Pitching the Priesthood
The Rev. James Walsh Finds His Own Calling in Encouraging Men to Choose the Religious Life

By Kate Gurnett
Albany Times Union
April 20, 2003

The Rev. James Walsh steps in front of the altar in white vestments and spreads his arms wide. The parishioners hush. St. Paul the Apostle in Schenectady is draped in Lenten purple.

He is about to ask these Catholics for something they're not likely to give. This is an Easter season full of pain, marred by sexual abuse allegations. He wants their sons. He wants them for the priesthood.

It's a quixotic request. The number of U.S. priests has dropped 24 percent since 1975. Up to two-thirds of Catholic parents and grandparents don't want their children to enter the seminary. It goes against their instincts, if not their religion.

To make his point, Walsh wades directly into the troubled waters that threaten to rise around the Roman Catholic Church and wash it, and its sins, away.

"I love the priesthood," he says. "Even in the midst of this ugly scandal."

A trim, muscular man with wavy hair and green eyes, Father Walsh is the diocese's leading recruiter. These days, he faces his toughest task: Convince congregations to believe in priests. But can a former engineer who almost married twice see God's will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?

Jim Walsh grew up on a farm and played football and baseball in Cambridge, Washington County. He dreamed of getting married, of having kids. He thought briefly of becoming a priest. After graduating high school in 1974, he went to Clarkson University in Potsdam, then became a project engineer for Exxon Research and Engineering Co. in New Jersey. He fell in love, but, fearing commitment, moved to Denver to work for Rockwell International.

There, the engineer met the second woman he wanted to marry. A devout Catholic, she told him: You need to check out the priesthood before we go any further.

You don't want to be looking over your shoulder for the rest of your life.

I'll give it a year, he said. Six years later, that girlfriend attended Walsh's ordination.

It was 1993. Fewer college graduates were becoming priests. But some second-career Catholics were taking their place. He was 36.

"In my late teens and 20s, I began to get this tugging," Walsh says. "For seven years I fought this calling. Then I realized the Lord needs me as a priest."

What sealed the deal was his pastoral year (a sort of student-priest stint for seminarians) at St. James Church in Albany. There, he helped parishioners through death, trauma and loss of faith. He was there when they married, when they baptized their children.

"It's one of the great privileges that I have," he said. "I help people get in touch with God. And they're my greatest teachers. They teach me what faith is all about."

Sure, his engineer's salary was five times higher, even 15 years ago. But he no longer worships the god of financial success. Now, Walsh splits his time between vocations work and being associate pastor at St. Pius X. His office is filled with gifts from his flock, a football-shaped cookie jar, Yankees memorabilia, framed photographs.

Last week, Walsh said 9 a.m. Mass at St. Pius, then grabbed a gym bag and drove his maroon truck to the Siena College gym to lift weights. He swears his special, isometric circuit with a 90-pound-limit works as well as heavy weights.

"How's your father doing?" parishioner Denise Fitzgerald asked. Walsh's father has been ill.

It's times like these -- the workouts, dinner with friends, bus trips to Giants Stadium -- Walsh argues, that prove that a priest's life isn't all sacraments and secrecy. Celibacy? Well, it wasn't his first choice, but it is now part of his calling.

"I'll be honest. I'll always think about marriage. But that's not what God has called me to do.

"We are ordinary people. And I constantly emphasize that. And that's what we're trying to attract, ordinary people. ... This is the best-kept secret going for happiness today. And yet people will avoid it like the plague. These are the myths I have to constantly demystify."

Now, there's a new one. That most priests are child molesters.

The current scandal, which erupted 18 months ago, has led to more than 300 resignations, including five bishops, and tainted nearly every American diocese. More than 1,200 priests are accused of raping or molesting more than 4,200 minors, according to a New York Times survey. In the Albany diocese, 10 priests have been removed, including two last week.

"The fact that children have been abused by priests tears my heart out," Walsh says. "We've got to get our house clean. People are confused and disappointed in the church. They want straight answers."

Walsh goes about his business just as he always did, and is never alone with children, just like any teacher, youth leader or responsible adult in a position of power.

But his pitch to parishioners has changed.

"Please don't judge the vast, vast, vast majority of us based on the actions of a few," Walsh tells the St. Paul's crowd of several hundred seated on wooden pews. "I can assure you: the vast, vast majority of us? We've got our feet square on the ground."

To add perspective, Walsh compares the crisis to the shootings at Columbine High School: a horrible tragedy, but not proof that all young people are violent.

Seventy percent of Roman Catholic priests still embrace their lives and their callings despite the scandal, according to a Los Angeles Times poll last year. Sex abuse isn't their top crisis, priests say. Burnout is. Since 1975, the number of American priests has dropped from 58,909 to 44,874, leaving many to cover more than one parish.

"I try to get parishioners to see if there is someone who is gifted and talented, in their midst, whom they can encourage," Walsh says. "One out of four young people have, at some time in their life, considered a religious life."

Still, pitching this profession is a tough sell. A few minutes after Walsh exhorted this congregation to follow God, their children approached the altar to speak with the priests.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" the Rev. George Brucker asked. One tiny boy called out his answer with pride: Rich!

Worse, Walsh and many of his colleagues are angered by what they see as an anti-Catholic media bias, which they say sensationalizes pedophile priests while ignoring the wider problem.

"All these stories represent 2 to 3 percent of priests," Walsh said, munching Muesli and berries at his kitchen table in the suburban ranch rectory he shares with the Rev. Michael A. Farano. "Then all of a sudden, the other 97 percent get thrown in. Sexual abuse is mainly parents, grandparents, relatives, trusted friends. The one possible good that could come out of this is to say: What are we going to do in this nation to protect our children from sexual abuse? Because it's a big iceberg. And clergy sexual abuse is one chip."

In the past 18 months, Walsh and other local priests say, parishes have been supportive. "People have gone out of their way. They sense how painful this is for us," he said.

Parishioners say they welcome Walsh's candor.

"He restores your faith," said Ken Bopp before Mass one morning. Bopp's grandson is in second grade at St. Pius X school. "He's a shining example. "

"We never even doubt or question" his honesty, Fitzgerald said. "My (three) kids love him. He's down to earth and he can talk to the kids at any level."

Nor is her faith threatened. "If you don't know (the person), you're just going to be a little more cautious about what you allow your child to do."

Despite the crisis, Walsh says he's got 40 young men currently considering the seminary. His job, as one of the diocese's three-person vocational team, is part coach, part spiritual guide.

On a Tuesday night, eight young men -- Siena College students and professionals -- form a circle under a chandelier in the rectory living room of St. John the Evangelist Church in Rensselaer. They've eaten pizza. Now they pray, repeating the words from "The Call."

Persistent God ... I am drawn to your invitation, yet scared by the possibilities it might hold for my life.

The room grows quiet, save for the chiming of a mantle clock.

How do you know, really know, if God is calling you?

Answering that question can take years, Walsh says. In his case, that small voice became so loud that he couldn't ignore it anymore. Sometimes, other people tell you.

"You're speaking to the exact journey I've been taking," says Dan Ryan, who has been told by several people that he was meant for the spiritual life.

It's different than social work, however, Walsh says. "The thing we bring to the ballgame is Jesus Christ. Because your faith is what's going to make you want to throw off the covers when the alarm goes off."

Walsh loves these sorts of talks. "I know all the fears. I know all the questions. And if these guys are called to it, they're going to find a joy-filled life, like I did. God may ask them to do something they never planned on doing."

Talking to Walsh "has really helped me come to grips with my calling," said Jason Merrill, who is considering joining a religious order like the Franciscans or Jesuits or becoming a parish priest. "My family has mixed feelings about it, and it's good to have somebody out there who's supportive. It's good to see somebody who's happy as a priest, despite the fact that the world keeps saying that it's impossible."

Young people today who consider a religious life aren't doing it because it's popular, Walsh says. "If you get into it at this time, you're not in it for the glory. It's because they really want to serve. And that's what we're about, service."

At St. Paul the Apostle in Schenectady, Walsh reminds the congregation that being faithful means trusting what God wants you to do.

"Jesus said, 'If you want to be my disciple, pick up a cross and follow me,' " he tells them. "There's no getting out of the cross."


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