuine but because religious language is so breezily reinforcing what it wants to see.

    For example: “I dropped off my shirt at the cleaner and on the way out I found 2 dollars – so I guess God wanted me to go out for coffee after all.”

    As an Atheist, I would call that projecting God onto a random situation. When I was a believer I might have seen it as God’s intercession into my day to encourage me.

    Michael used the phrase, “their witness really resonated with me.”
    It sticks out because he is clearly not kidding – it had a big effect on him. But what does that phrase mean?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Max, thank you. No worries that you are an atheist: like the constitution, this blog forbids religious tests! :-)

      Religious language can often be used in seemingly trivial ways—indeed, even among believers there is a wide variety of responses. Many years ago I heard a priest friend preach on parking in Chicago, with the wry observation that prayer was not going to find him a parking place when he was late to class. I have also heard a wise old member of my Franciscan fraternity give thanks to God because she found a parking place just when and where she needed one. Who’s right? Probably both of them. Despite their differences, I think both of them have a trust in Divine providence, a teleological sense that there is an ordering to the universe, that there is more than randomness and chance. As Hamlet put it: “there is a destiny that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.” The difference between them is how far they project it into their own lives.

      As for the language Michael Bovino used—“their witness really resonated with me”—I would interpret that as saying that he found that their lives and actions testified to their beliefs. There is a phrase often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (though in fact he did NOT say it): “always preach the gospel, use words if necessary.” Michael went into this experience with a pre-existing faith; but he saw that this faith inspired others into a life he found attractive, perhaps because it spoke to him about how he himself should live his faith.

      I think this is more than “belief in belief” as you put it, precisely because it is directed outward and, while it is introspective (“what does God want from me?”) it is centered on someone outside himself. (I the back of my mind I hear Zizek yelling something about the imaginary “big Other” whom we are always trying to please, but at the moment I am ignoring him.)

      Does this make sense?

      • Atheist Max

        David, Thanks very much. I appreciate your thoughtful reply.
        One of the things I thought I enjoyed as a believer was the sense that God was intervening in this world in all sorts of ways large and small – it was reassuring to think I was seeing evidence of it. Everytime it happened it would reconfirm my bias toward faith.
        It appears from your comments Michael may have been using that word ‘witnessing’ in a similar way. I suspected it but couldn’t be sure.
        I don’t see such intervention from God anymore – but I do see interventions from people. That is something I am sure I am witnessing and it is almost always good.
        If I were to see a group of seminarians being supportive and respectful to each other I would be inclined to chalk it up as ‘witnessing’ human decency in action – the power humans to be good to each other and accomplish wonderful caring communities.
        It would no longer occur to me to that seeing such goodness is my witness of god’s influence or actions but instead the witnessing of how surprisingly wonderful and amazing humans really are.

        Thanks so much for your response.

        • Tausign

          It would no longer occur to me to that seeing such goodness is my witness of god’s influence or actions but instead the witnessing of how surprisingly wonderful and amazing humans really are.

          Well in a sense, this is the great debate isn’t it? And how is the ‘testimony’ of one’s life assessed or interpreted? Where is the consistency, coherency, the fundamental principles that undergird and form such a testimony? For the authentic Christian witness it ultimately depends on the conformity of one’s life with Jesus Christ…loving as he does…having mercy as he does…and sacrificing oneself as he does.

          This type of testimony is very often costly and ‘a sign of contradiction’ (to use a gospel term) precisely because it frequently contends with self-serving and utilitarian notions of ‘goodness’. Understanding the need for ‘conversion of the heart’ is vital to understanding the Christian life. Inherent in this movement of heart is a realization and surrender to God as the source of all that is good. Also, inherent in this stance is the realization that ‘man’ is good by nature because we are created in the Diving Image.

          Sin and the general explanation of fallen human nature is the tendency to be our own arbiters of goodness…determining for ourselves what is good and evil, right and wrong, etc…thus usurping our proper relationship with God as the One who knows us better than we know ourselves, cares for us, sustains us, is providential, is merciful, etc…

  • Atheist Max

    “God as the One who knows us better than we know ourselves, cares for us, sustains us, is providential, is merciful, etc…”

    I can’t bring myself to believe it.
    How could “we know that He knows us better?” It is just a riddle.

    The minute “we know” that He knows more we immediately know where our limit of knowledge is and where God’s knowledge begins. But to know where that line is would imply we know what God knows.

    I see people caring for other people; sustaining other people. But no sign of a god at work.
    The gardner grows the vegetables – if he chooses not to bring them to table it is not god’s doing but the gardener who decides.
    For even if a God exists the gardner is still the one who decides to follow the god or not – the gardener decides which god exists and chooses which godly laws matter and which godly laws must be rejected (“Kill Homosexuals” – Lev. 20:13).

    The gardner could sustain an entire family without ever leaving any decisions up to God.
    So it can’t be true that only God sustains.

    It may be that God provides. But clearly this claim can be altered to fit a different God or several gods or no god at all – without the slightest consequence or change in outcome.
    His effect on reality is so perfectly invisible it matters not in the slightest whether he is One, or Ten or ten thousand or a million. He appears to fit the definition of a cultural invention.

    But I appreciate your response.

    • Tausign

      “It may be that God provides. But clearly this claim can be altered to fit a different God or several gods or no god at all – without the slightest consequence or change in outcome.”

      In one aspect, yes…If the farmer plants a seed of corn, then the harvest will be corn and not tomato, cabbage or a rhinoceros. But in other aspects there may be a variety of consequences. He may feed his family, share it with his neighbors and offer some on the altar to God, He may sell it to buy a weapon or hoard it in a second silo to increase his wealth. There are lots of moral choices that will be made and most of these choices will me made based upon the farmer’s conception of and relationship with God (or gods…or no god).

      • Atheist Max

        “these choices will be made based upon the farmer’s conception of the god…”

        Yes. But decisions are still made by the farmer. Even the conception is his own decision.

        There appears to be no role for a real god. Only a real farmer.
        The farmer’s motive is survival of himself, his loved ones, his market – perhaps his town and its currency.

        Is there any evidence that a God “sustains” or “provides” any of it?
        Rain and sunshine appear to happen to believers and non-believers as randomly as other qualities of nature.

        I guess I question God as ‘provider and sustainer’. I cannot know about whether he is ‘merciful or caring’ – Nepal’s earthquake indicates all predictable natural phenomena are permitted to progress on schedule without his intercession. Depletion of food supplies in Biafra being another example of non-intercession in the face of scientific data and warnings (there are too many to count). We can predict upcoming earthquakes (Haiti for example) and they tend to happen entirely without regard to the presence of a deity.

        But thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’m just curious about the things you said and I make no claims to the contrary.