December 20, 2000: Features

Alumni turn from the material world to ministry

by Kathryn Federici Greenwood

Today a Princeton degree is more expensive and perhaps more respected than ever before. Recruiters flock to campus, offering students big bucks and important jobs at the tender age of 22. It’s hard to imagine anyone turning down the money and the prestige that come with a high-powered career at an investment bank or dot-com to take on God’s work as a member of the clergy, a job with long hours and modest pay. Yet many Princetonians have done just that in the last 10 to 15 years.

Today’s seminarians and rabbinical students tend to be older than they were a generation or more ago; some enroll after holding down jobs in the secular world. Unlike their predecessors, they aren’t looking necessarily to change the world. Says Sue Anne Steffey Morrow, associate dean of religious life, who was ordained in 1975, “Part of our motivation, part of the vocation, was radical, political change through religious institutions.” Many young clergy today, in contrast, embark on their missions primarily as a means of helping people along personal spiritual journeys — while at the same time fulfilling some yearning of their own — and only secondarily as a means of changing society. “All I’m aiming to do is to touch individual people,” says Michael McClane ’01, who will enter Catholic seminary next year.

Deciding whether to enter religious life “is more difficult than it might have been 40 years ago,” says Frederick Borsch ’57, bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Los Angeles (and a Princeton trustee), because the church’s “influence in society is smaller.” Adds Mark Orten, Princeton’s Presbyterian campus minister, “Theologians had national status. That doesn’t happen anymore.”

Although the role clergy members play in society might have shifted in the last 30 years, the call to service remains the same, and the five alumni profiled here have responded to an overwhelming sense that this is what they are meant to do.

Still, why would a would-be-clergyman choose an expensive school like Princeton? Says Father Raymond Harris ’89, “God deserves the best.”

Father Raymond Harris, Jr. ’89
Pilgrimage of faith

Though Harris once thought he might be president, today he says, “I can’t imagine myself doing anything else” other than being a priest.

At one point, Ray Harris, the chaplain and director of campus ministry at Mount Saint Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, would have welcomed a “letter from God, saying, ‘This is exactly what I want you to do’ or the heavens to unfold and hear a big booming voice.” But neither the letter nor the booming voice ever came. Instead, God spoke through the encouragement of other people — friends, priests, and parishioners — to let Harris know that he could best serve others through the Catholic priesthood.

When he applied to Princeton, he thought he would one day become either President of the United States or a priest. By his junior year, he had decided. How did he know? “In terms of all the things a priest does [teaching, preaching, celebrating the sacraments, spiritual counseling], I wanted to do that. So I saw that as a sign,” says Harris, who majored in religion. “I can’t imagine seeing myself doing anything else. And it’s not because I can’t do anything else.”

He graduated from St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore and was ordained a priest for the archdiocese of Baltimore in 1994. Like most seminarians, Harris, who dated “a little bit” at Princeton, had to address celibacy during his training. He learned how to live out his promise of celibacy through a strong prayer life and by maintaining close friendships with men and women. “The promise of celibacy,” he says, “is not a promise to be isolated from other people.”

After seminary, Harris served in two parishes before moving to Mount Saint Mary’s in August. Whether as a parish priest or a campus minister, Harris doesn’t minister from on high. When in the pulpit, “I usually remind myself that I’m preaching to myself as well. I tell people I’m on a pilgrimage with them. I have not reached the top of the mountain. And I’m not calling them to come up with me.” At Mount Saint Mary’s, Harris is charged with ensuring that the college, whose student body is 85 percent Catholic, stays true to its Catholic identity. He celebrates the sacraments, provides spiritual counseling, works with student leaders, and oversees prayer groups, community service, and retreats.

Raised in a Catholic family in Baltimore, Harris understands the spiritual doubts many college students experience. His own faith was tested as a young adult: His father died suddenly when Harris was in high school, and later so did two Princeton students, leaving him to ponder life after death. “I said I believed, but did I really believe? I wondered as I struggled with those things, how would I be able to comfort others?” But, to his surprise, comforting the sick and the grieving has strengthened his own faith in eternal life.

Indeed, Harris knows there is some greater force behind his work. A year ago, when he was asked to preach before a group of newly ordained priests in Baltimore, he didn’t know what to say, even though he had about two weeks to write a sermon. Finally, with just hours to go before the Mass, the words started flowing. “God allowed some of that to happen to remind me that God’s in charge, that it’s not just about my gifts and talents, that I have to depend upon God to help me.”

Reverend Corey Brennan ’96
Humbled in seminary

Divinity school, Brennan says, was "incredibly trying on my spirits," in part because of the process of transforming herself into a servant of God.

Over the phone, Corey Brennan doesn’t sound like a minister. She’s bubbly and laughs a lot. It could be that she’s just really happy with her work and knows that shepherding people is what she’s supposed to do. “I have been called [to ministry] since I was about 13,” says Brennan, who was ordained in October and has been an associate minister at Community Congregational Church in South Pines, North Carolina, since July.

Although she’s been active in the Congregational Church since she was a child in Wellesley, Massachusetts, she took a hiatus from churchgoing during her college years. “I played hard in college,” says Brennan, a religion major who joined varsity squash, the Tigerlilies, and Tower Club. “Most of my friends are shocked I’m a minister.” There was “too much else for me to do,” she says. “That stuff was much more fun to me and much more interesting. I guess somewhere in the back of my mind I decided I had the rest of my life to do ministry.”

A year after graduating from Princeton, she entered Duke University Divinity School, which, she says, “was incredibly trying on my spirits,” in part because of the very process of transforming herself into a servant of God. The three-year program is designed to humble students and then rebuild them. “A lot of people come into divinity school — and I was one of them — thinking that they are very important people and that they’re going to be the best ministers ever. And that they have so many gifts that no one can touch them and no one can hurt them.”

Among Brennan’s responsibilities are teaching youth, visiting the sick and shut-ins, and preaching. Throughout her day-to-day duties, Brennan says, “I feel God with me all the time.” Sometimes when she prays, she says, “It feels like it’s not my words.”

Of all her responsibilities, she finds counseling married couples particularly difficult and peculiar. “Being a single person and trying to provide marriage counseling is really sort of funny and comical to me,” says Brennan, who acts as a sounding board and refers couples to someone who can better help them. “There’s an understanding out there in the world that ministers are people who know about marriage. . . . [But] ministers are notoriously bad at marriages.”

Her new job has taken getting used to. Besides the long hours, the biggest adjustment has been learning to live in a fishbowl and getting other people to respect her personal time and space. Her congregation wanted her to live in town, but she insisted on buying a house 20 minutes away. “I did that intentionally,” says Brennan, “because there are some parts of my life that the congregation can’t see.” Everything a minister does is “examined,” she says. And “everyone has an opinion” about how she dresses, how she lives, what she says. But “I’ve learned to let it roll off my back. God calls me as I am.”


Father Pablo Gadenz ’88
High-tech restlessness

Even while enjoying his job with Bell Labs, Gadenz struggled "to find how it was God wanted me to serve."

An electrical engineer like his father, Pablo Gadenz worked for Bell Laboratories in Middletown, New Jersey, for three years after graduating from Princeton. He earned a healthy salary and liked his colleagues and his work on computer chips for data-communications products. But, he says, he experienced “a certain restlessness” in “trying to find how it was God wanted me to live and to serve.” Gadenz quit his job and entered St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia in 1991 and was ordained a diocesan priest five years later.

“There’s nothing extraordinary about my vocation,” says Gadenz, who was born in Chile to Italian Catholic parents. God calls all people to a life of holiness, he says. “I’m not going to change the world, but I can at least help the people I see wherever I happen to be.” That can be as simple as touching someone through a sermon or as complicated as counseling a distraught woman with an unplanned pregnancy.

Gadenz served as parish priest at St. Ann’s parish in Keansburg, New Jersey, for two years before taking on his current assignment as priest secretary to Bishop John M. Smith of the diocese of Trenton. At his office in Lawrenceville, he helps the bishop with his daily administrative responsibilities and conducts theological research. He keeps his hand in typical priestly duties by helping out at a local parish.

Of the three promises a diocesan priest makes — obedience, celibacy, and poverty — the last is the easiest for Gadenz to live out. “I always thought it was best to travel light in life,” he says. Diocesan priests earn a salary and pay bills like any layperson. Each month after his bills are paid Gadenz gives away whatever is left, though he’s not required to do so. Free from any material extras, he feels he can better serve others.

And serve he does. Sometimes seven days a week, though he is supposed to get Mondays off. Any drawbacks to being a priest? Smiling, he says, “Too much work.”

Priesthood seems to suit Gadenz, who appears patient and thoughtful. “I love being a priest,” he says, “because a priest is a man chosen to help other people draw closer to God. And I get great joy if I am able to do that even in just a little way.” He adds, “I cannot imagine not being a priest, because it’s not just the work, it’s my whole being.”

Reverend Amy Ebeling McCreath ’87
Lessons on life

A politics major, McCreath found "what really gave me energy was not discussion of political systems but the silence of the chapel on a cool day."

“When I arrived at Princeton, I wanted to become Secretary of State someday. I headed straight for the politics department, studied Russian, and eventually took the foreign service exam,” says Amy Ebeling McCreath, now priest-in-charge at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Milwaukee. “I enjoyed my studies and did well in them, but as my time at Princeton continued, I found that what really gave me energy was not discussion of political systems but the silence of the chapel on a cool day, [and] discussions of grace on Wednesday nights at Proctor House,” the Episcopal manse.

In search of more life experience before heading to seminary, McCreath taught history, politics, and philosophy at several high schools and earned a master’s in American history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, after graduating from Princeton. But she found that what her students — some of whom struggled with depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem — really needed were lessons on life, not lessons on the Civil War or Plato. One classroom discussion on the Beatitudes (as part of a course on Western philosophy) baffled her charges. “They couldn’t begin to understand why God would favor the meek, and why God would bless the poor and why being humble was seen as a good thing,” says McCreath, raised an Episcopalian in Dayton, Ohio. So she headed to Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, in Evanston, Illinois, hoping to learn how to explain such concepts. She was ordained in 1998.

As a minister to some 450 members, McCreath helps her congregants come to some of the same realizations that she did in seminary: that life is not about being successful and we don’t need to be perfect. “Many of them have been frantically trying to live up to social standards they see promoted all around them and ‘play the game’ at work, but they find that it is sapping them of spirit and, sometimes, literally making them sick,” says McCreath. Many of her parishioners are hungry for a spiritual life, “a deeper understanding of themselves, and a way of life that is grounded in something with deeper roots than the latest issue of Martha Stewart Living or Vogue.”

It’s McCreath’s job to help her parishioners “claim their identity . . . as beloved children of God, and to build a life that is grounded in that identity,” she says. McCreath shows them that by establishing priorities and values, they can carve out time for silence and prayer — and time for themselves. “People want the OK to do that,” she says.

Rabbi Janine Schloss ’88
Still searching

Schloss has known since high school that she wanted to be a rabbi; still, she says, "I'm searching for how to define God."

Janine Schloss wouldn’t say God “called” her to go into the rabbinate. “The God I believe in isn’t as active as that,” says Schloss, who was ordained a Reform rabbi in 1993 after attending Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion and studying at its sites in Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York City. In fact, “I wasn’t always sure that I believed in God,” she says. “Today, when people ask me, do I believe in God, I say ‘yes.’ But I’m still searching for how to define that God.” Our “God belief,” says Schloss, reflects who we are and where we are in life. As Schloss matures, she expects her “God belief” will change. “It will be an ongoing process,” she adds.

Her flock finds her sincerity and honesty helpful as they navigate their own way. “For me, the cultural, ethical, and moral issues that revolve around religion are much more central to my faith than the theological, the God stuff.”

Since high school, Schloss has known that she wanted to be a rabbi, because she loves everything about being in temple. One of four rabbis at Congregation Shaare Emeth in St. Louis, Missouri, she performs baby-naming ceremonies, bat and bar mitzvahs, funerals, and weddings; leads prayers; reads and interprets the Torah; counsels people; and teaches. “It’s such an honor to be allowed into people’s lives in such intimate ways,” says Schloss, who grew up in Palo Alto, California, and majored in religion.

Rewarding as a rabbi’s work is, it can also be draining. After working 80 hours a week for five years, she cut back when she was pregnant with her first child, Rachel, now two. Schloss is expecting her second child in April. “It is very difficult to balance the pressure of work and the pressures of being a mom and a wife,” says Schloss, who says she is no longer willing to put in such long hours. Today she works about 50 hours a week as director of education for the temple, overseeing the religious school, Hebrew school, preschool, summer day camp program, and family education department.

Schloss says she often has experiences that give her a sense of some greater presence. They are often simple, everyday happenings: observing preschoolers run a relay race, singing in worship services, watching a flock of geese. She didn’t always have a name for these experiences, but now she does — “God moments.”

Kathryn Federici Greenwood is PAW’s staff writer.