Priest in the Making

By Peggy Fletcher Stack
Tribune [Salt Lake UT]
April 19, 2003

This is the first in a series exploring Sam Dinsdale's journey to the Catholic priesthood. Upcoming stories will chronicle his May ordination and first few months in a parish.

Memlo Park CA -- Sam Dinsdale stands before the class, arms raised, tilted upward at the elbow. His head is down scanning pages of scripture. He reads the words: "Lift up your hearts."

No, no, no.

Off to the side, the Rev. John Talesfore calls out tips like a Roman Catholic version of the off-screen director in "Chorus Line."

Look at the opening lines. Bring them out. Raise your hands. Use gracious, sweeping gestures. Not jerky ones. "Though some priests are jerks," he jokes.

(Nervous laughter from the class.)

Dinsdale continues. ". . .together with George, oops, I mean, John Paul, our pope."

(More snickers.)

He picks up the goblet and wafer and carefully speaks the remaining passages, then takes his seat among his dark-clothed peers who sit in anxious silence.

Classmate (apologetically): "He's very sincere."

But His Finickiness, whose formal title is director of liturgy for the San Francisco Archdiocese, is just getting warmed up. The Mass, he stresses, is Catholicism's most important ritual.

Talesfore (with a flourish): "Eye contact is essential. Who are you speaking to, God or the people? And don't stress prepositions. It's drink from it, not drink from it."

Class ends. Talesfore reminds the students he will be videotaping their performance of the Mass. Don't forget, he says, to practice in your rooms at night. Intone the Mass as if it's your first time, your last time, your only time. Monotony will put the people to sleep.

Next week: Chanting.

Religious theater: This is the script at St. Patrick's Seminary, where men -- young and old, gay and straight, never-married, divorced and widowed, teachers, truck drivers and dishwashers -- are molded into stand-ins for Jesus Christ.

Dinsdale is in his fourth year here, one of 12 seminarians from the Salt Lake Diocese but the only one who will graduate in May. When he does, he will be in immediate demand. Last year, there were almost 3,000 U.S. parishes without a resident priest. There are about 100 students enrolled at the seminary and half of them are from far away places such as Mexico, Vietnam and the Philippines.

The Ogden native's years at St. Patrick's, the secluded 100-year-old seminary located a few miles from Stanford University, have been quiet and contemplative. He has had lots of time to read Dostoevsky and Kafka, hone his sermon-writing skills, establish what he hopes will be bedrock moral reasoning, develop close friendships, and plumb the riches of ceremony, service and solitude.

The 28-year-old seminarian needs no reminders of the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the American Catholic Church in previous years. There is no escaping it. After all, this is a seminary not a monastery. There are televisions and newspapers and free-flowing discussions on and off the campus. In addition, two priests on St. Patrick's faculty have left following abuse allegations during Dinsdale's years there. Nationally, more than 1,200 priests stand accused of sexual misconduct.

Dinsdale and his classmates have attended endless lectures about coming to terms with their sexuality and the importance of boundaries. They have had workshops with abuse victims and experts. They have read books and watched videotapes. They have discussed the problem over dinner and drinks and during Monday night socials.

Individually, as a pre-emptive strike against abuse, each would-be priest is grilled again and again on his motives, psychological health and sexual needs. They meet with bishops and therapists and spiritual counselors on a regular basis. Even before they arrive, every candidate is evaluated by the diocese which supports him. They are given the Minnesota Multi-Phasic Personality Inventory test and an AIDS test.

Dinsdale has heard the claims that the majority of priests are homosexuals and that the so-called "gay subculture" in Catholic seminaries is causing serious rifts. He's not buying it.

"If you ask others, they might say yes, but I haven't seen it," he says. "People come here gay and straight. If people are homophobic, they're going to be put off a lot. Generally, though, it's not a problem."

Sexuality is no longer a taboo subject, but rather an essential part of spiritual maturity.

"Sexuality is how you see yourself. It's what connects you with God," he says.

Whatever their orientation, the students must vow to live a celibate life.

"We've all been called to a life of holiness," he says. "If we can't, we are forced to leave."

And for a variety of reasons, only half of the students who entered seminary with Dinsdale are still in the program.

In the church's embrace: Sam Dinsdale grew up in "a Catholic bubble," as he puts it. His father Luke Dinsdale, a lapsed Mormon, sold S&H Green Stamps at truck stops and grocery stores, which meant he travelled a lot. Georgia Dinsdale worked at USWest and entrusted her young son to the care of nuns and priests and teachers and friends in Ogden's Catholic schools. They burnished him into a smoothly devoted son of the church. Everything he knew was Catholic.

His only rebellion was occasionally wearing khaki pants rather than the required navy blue.

At 11, Dinsdale became an altar boy at Holy Family Parish where he learned to love the liturgy and the priests who, like the Rev. Lawrence Sweeney, administered it. He began to imagine himself in that role. Not so much that he practiced giving the host to family pets, mind you. Just a small, still voice beckoning him in that direction.

After graduating from St. Joseph's Catholic High School in 1992, Dinsdale studied forestry and philosophy at Utah State University. He dated a bit, not serious enough to consider another kind of altar, he says.

One night after his sophomore year, while on a summer internship with the forest service in Vail, Colo., Dinsdale had an epiphany.

"That night I felt joy, expectation, fear, and the need to tell someone I knew about the experience," he says.

He immediately drove all night back to Ogden to share the news with Sweeney: God was calling him.

It was life changing, but also, says Dinsdale: "It was naive abandon." He knew nothing of the arduous journey that awaited him.

Soon, he was meeting monthly with the Rev. Gerry Lynch, vocational director for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. Unlike earlier generations of Catholics, who had willingly given at least one son per family to the priesthood, his parents were not thrilled at the prospect. Back then, families were larger and priests were an honored class. But Dinsdale was an only child. Eventually, his parents warmed to the idea once they realized how committed he was to it. His father even converted to Catholicism.

Dinsdale finished his liberal arts degree at USU in the spring of 1997. By the fall, he was navigating his white Nissan Altima down the tree-lined drive toward St. Patrick's, gulping down meals prepared by Mexican nuns who cook and pray for the priests, and taking early morning runs past the vacant tennis courts where young priests once got their exercise.

Decades ago, many seminarians came straight out of high school. Now, most students are in their mid-30s to mid-70s making Dinsdale, at 22, one of the youngest freshmen entering the school.

Once on the campus, Dinsdale immersed himself in classes on biblical theology, ancient, medieval and modern Catholic history, pastoral counseling and social ethics. He was tested on the proper sequence of a Christian funeral, when to allow for a "substantial period of prayerful silence" and when not to say "allelujah." Latin is no longer required, but a second language is. Dinsdale chose Spanish.

For a master's of divinity degree and a bachelor's in sacred theology, he must maintain a 3.00 grade-point average and intern at least one year in a Catholic parish.

From 2000 to 2001, Dinsdale taught religion to sixth- and seventh-graders at St. Francis Xavier in Kearns and helped prepare adults for baptism. He spent that summer consoling patients at St. Mark's Hospital in Salt Lake City. Then there were the summer stints ministering to parishes in Richfield and Cedar City and polishing his Spanish in Mexico.

His favorite seminary classes have been in philosophy. "People always ask you the big questions, existential questions," he says.

Then there's the chemistry among seminarians who eat, party and vacation together. When Dinsdale's parents announced they were divorcing during his second year, his friends circled around him like an extended family.

"It was a blessing to be at seminary with such a supportive community," he says. "We've been able to forge an intimate bond as brothers. There are few places where men enter into [such] deep relationships by working, living and praying together."

Behind the altar: It's 8:30 Mass and it's Dinsdale's turn to serve as deacon. He enters the sacristy behind the altar to get dressed. He pulls the alb, a simple white robe, over his gray jacket and slacks. Then comes the chasuble, a purple deacon's stole. He grabs a safety pin to afix it to his shoulder. The first time he wore one, it fell off and got in his way. Now he knows better.

Dinsdale has always been a stylish dresser -- he once worked at The Gap -- yet there is a certain awkwardness about him that is emphasized by street clothes. With each robe, with each sash, Dinsdale stands a little taller and a gracefulness comes over his body.

Soon the sacristy is filled with full-fledged priests, taking down robes from the oak-panelled closets. Quietly they dress, then take their seats in the high-backed oak chairs on the right side of the Mass Chapel. Students and visitors on the left.

The Rev. Fred Cwiekowski, who will be conducting the Mass, clamped a portable microphone to his pocket to magnify the service for three hearing-impaired students. Dinsdale puts a crib sheet in his pocket, in case he forgets any of the steps in the service.

Then priest and deacon enter the sanctuary, genuflect before the image of Christ, kiss the altar and begin the service beneath the oval wood ceiling. Each song, Bible reading, sermon and prayer is punctuated with silence. No fidgeting, coughing or shifting.

"We long for you O Lord. . .We cannot rest O Lord. . .We hunger for you Lord. . .You live in us O Lord."

It's a solemn sound, without sopranos, altos or harmony. Just a divine yearning in melodic unison.

The next day, Dinsdale is in robes again, this time 30 miles away in San Francisco at the Holy Name of Jesus Parish. It is a huge church with a largely Asian congregation. Dinsdale has been coming here throughout the year to help the priest as part of his pastoral practice. It is his turn to give the homily and he has chosen to speak about his Colorado epiphany. His carefully typed sermon is rolled up in his fingers.

The student is gone and an almost-formed priest stands in his place.

Any jitters?

"Oh no," he says, casually clasping his hands. "I can do anything in front of people. It's only my peers who make me nervous."

By the end of next month, that confidence will be put to the test. Dinsdale will be leaving the emotional protection of seminary life for Salt Lake City.


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