The clergy sex abuse scandal exploded onto front pages across the country in 2002. A painful decade later, the Archdiocese of Boston has begun to rebuild. But a stubborn question remains: What kind of man wants to become a priest?
The sun was setting by the time Eric Cadin turned into Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. It was May 2000, and the 19-year-old had just finished his freshman year as an economics major at Harvard. After driving in silence all the way from Massachusetts, he was desperate for conversation. Matt Bagnell, his best friend from high school, was slumped in the back seat of the car, recovering from a bad case of food poisoning. Their plan was to spend the summer in California, living on the beach and surfing, but Bagnell had barely said a word during the four-day drive, spending most of the time just moaning. Arriving at the park, they hiked to the top of a mesa, and Bagnell immediately rolled into his sleeping bag. When Cadin tried to talk to Bagnell, who’d spent a year teaching English in the very religious country of Mali, his friend simply pointed to the edge of the cliff and said, “Go out there and pray.”
Cadin, anxious for any sort of conversation, marched off and found a seat on a low rock, overlooking a canyon. Cadin had been raised Catholic, but most of his praying had been of the Lord, please help me on this test variety. So his words came awkwardly. After several minutes of talking aloud, he was overwhelmed by a feeling: Someone was listening to him. “I suddenly realized that I wasn’t just talking to myself,” he recalls. “I knew that there was someone, a real person—God—listening to me. I had this profound sense of peace.”
The moment was brief, but it stayed with him. A few days later, Cadin and Bagnell arrived in San Diego, where they spent their last $600 on surfboards. When he wasn’t surfing in the morning or working the overnight shift at Sea World, Cadin was checking out library books about theology and prayer, and going to church. He also liked to hold long conversations about spirituality with the beach-bum community.
This turn to religion wasn’t a total surprise. The second of four kids, Cadin had been raised in Weymouth by Catholic parents. His mother, a nurse, worked nights, so his father would round up all the children in the car and take them to Sunday-morning Mass. In second grade, Cadin watched a priest saying Mass and thought to himself, That would be a good thing to do. But the idea passed. A talented student, Cadin cruised through Roxbury Latin and on into Harvard, where he became an economics major and joined the rugby team.
Now here he was in between his first and second years at college, and the experience in Utah seemed to be putting him back on the path he’d first contemplated as a child. By the time he got back to Harvard, he was thinking of becoming a priest. He switched his major to comparative religion and, by his junior year, stopped dating women as an experiment with celibacy. He began meeting regularly with a Cambridge priest and a group of five other men who were also thinking about joining a seminary after graduation.
Catholic seminaries everywhere were in desperate need of men like Cadin. In 1967, more than 37,000 prospective priests were enrolled at several hundred seminaries around the country. (There are three types of seminaries: high school, college, and theologate, which is for students who already have a college degree.) But as interest in organized religion, including Catholicism, began to wane, seminary attendance plummeted, and institutions started closing. Today there are 5,500 students enrolled at 76 Catholic seminaries in the U.S., including just seven in all of New England.
According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, about three-quarters of the students who start at a seminary are eventually ordained as priests, but there are frequent distractions along the way: a desire for a wife and a family, curiosity about other lines of work, rebellion against the Church’s authority or rules. Then there’s the social pressure, with more than 40 percent of priests reporting that, at one time or another, they were discouraged from the calling by friends, family, or coworkers.
For all of these reasons, smart, principled, stable, and devout young men were already in high demand by the Church when Eric Cadin started thinking about becoming a priest. And then, in the middle of Cadin’s junior year at Harvard, came the sex abuse scandal. The ugly revelations—and the uglier fallout from them—sent St. John’s Seminary into a spiral. “We were in survival mode,” recalls Father Chris O’Connor, the vice rector. “How do we keep the ship afloat?” The dire situation might have driven some prospective priests away. For Cadin, it had the opposite effect. The scandal was a challenge to be overcome, an opportunity to prove his faith. He could be part of a new wave of priests that would help lead the Church back to glory. Still, given how high emotions were running, the priest in Cambridge whom he’d been studying with urged him to be discreet in sharing his plans. “When you go and tell people,” he said to Cadin, “you might be very prudent and cautious of who you are telling.”
Cadin found his family and friends to be mostly encouraging, though his mother took convincing. Still, at 22 years old, he wasn’t quite ready to commit. Once he became a priest, he kept thinking, his life would be set. The archdiocese would feed him, clothe him, house him, and tell him where to work until his death. So the year after he graduated from Harvard, he moved to Hawaii, where he lived in a tent, prayed, surfed, and worked. It would be a last hurrah before he dedicated his life to the Church.
In the spring of 2004, while still living in Hawaii, Cadin began the process of applying to St. John’s, filling out an application and interviewing over the phone. That summer, he flew back to Boston for a full-day psychological test and an interview with the five-member admissions board. A few weeks later, he found out he’d been accepted. Classes would start in August.