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Welcome to the 'hood the Priesthood

DANIELLE MALOTT/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Classics graduate student Damon Smith prays Feb. 22 at UA's Catholic Newman Center. Smith is applying to enter the priesthood in August.
By Biz Bledsoe
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday March 4, 2003

UA student considers pledging his life to religion

Damon Smith walks with a quick, purposeful stride. He walks so fast that he's hard to keep up with. Smith's walk seems uncanny for someone whose present and future are caught, as he says, in an "awkward" position. He is caught between the decision and the action of altering his lifestyle forever.

"I don't have a right to say that I'm sure that this is what I want to do with the rest of my life," said classics graduate

student Smith, 22, who is applying to enter the priesthood in August. "I don't have the opportunity to take my final vows tomorrow, and there's a reason for that."

If that doesn't sound like someone who is certain he should be a priest, other facts about Smith don't necessarily either. Originally from Phoenix, Smith wasn't raised Catholic, although he attended a Catholic high school because of his parents' "good secular reasons: a safe environment and supposedly better academics," he said. It was just incidental that he "learned about the (Catholic) faith, and it just started to ring true."

Smith's appearance and mannerisms are hardly that of the somber and lecture-prone priest you might have come to expect. He sports chin-length, shaggy hair; lively, laughing eyes behind trendy black-framed glasses with tiny rhinestones in each outer corner; and a fit and trim physique.

He's also unique in that he's one of the few men (and women) choosing the spiritual life these days. Statistics from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop's 1998 report indicate a sharp decline in the number of priests in the last 30 years down more than 10,000. In comparison, the percentage of the United States population that is Catholic has remained nearly the same at 23 percent. That means there are almost 2,500 U.S. parishes without resident priests, a huge increase from only 549 parishes in need of resident priests in 1965.

And yet there's his walk: fast, confident and purposeful. It undermines the uncomfortable and, to some extent, unsure period Smith is living. His stride does not indicate that Smith is unsure about becoming a priest for his own wishes for the future; rather, he's not sure that being a priest is what God wants him to do.

Smith wasn't a Catholic until his sophomore year of high school, and even after he converted, he didn't seriously entertain thoughts of becoming a priest until just last year.

"It was always just one of many, many options," he said. "But when you get near the end of college, you start having to close doors. In high school it's easy to say, I could be a doctor, I could be a lawyer, I could be a classicist, I could be a priest.' But then you get near the end of college, and you start having to close doors. I was feeling like it was the time when I would have to (close the door) on the priesthood. But I couldn't close it."

Near the end of his undergrad career, Smith began to pray and do research about the priesthood. What he found encouraged him to pursue the Dominican priesthood as a career. Dominicans are priests of a religious order founded by St. Dominic in 1216. Their emphasis is on preaching, and as a Dominican, Smith will live in a community with other priests, remain celibate, make little money, and devote his life to God.

Rev. Albert Felice-Pace of the campus Newman Center is one of Smith's mentors and has been at the center for 10 years. In that time span, he has seen about 10 other students from the UA enter the priesthood, although now there are only five still studying. The 50 percent "drop-out" rate Felice-Pace has noticed coincides with a decline in the number of men applying to the priesthood.

"For our province, we are very blessed, but on the whole I think there is a decline (in enrollment into the priesthood)," he said. "I think there are various factors, and one of them is they see, I can minister in the church without being a priest or a sister,' because they'd like to get married and have a family."

The inability to get married was an issue Smith had to face, but one he was able to resolve without too many problems.

"I remember a time when I very much looked forward to getting married and I was looking forward to a family life, and I'm not sure what happened to that," Smith said. "It just doesn't feel like me, anymore. In one sense, I'm giving something up, but it's not so much a sacrifice I just feel called to this.

"For some people, they are able to devote themselves more fully to God if they don't have a family attachment. Some people are able to get to God through that. I feel like I'm one of the former group."

Smith has emerged as a member of a rare group of men in the United States those who are willing to give up some of the most expected aspects of life, including sex, marriage, children, and owning a home. Though Smith's work as a graduate student in classical philology, the study of Greek and Latin, prepares him for the academic side of his future, the party-hard college lifestyle that pervades campus doesn't.

"(Being on a college campus and not leading a typical lifestyle) feels like I'm in a bit of an awkward position right now," Smith said. "Having chosen to undertake this project and in fact, not having done it yet, is a bit of a strange place to be.

"But most of the people on this campus, their life now as students is or should be focused on what the rest of their life is going to be. So I shouldn't be unique in looking beyond college. I've always been very forward-looking, and I suppose there are a lot of people around here that aren't. So I feel a little distant from that, but I always have."

Celibacy is another issue Smith hasn't quite been able to reconcile with in the past year.

"I have to admit the chastity thing is a bit of a challenge," Smith said. "It would be presumptuous to pretend that I'm living with some vow that I'm not, yet. So I'm a little unsure where I stand there sometimes. It's an awkward position of having made a decision to go into one state of life but still being in the other, just not knowing how to think of things."

With the guidance of religious mentors such as Felice-Pace, Smith will soon face a selection committee that will interview him and determine if he is suitable for the priesthood. If he is not selected, there is no way Smith can become a priest. Felice-Pace knows what the selection committee will look for in an applicant.

"In our order, we try to be the best preachers," Felice-Pace said. "If someone is going to apply to be a Dominican, we see whether he likes to study. We look to see if he is a good community man, because community is very essential for us; (Dominican priests) live in communities. Also, we make sure he is psychologically sound and see how he works with people of both genders."

If the committee approves Smith, he will travel to San Francisco for his first year of training, called the novitiate. He will then face six more years of training in Oakland and a one-year internship before he can take his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and become an ordained priest.

"As a priest, I want to help other people to know God as fully as he wants them to. Wow, when I say that it sounds like such a big task I sound arrogant saying I even want to help in something that personal. It's a little pushy and nosey, so there's a humility issue in knowing that any good that I do, it's not me, it's God," he said.

"But right now, I'm living almost the same life as anybody, just trying to look at it in a Christian way."

But it's his "normal" life that's giving Smith his growing pains. So in the end, it's always Smith's faith that brings him out of limbo and back to his purpose.

"I mentioned to my spiritual director that I felt weird in this position of being in limbo, and he got me. He always gets me," Smith said. "He said, Who put you in limbo?' Well, (God) put me there, so there's a point to this too.

"It's not like I'm between a life, one that's ended, and another that's not yet begun; this is life too. I have no idea exactly what I'm supposed to be doing with these months (before novitiate), or what the purpose of this is; it seems a little inconvenient. But I don't stress about it, because I know that however messed up this situation seems, I know who put me here."

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