It was a warm, dry afternoon in the desert village of Chimbote, Peru. Four hundred parishioners waited in the dusty pews of the Nuestra Señora del Perpetuo Socorro church as David Jaspers walked to the altar and stood next to the white coffin. It contained the body of an eight–year–old boy who had been run over by a truck as he tried to sneak a stalk of sugarcane from its bed.
It was November 2000, and David, then twenty–three, was a U.S. missionary. The church's resident priest was away at the time, so David assumed the responsibility of leading the mass. He was nervous standing before the crowd, and although he was fluent in Spanish, David prayed for the words to conduct the service.
After performing the funeral rites, David held the hand of the boy's mother while the congregation approached the coffin to pray. She squeezed his hand for support. Later, David watched from the church's double doors as the funeral procession disappeared down the dirt road. He still felt the lingering warmth of the grieving mother's hand. It was then that he understood why a priest was called a father.
David thought he would be a husband and father someday, like most men he knew, but he also felt a pull in another direction — one at odds with conventional fatherhood. David felt a calling to the priesthood. However, becoming a Roman Catholic priest would require him to make enormous personal sacrifices, including choosing the priesthood over fatherhood and marrying the church instead of his college sweetheart.
Now twenty–six, David is one of the dwindling number of U.S. men pondering a commitment to the priesthood. Today graduate seminary programs have 59 percent fewer members than forty years ago, according to a Georgetown University database. Similarly, the number of priests has decreased by 26 percent. Peter Steinfels' A People Adrift cites complex reasons for this decline. It highlights contributing factors such as changing societal values, the advent of mass media, the modern notions of sex and gender, the pedophilia scandals and the gradual transfer of power from clergy to laity (from priests to laymen).
David's chin reverently points upward and his hazel eyes train on the cross hanging above the pulpit as he sings with a polished baritone. "Salve regina mater misericordiae vita dulcedo et spes nostra salvae," (Hail Holy Queen, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope) carries throughout the chapel.
David's broad shoulders rise as his lungs fill to deliver the next verse of the traditional Catholic song. His build still reflects that of his football days in high school and later in college. David is tall and lean with brown hair cut close to his head and an easy smile. The fourth of five children, David grew up in a religious family and received twelve years of Catholic schooling in Eugene, Oregon. According to his mother, Kate Jaspers, he always had a spiritual calling. "David was very conscious of when people were sad or were hurting," she says. "He would find a way to be a help to them." David explored the Catholic faith by reading the Bible and asking questions at school and church.
In middle school, David had his moments of rebellion, like most kids his age. He listened to the latest rap music, stole candy from the local convenience store and looked at adult magazines. During a retreat at a vacation Bible school, the leader asked the group of teenagers to consider whether they had integrated their faith into every aspect of their lives: their actions, books and music. David resolved to align his faith with the way he lived his life — a decision that created the foundation of his spiritual journey.
"[Choosing the priesthood] is not like choosing a career, but it is listening to the depth of your heart and the Holy Spirit in you, asking, 'What do you have in mind for me? '"
At his Catholic high school, his peers voted David "most likely to become a priest." Numerous people echoed this sentiment based upon David's outgoing personality and his willingness to talk about his faith. "I would walk by him and ask, 'Have you signed up yet for the priesthood?'" says his high school retreat leader Peggy Hayward. "Sometimes he'd roll his eyes. But I never felt like the possibility was far from him."
Although his high school spiritual leaders encouraged him to think about the seminary, David wanted to continue playing football at a Christian school. He chose to attend Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and started in the fall of 1995.
Throughout David's second year at PLU, he and several friends began meeting regularly to discuss their different faiths. At one such gathering, the fellowship group discussed the letters of St. Paul in the Bible. One passage in Corinthians particularly resonated with David. It read, "I wish that all were, as myself am, but each has his own special gift from God, one of a kind, one of another." David, the only Catholic in the group, interpreted the passage to mean that God gives the gift of priesthood to a few special people — those who could be celibate.
David privately wondered if he had the gift. He had at times felt the inclination, or the calling, toward the vocation. Joining the priesthood would be the ultimate act of devotion to the Catholic faith, but David was also overwhelmed by the sacrifices the priesthood required. He remembered the phrase: "In my weakness is God's strength." Perhaps with God's strength he could be a priest. Although the idea lodged firmly in the back of his mind, the years to come would test him.
The rigors of college continued and David studied, played football and occasionally dated. Eager to break the monotony of his Spanish and education studies at PLU, David decided to go abroad to apply his skills. In 1997, he spent a semester in Granada, Spain, immersing himself in the country's rich Catholic history. While in Europe, David toured Rome with a group of students from Spain. One morning, they attended a speech that Pope John Paul II gave to approximately 3,000 university students. He spent the afternoon sightseeing in the city.
Afterward, the tired students boarded a bus to the small town of Frascati located on the outskirts of the city. David sat next to Don Rafael, an older Spanish priest leading the small group. They began exchanging small talk in Spanish, and the priest eventually asked David if he was considering entering the seminary.
"Yes, I am considering the seminary," David said. Then he voiced a burning concern. "But I like the idea of waking up next to someone every morning."
"Yo también," the Father replied, the thick Spanish words rolling off his tongue. (So do I.) "But I chose this life and it's really good. I wouldn't do it otherwise."
David began crying. He had voiced something he had not yet talked about to anyone, and for the first time, David heard a priest admit that he wrestled with the same thoughts and that it was normal to have these feelings and still pursue the priesthood.
At the priest's suggestion, David moved to another seat and prayed. "I became truly open to the priesthood as a possibility," he said. "It was as much as I was able to give to God at that point." Perhaps you do not have to be talented for God to use you, he thought. You just have to be willing. When he returned to PLU, David met Jenny, a young woman with auburn hair, freckles and a vibrant smile. They struck up a conversation after learning that they had both studied abroad in Spain. The two eventually began to cultivate a close friendship.
Jenny began attending church services with David. She had gone to a Catholic high school, but Jenny had not seriously pursued the faith. David, observing her deepening spiritual interest, encouraged her, asking, "Why aren't you a Catholic?"
As Jenny's devotion to the Catholic Church intensified, so did her relationship with David. Although he shared his mixed feelings about the future with her, professing his draw to the priesthood, the relationship became romantic. Eventually, they began to fall in love.
In April of 1999, after several months of dating, David and Jenny attended mass during Holy Week, the week before Easter, at St. James Cathedral in Seattle. People poured in for the extravagant service, crowding the pews. The trumpets blasted and the organ resounded throughout the Romanesque cathedral, signaling the beginning of the service. In a sea of white robes, one hundred Seattle archdiocese priests walked down the long aisle toward the pulpit. David had never seen so many priests at one time, and he thought that the group was a powerful convergence of life and vitality.
The service affected Jenny too. After the procession passed their pew, she leaned over and whispered to David, "Don't give up on this priest idea."
David smiled, but her statement struck a chord inside. As the service continued, the guilt of his relationship's physical intimacy escalated. "God calls us to sexual purity," he says. He asked himself if he was acting purely. "I was continuing to learn about appropriate boundaries and I know sometimes I was crossing boundaries."
Refusing communion, a symbolic gesture of unity in the church, David instead elected to go to confession after the mass. He had to talk about his guilt with someone right then. As a Catholic, David knew his actions were not conforming to his faith, a lesson he had learned long ago.
Leaving the confessional, he knew that he needed to make some changes in his life. "I was not free from it like I was before — the trappings of the desire to be touched," David says, equating his need for intimacy to that of a child's temptation to touch a hot burner. Knowing his faith was his first priority, David knew it was impossible to commit to Jenny. "The hardest part was knowing that the relationship would change," he says, but it was the only choice for David.
That summer they said goodbye. David moved to Ohio to attend religious conferences by night, finding a job washing dishes during the daytime. Jenny studied abroad again in Spain the next fall.
"Sometimes I think that I could have married Jenny," he says. "But I knew it wasn't where I'm supposed to be." While still uncertain, David began testing out the idea of lifelong celibacy.
David remained single as he finished college and graduated in 2000. That summer, he began meeting with Father Tim Mockaitis, a vocation director in Portland, who suggested that David wait a year to start seminary school. Following this advice, he departed for Peru to work as a missionary, returning home several months later to find a job substitute teaching at his former high school in Eugene.
Enjoying the teaching experience, David inquired if a full–time Spanish teaching position was available. He was disappointed when he learned that the school had just filled a position. "I sometimes wanted to be something else because, in a sense, it was an easier path for me to follow," he says, citing his interest in teaching or becoming a high school principal. However, David believed that a divine providence had prevented him from teaching — God was calling him to something else.
David moved to Portland to live on his own for the first time and took a job teaching abstinence education to teenagers. He also met regularly with Father Tim. As the months passed, the deadline once again loomed to apply to seminary school. In the meantime, the Boston media broke the news of the pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church. Nationwide, people began stepping forward to accuse Catholic priests of molestation. David, although distressed, was not deterred from his consideration of the priesthood. The scandals "built walls and broke bridges" among Catholics, David says. "The Church needed good guys."
During a January retreat in 2002, Father Tim handed David a seminary application. He immediately began filling it out, believing he had satisfied his curiosity about the "normal life" and was ready to place himself in the hands of God. That spring he wrote a ten–page autobiographical essay and underwent a series of psychological tests and interviews as a part of the application process. Upon his acceptance, David began his seminary studies at Mount Angel Abbey and Seminary in Mount Angel, Oregon in the fall of that year.
"In a sense, I am getting
married to God. The
bigger question is how
to grow in fidelity."
When his young cousins learned of his decision to enter the seminary, they were troubled — David had been teaching them how to salsa and country western dance. "Will he still be able to dance with us?" they asked his parents. "Yes," David's parents assured them. "He will still be able to dance with you."
Proud of their son's decision, David's parents remain open–minded about the priesthood. "I don't have reservations," says his mother. "It's a hard life for anybody, but if he chooses it, I want him to be very sure. It will be a blessed thing if he decides to do it."
Father Odo Recker, the Mount Angel vocation director and a close mentor to David, believes that the decision to enter seminary and to become a priest is an inherently introspective one. "[Choosing the priesthood] is not like choosing a career," he says, "but it is listening to the depth of your heart and the Holy Spirit in you, asking, 'What do you have in mind for me?'"
His decision to enter seminary, David maintains, is not an attempt to paint a halo around his head. "The priests at Mount Angel echo the sentiment that if you have any other expectations other than to serve, you are going to be disappointed," he says. "They say that you don't deserve anything special for being a priest."
Today David has finished his second year of seminary studies. "I will be a priest in 2009, God willing," David says. He adds "God willing" to his statements as a sign of humility and deference to God. He will need to complete a four–year theology graduate school program and a one–year internship in order to be ordained as a priest. He has a long road to travel, academically, emotionally and spiritually.
"In a sense, I am getting married to God," he says. "The bigger question is how to grow in fidelity." But David believes this fidelity, through the vow of celibacy, will provide opportunities that no married man will have — the chance to focus on serving God and perhaps to guide a parish someday — but it is not without sacrifice.
"It is really a question of will he be a father of many or just of his own," his mother says. If David pursues the priesthood, his older brother will carry on the Jaspers family name alone.
As David sits on a classroom desk, a cross hanging on the wall just above his left shoulder and a world map over his right, he admits that the future is uncertain. God has led him to the seminary, he believes, but he is not yet sure if the priesthood is in his future. "Until I'm ordained, I don't know exactly what God's will is," David says. "Maybe it is to teach me to be a better father for a family someday. But, I feel like I am supposed to be here."