The process of preparing a young man to become a priest involves a long and carefully orchestrated series of new learnings. As I reflectback on my eight years of seminary formation, I am able to understand many things about how a person takes on any new identity. I recall experiences during those seminary days that make me smile now, but that held great formative power at the time in shaping my consciousness that I was taking on a new identity and "becoming a priest."
I remember the afternoon, only a few years out of high school, when the tailor from the ecclesiastical goods store came out to the seminary to fit us for our "clerical garb." With some minor embarrassment, but also a good measure of eager anticipation, we were introduced to the mysteries of collars that snapped at the back of the neck, funny little hats with pom-poms on top, and long black robes that we so strongly identified with the adult role models responsible for our own attraction to priestly ministry. There were the regular talks by the seminary rector about what it means to be a priest, combining everything from homey advice to profound spiritual reflection. I recall the secret glee I felt one of the first times I went out in public dressed in clericals and was approached for a handout by a street person who called me "Father." Of course, there are certain aspects of that formation that I would rather not remember now in my more "enlightened" state - like the comfort that I took in knowing that I was becoming part of the priestly club, with its instant access to the many "perks" that are part of a culture of clericalism. There were the "in" jokes that I learned to appreciate, and the jargon I began to use, and other barely noticeable little ways of signaling that I was leaving the lay state and taking on a new identity as a priest.
A second set of memories helps me to understand how challenging it can be to attempt to take on a new identity and be unsuccessful. I lived for four years in Italy and was much attracted to the Italian people and their culture. Despite the fact that I lived in an English-speaking institution, I put forth considerable effort to learn the language of the people and to understand and assimilate their ways. On vacation trips around Italy, it was a constant challenge to try to shed my American identity and be mistaken for an Italian. That meant wearing Italian shoes and clothing, getting rid of other easily identifiable American paraphernalia and, of course, trying to blend into the crowd as something other than a "straniero" (foreigner). Eventually, I was sometimes able to confuse the natives as to my American identity; but, alas, to my knowledge I never succeeded in passing for an Italian for more than thirty seconds. I considered it a triumph when a sales person told me that my accent sounded eastern European. One keen-eyed fellow (a street vendor, among Italy's most astute observers) explained to me that I just walked like an American! So, after years of trying to learn how to put on that new identity, I finally accepted my limitations and gave up the effort.
These reflections are helpful to me in understanding the challenge faced by many inquirers who seek to join our church and "become Catholic." In many ways what they are doing resembles the process I underwent in learning to become a priest, as well as my failed attempts to "go native" in Italy. Taking on a new identity, whether as a Catholic or as anything else, is inevitably a gradual process of learning and assimilation which operates on a bewildering variety of levels.
Understanding this has also made me appreciate all the more the process mandated by Vatican II for initiating new members, eventually published as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. The remarks that follow are intended to help the reader appreciate how that initiation process works and how it helps prospective new members to take on a new Catholic identity. …