Last weekend, Scott Holmer, a 33-year-old former high school English and religion teacher from McLean, was ordained as a Catholic priest. He was one of six in his class in the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, where the number of men joining the priesthood has been going up since the 1990s after a plunge that began in the 1960s. But when the number of Catholics in the United States and the number of priests retiring are considered, experts say, Catholics will continue to adjust to a new normal: less access to priests and more involvement by laypeople. In some ways, the role of the priest is changing, but in others, it remains the gateway to Catholic ritual and identity. Holmer responded to some questions during an interview this week.
Q: Tell me a little about your faith background.
A: Growing up, I went to Mass, but my own faith wasn’t something I really valued. I wasn’t that much of a religious guy, per se. Then I went to Georgetown [University] for college in 1998 and was really impressed with the intellectual honesty of the Jesuits. I had never known the intellectual depth of the Catholic faith and was blown away. . . .When you go to Sunday school [as a child], they’d just say: ‘It’s a mystery. It’s a mystery,’ and I wanted to know more. And the Jesuits had spent their lives exploring the more.
What were your questions?
How do you reconcile science and faith in your own mind? [The Jesuits] wrestled honestly. The thing that stuck out most for me was Father Thomas King [a popular Jesuit priest and theology professor who died in 2009]. He’d celebrate Mass by candlelight at 11:15 p.m. every single weeknight, and it was the most spiritually moving experience I had ever had. And I wanted to be a part of that.
What did you want to do with that?
I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. My dad was a lobbyist for pharmaceutical companies, and I thought, maybe I could work for a pharmaceutical company. [Dad] worked on the Hill and in the Reagan administration [he was the deputy U.S. trade representative]. I interned on the Hill in college [for U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.]. But it just didn’t excite me. Didn’t give me joy. . . . Then one day, I went to Dahlgren Chapel [at Georgetown] as a senior. I spent, like, six hours in prayer. Going back and forth. It really occurred to me I wanted to teach the faith.
How did teaching at DeMatha High School lead to the priesthood?
Being with high school kids, you read their papers and talk to them, and you realize what they needed more than teaching — and I think teaching is great, especially Catholic education — but what they needed was a spiritual father like I had with Father King.
I didn’t want at first to take a vow of celibacy, that was like: Wow. The whole vow of celibacy thing. I couldn’t imagine being celibate for my whole life and being happy. It was too foreign a concept to accept. But my last summer teaching [he taught at DeMatha for four years], I thought: I could be celibate for the rest of my life as long as I could teach the faith — I’d be happy.
But why become a priest?
When I was teaching at DeMatha, I was very happy, but I wanted something more.
Some kind of intensity?
There are things a priest can give that I couldn’t give as a teacher. They needed someone to hear their confessions. They needed someone to help them be reconciled with God. And that’s the role of the priest, to reconcile humanity with God. It’s the role of the church.
Because you’re a priest, people are willing to open up their heart, because you’re set apart and dedicated for a life of prayer and service. People feel much more open to sharing what’s going on in their heart. A teacher is a very intellectual thing. But I think a priest is a heart thing.
Now people you know say you’re the happiest they’ve seen you.
My 20s were a tough time. You come out of going to school and you get a job and you’re living on your own, and there are no structures of developing community. You’re just out there. And I think a lot of people really suffer during that time. I know I did. I found the solution in a closer relationship with God. A lot of people turn to other gods, to put it bluntly, to heal that pain. I think that’s true especially in Washington, a city that’s so transient. I see that a lot. I think that one of the biggest things people suffer from today is loneliness.
The culture says: You need to have sex to be happy . . . and that’s not my experience at all. In fact, it’s been the complete opposite. People, because they know you’re set apart for prayer and service, they open up much more deeply. They know you’ll never use them for pleasure in that way.
There is a rise in young men becoming priests. Is that good, or is life experience a good thing?
I don’t think experience, especially if it’s one of sin, makes one more wise. In fact, it darkens one from being able to know what is the truth and what is good, and that can lead down a path of being lost. The great thing is, if you get found again, you’re incredibly joyful! And we have a lot of people in the world who grew up Catholic and are lost and waiting to be found. That’s what gets me so excited about being a priest.