In recent times, I have confidently assured people that the cultural assault on human life and Christian virtue cannot get worse. Remain steadfast. Cling to hope. Set your sights on God’s greater gifts. Resist fear and dispel despondency. Persevere in faith, hope and love.
Suddenly, a new five-part series from A&E stands to make a liar out of me. Amish in the City was bad enough, and something like Wife Swap was well-nigh inconceivable, but neither merits a second thought compared to God or the Girl. This self-described documentary, which premiers Easter Sunday (April 16), purports to capture the internal struggles of four 20-something-year-old men who are considering the Catholic priesthood. What depths we will plumb to satisfy perverse imaginations and nefarious appetites.
Having viewed four of the five episodes–mostly as an act of Lenten penance–the only surprise was the absence of toll-free numbers to call and vote one of the men off the cast. Certainly the show is a thing of miniscule importance–no doubt it would take something uncommonly malicious to impress the sort of person likely to be watching, and God or the Girl rises to no such heights. Still, perhaps it would be worthwhile to offer a more accurate account of how a vocation to the priesthood is discerned.
The desire for a man to be a priest is necessary but insufficient. It is the Church who calls the man to priestly life and ministry, and will only do so after a long time of careful, critical, and prayerful evaluation and assessment. The Church deserves nothing less than the best, and priestly candidate assessment is serious business. Massive failures in this assessment and in seminary spiritual formation during the 1960s and 1970s initiated the criminal and depraved molestation of children by malfeasant priests.
The Catholic Church, of course, does not sponsor reality-type pageants for eligible male contestants wishing to become priests (though, if God or the Girl’s credits are any indication, the documentary-makers inexplicably got a little help from some friends at the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, several dioceses, and a couple of Catholic institutions). What really happens is that every suitable candidate for the seminary undergoes extensive scrutiny over an extended period of time–in all cases many months, in some even years. Ultimately the candidate’s spiritual, intellectual, physical, and affective maturity are determined from a battery of interviews, recommendations, required documentation, and expert analysis that is accumulated over a period of time. Expediency does not drive the evaluation process, nor are cheap gimmicks employed to test a candidate’s mettle. The process is not one for reality television.
While this might make for poor television drama, it makes for good priests. It increases the likelihood of attaining the most impressive candidates for the seminary–that is to say, those men who are fervent in prayer, generous in service and deeply rooted in the authentic teachings and beliefs of the Church. The evaluation process aims at eliciting a complete portrait of the man who has expressed an interest in the priesthood. Who the man says he is must coalesce with who he really is. Real integrity trumps silly liability. Only after a bishop accepts a man as a seminarian is the man even permitted to apply for acceptance to a seminary–the place for priestly formation, training, and development. Seminary officials administer their own rigorous examination of each applicant to ensure that the man indeed has intentions, disciplines, and beliefs that are part and parcel of becoming a good priest.
The journey to find one’s way in life is no easy task. Christians contend that God blazes a unique path across the earthly stage for each person to traverse, although it is left to us to make God’s plan our own. Seized by great lucidity and inspired with commensurate courage, some people set aside their own designs and embrace wholeheartedly the will of God. The desired pearl of great price is not about what to do with one’s life, but corresponds more profoundly to who it is that God has created a person to be. Stated differently, one’s calling from God is first and foremost not a question concerning societal utility but personal identity.
Among these callings is the gift and mystery of celibacy. The Catholic priesthood requires the man’s complete self-investment into the service of the Church in imitation of Jesus Christ, understood to be the High Priest. For a man called to the priesthood, marriage is not an opponent or competitor, but an entirely different call from God. The priest renounces something good and natural–namely, marriage and biological paternity–and gives himself entirely to the spouse of Christ, the Church, and to spiritual paternity. Not only is the priest an instrument of Christ and a dispenser of divine grace–at the core of his being he stands in place of Christ as a result of his reception of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
The love that the four men in God of the Girl have for the Catholic Church is apparent, and their good intentions are clear–as are those of their priest mentors. The series depicts them as likable figures facing a difficult decision. The reality is that God calls each of them from the shadows of their doubt and uncertainty. The real drama is God’s activity, always at play in our ordinary experiences.
–Father David Nuss is the director of vocations for the diocese of Toledo, Ohio. He is an ardent Cleveland Indians fan and emboldened with hope as the new season dawns.