Vocation and Crisis: Entering religious life during a time of scandal

The night before my sister’s wedding five summers ago, my family and our new in-laws gathered for dinner at an Italian restaurant in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Because mine is a big family—I am the sixth of eight children, and my siblings have among them 14 offspring—we chose this particular restaurant for its willingness to accommodate large, raucous groups. Busy and loud, it was perfect for our needs. Our own table was unremarkable, except that we were probably slightly louder than the rest of the clientele, and one of us—I’m the one—wore a Roman collar. To the casual onlooker, our party was just another big Catholic family out celebrating on a Friday night.

At a certain point in the evening, the sheer volume of the conversation at the table got to me, so I joined my nieces and nephew on the little dance floor, where six of them between the ages of 2 and 5 were playing “Ring Around the Rosie.” It took a certain amount of physical effort to retain my balance while simultaneously running around holding hands with people less than 3 feet tall, particularly after I’d drunk a couple of glasses of wine, but I stuck with it. Over and over we circled, collapsing each time at the final line, “we all fall down.” Kids like repetition, of course, and love it when adults come down to their level, so they were screaming with laughter and shouting “again, again!” After what seemed like the millionth rotation, I finally sat down, sweating and laughing while trying to catch my breath, and they all piled on top of me. I grabbed my nephew, the only boy in the group, and tucked him under my arm like a football as I struggled to my feet. And then I looked around the restaurant.


Maybe I was projecting. Maybe my sensitivities betrayed me. Maybe I’m paranoid. But every single person in the restaurant was staring at me.

This was only one year after the awful spring of 2002, when a seemingly endless barrage of revelations about priestly sex crimes dominated the American media. Every day a new story broke in the papers about further abuses, crimes abetted by bishops and superiors who ignored warning signs or transferred abusive priests from parish to parish. The ranks of those we had all trusted the most seemed shot through with the worst kind of sexual deviants, and it appeared that people in authority had covered up their crimes for generations. The victims were our children, our brothers and sisters, as well as our faith in the worldwide communion we affirmed every Sunday as the church established by Christ and handed down from the apostles.

Even the well-documented argument that sexual abuse was no more prevalent in the priesthood than in other religious denominations, or indeed in families, did little to ameliorate the anger and disillusionment of the average person in the pews. After all, the Catholic Church has never staked its reputation on being simply no better or worse than anybody else.

For generations, perhaps the ultimate mark of distinction for a Catholic family in the United States was to have a son become a priest. Even as vocations plummeted in the past 40 years, a son or brother in the seminary was a source of family pride and satisfaction. In four short months, much of that culture was swept away by a tide of abuse allegations and public scandals. Suddenly the sight of a young man in a Roman collar in public could bring new and unsavory images to mind.

And there I was in that restaurant, with six small children clambering up and over me on the floor. Some onlookers quickly averted their gaze when I made eye contact; others talked behind palms to their tablemates; still others simply stared without expression. I may have imagined it all, I admit, because I know that I imagined more—that mothers were suddenly clutching their children to their side, that one of my own party watched me out of the corner of her eye, that the maitre d’ looked on with barely concealed revulsion. This, I thought, was not what I signed up for.

In the Company of Jesuits

I can’t exactly claim I stepped into this life unaware, however. While I never suffered any abuse myself growing up (despite many years as an altar boy and a lifetime in the company of clergy), not all the men accused of sexual abuse in the past five years are unknown to me, and include former teachers and parish priests. It is impossible in the present climate, I suspect, to be closely tied to the church and not know at least one priest accused of sexual misconduct. For anyone who would seek to enter the clerical state these days, the stakes are known.

When I was applying for entrance to the Jesuits in the spring of 2002, the drumbeat of sexual abuse allegations against priests and religious was at its loudest, and the Jesuits were hardly spared. On the morning of my departure for a four-day visit to the novitiate, I picked up The Los Angeles Times to find a front-page story with the headline “Cloak of Silence Covered Abuse at Jesuit Retreat.” Inside my apartment was an unread copy of The New York Review of Books featuring a book review by Garry Wills. The first story told of the sexual abuse of two mentally disabled men working in the kitchen at a Jesuit retirement home; the second, entitled “Jesuits in Disarray,” claimed the Jesuits (of whom Wills was once a member) were “coping with what seem almost insurmountable problems.” The two articles painted a shameful legacy of past abuse juxtaposed with a portent of future collapse for an organization I had only recently become fervently enthusiastic about joining. I arrived at the novitiate later that afternoon with a confused, troubled heart. Why was God calling me to a life that suddenly seemed so dramatically at odds with the Gospel values of the church I wanted to serve?

At the novitiate itself, I was surprised to find the men continuing their daily lives of prayer, study and manual labor without much reference to the ongoing media coverage. In fact, I was shocked by the equanimity with which they conducted a quiet and prayerful routine in such a climate. They had other things on their minds, I later realized: the discernment of their own vocations. Besides, the omnipresence of the issue in the media was somewhat less of a factor at the novitiate. To be sure, the crisis was an occasional topic of conversation—it was hard to avoid, since the magazine rack in the recreation room held a copy of Time asking “Can the Catholic Church Save Itself?” and a copy of Newsweek trumpeting “Sex, Shame, and the Catholic Church.”

In our conversations over several nights, however, I found their shared brotherhood and sense of mission trumped any external concerns, and I began to see more clearly how I could serve God in their company. In a guest room at the novitiate in March 2002, at the nadir of the fortunes of the American Catholic Church, I made a deal with God. If God would give me the grace to live my vocation with integrity, I would accept God’s call to follow, no matter what the circumstances.

Over the next few months, I undertook as part of the application process a number of interviews with various Jesuit priests and other members of the vocation team, including two psychiatrists who administered a 500-question mental health diagnostic evaluation, Rorschach tests and other verbal exercises designed to ferret out any serious psychological problems. Then I had to solicit five recommendations from peers and former superiors, including a recommendation from a female friend my own age. By the time I was accepted in July 2002 for entrance six short weeks later, I was wondering how any abuser ever made it into the Society of Jesus. Still the headlines continued.

Respecting Boundaries

My first apostolic assignment in the novitiate was to work two days a week with three other Jesuit novices at a local shelter for battered women and children. Run by a small group of dedicated nuns, the shelter was hidden behind a thick hedge and guarded by huge attack dogs, which trotted back and forth between the hedge and an inner fence topped with barbed wire. Visitors were carefully vetted before being admitted through an iron grate, and the nuns answered the phone with an anonymous “hello” to prevent abusers from identifying the location and attempting to get at the women and children who had fled from them. In almost every case, the women and children inside the shelter had suffered long-term violence and sexual abuse at the hands of husbands and boyfriends, men who would do anything in their power to regain control over their victims.

Having witnessed the savagery done to their charges, many of the supervising nuns could be forgiven for manifesting a certain skepticism about the male of the species; while they were grateful for our help, they didn’t necessarily want to give us four novices carte blanche in interactions with the women and children either. This became clear within the first week, when they explained to us their rules about physical contact: we were not to hug the children, to pick them up, to touch them on their legs, or to make any contact with their rear ends. Because our main duties were to help out in the classrooms in the mornings and then organize play activities with the children on the shelter playground in the afternoons, the restrictions struck the four of us as impossible to follow. How does one push a child on a swing without touching her posterior? Or get a three-year-old onto a rocking horse without picking him up?

This was all the more painful because most of the children showed a serious need for physical touch. Bereft of safe male affection from an early age, they craved physical contact and were constantly looking for the reassurance of hugs and roughhousing. Games of hide-and-seek or tag often degenerated into scenes where half a dozen shrieking children would charge us, clinging to our legs, howling with laughter as they tried to tackle us. Unable to enforce the nuns’ rules while still ministering to these needy kids, we quietly but guiltily broke them over and over. The nuns never corrected or rebuked us, though I don’t know whether I spent a single day in that shelter without one or other of the novices fretting over some imagined boundary he was in danger of crossing.

Chaste Living

The situation with my non-Jesuit friends could be equally complicated at times, in large part because many people, Catholic and otherwise, draw an unconscious parallel between the voluntary decision by Catholic priests to give up a life of sexual fulfillment and the subsequent revelation that certain priests have gotten their sexual kicks from abusing children. To this mindset, the very decision to give up sex for a lifetime is a sign either of extreme pathology or of outrageous self-delusion, and visible proof that some mental screw is loose.

St. Ignatius Loyola might not object to that formulation. Indeed, he might even have taken pleasure in it—the idea that his followers were slightly mad, with all the connotations that accompany such a diagnosis. To be slightly mad is to be unsettling to others, to challenge others’ preconceived notions about human nature and the purpose of life. In that sense, living a happy life of chastity with integrity can be a powerful witness to the otherworldly goals of a Christian life. In that annus horribilis of 2002, however, my friends and peers were dubious about my prospects. After all, many of them had known me for years as a man sometimes easily distracted by the fairer sex. What was I thinking? How long could this last? And when I appealed to the witness a life of happy chastity could provide to the world, many friends had an excellent rebuttal: are any of you actually living a happy life of integrity? And have you seen the paper today?

The only authentic response to that question was a nonverbal one, and it required only that I live out my daily life as a Jesuit. Look at me, this quiet rebuttal stated, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. Are you still sure that a chaste life inevitably warps the soul? Five years of Jesuit life have proved to me that chastity, lived properly, can be part of a healthy, fulfilling lifestyle with many unexpected rewards. It should go without saying, I suppose, that in those years I have experienced no desire to molest a child.

Humility, Not Privilege

A famous meditation in the second week of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises is commonly known as the “Three Degrees of Humility,” where the retreatant is asked to consider how humility can be divided into three categories, beginning with that which is simply necessary for salvation and proceeding toward the most perfect form of humility possible, the desire to imitate the life of Christ and “to be rated as worthless and a fool for Christ, Who first was held as such, rather than wise or prudent in this world.” It is a tall order and one filled by precious few in the long history of the Society of Jesus, but it cuts to one of the central paradoxes of religious life: exactly those privileges that one thinks he or she is surrendering during the Spiritual Exercises actually return over the years by the hundredfold. I took a vow of poverty, yet have at my disposal the shared resources of a wealthy, well-connected worldwide organization; I took a vow of obedience, yet have opportunities to study subjects and travel to destinations about which I previously only dreamed; I took a vow of chastity, yet find myself free to love all manner of people who would never think of getting so close to me if I were married. All are privileges that only increase as one advances further in religious life, especially in the priesthood.

Here and now, in the midst of what is arguably the worst crisis the Catholic Church in the United States has ever faced, any young man preparing for the priesthood is invited to show he’s looking for something other than privilege, ready to receive his share of humility. No matter how much pain and sympathy one might feel for the victims of priestly sexual abuse, it is impossible to atone for the acts committed by those who preyed on the weakest in society in past generations. Nor is it really possible to undo all the permanent damage done. I realize the church faces problems that are not of my causing, requiring solutions beyond my ken. In the meantime, my peers and I persevere in hope and humility.

Whether embarrassed or ashamed in a restaurant, or ministering to others awkwardly and in confusion, or experiencing the personal pain and humiliation caused by the failings of my church and my order in these past years, I at least have a chance to choose these burdens willingly and to choose not to be counted among the “wise and prudent of this world.” Like my peers, I am stubbornly confident that the Catholic Church will eventually eliminate the conditions that have caused so many people to suffer over past generations. At the same time, from an unexpected and unwanted direction arrives the personal possibility for coming closer to real humility, to become a better Jesuit and stronger disciple of Christ. Even in the most terrible of circumstances—even there a gift can be found.


Listen to an audio interview with James T. Keane, S.J., here.

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10 years 12 months ago
It is amazing how close the article tracks with James Martin S J in his "My Life With the Saints". It sounds like Jesuits have faced the problem and formulated a way of living with it in accordance to their devotion to their vocations.
Todd Phillipe
10 years 12 months ago
A wonderful article and witness to serving the people of God which is the church, and being dependent on God's grace at all times. I thank Fr. Jim and all diocesan and religious order priests for their service, and pray for them every day. Now on the other hand, look where the all male leadership of the RCC has brought us. I refer of course to the sex abuse crisis, which everyone including the media knows is not particular to the church, but which the church must nonetheless deal with in a responsible way. Isn't it time to invite women into the seminary and on to the altar to bring some balance and sanity for the next 2 thousand years. I'm not suggesting a married priesthood, just a gender nuetral priesthood. It's time.
Doug McFerran
10 years 12 months ago
I was very much impressed by how James Keane talked about his entry to the Society. I am also quite envious. I became a Jesuit novice fifty-five years ago and remained in the Society for the next ten years. We came from a generation in which psychological testing was minimal, and our early years of formation involved maximal seclusion--and if we went off the tracks we could easily use the excuse that we had not really appreciated the emotional cost of our vows. Much has changed, in large part because novices are no longer bright teenagers recruited right out of Jesuit high schools but men who typically have a much better education, a wider range of experiences, and certainly a greater awareness of what their life will be. Clearly, these men can still go off the tracks, but they will not be able to invoke our own excuses. Okay, I am nostalgic for the days of the long black line, difficult as they were, but because of James and the other men I have come to meet among the younger Jesuits I am also reassured that the Society of Jesus will remain a vibrant force for change in today's society. James, thanks for telling your story.
ang hopkinson
10 years 12 months ago
I am a 47 year old survivor of sexual abuse by a priest, who is still a practising Catholic, though I admit a thinking one! I enjoyed and indeed sympathised with James. I have thought for a long time the 'scales' have gone to far the other way. Children love 'father' 99% of the time as a 'safe' different person to go to for a 'hug' and why not?!! Our own PP is not a Jesuit, but has a real gift for talking to children. In recent years he has had similar concerns. Things are different now, but let us all be aware of veiwing any and every priest or male, as a 'possible abuser.' Over the past few years I have met several Jesuits, and am always struck by their 'lack of airs' (for want of a better phrase) They are first and formost human beings. If there was one thing I have come to realise, from the time of the abuse, I have always been able to see priests as human beings first (therefore as different and as fallible as the rest of us). Something that is sadly lacking in many with any authority.
Doris Donnelly
10 years 11 months ago
In the most recent publication of America, there was an editorial that hit a deep chord within me. Fr. Keane’s “Vocation and Crisis” vividly portrays the situation many priests face in the wake of the horrible sex scandal in the American Catholic Church. The article was so powerful because I, a college junior, am discerning the call to enter the seminary after graduation. The life of a priest used to be one of a beacon in society. The parish priest was respected and seen as the moral guiding light for the community and the representatives on behalf of the church. I believe that these ideas must be fostered in order for the priesthood to grow to the numbers that it once held. “Even in the most terrible of moments- even there a gift can be found.” Rev. Keane ends his article with a ray of hope. The scandal cleared the church of the unworthy, those who had turned on the sacred gift bestowed upon them. God will call more to his service and the church will emerge brighter and more glorious, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. This young man knows that God is calling him to serve Holy Mother Church. It will not be an easy road, but it will be one that I will never walk alone. If all else fails, all priests should take comfort in this remarkable and blessed fact.


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