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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"Men becoming priests at mid-life"

From the Pantagraph.com

By Bob Holliday

BLOOMINGTON -- In what he calls his past life, the Rev. Geoffrey Horton worked at a Bloomington-Normal insurance company, coached a women’s softball team, owned a home and invested in a 401K.

Although life was good, Horton, 43, felt something was missing. In May, he found his calling as a newly ordained Roman Catholic priest.

“I became a priest for the only reason anyone should ever become a priest, because I felt that’s what God was asking of me,” said Horton, currently assigned at a church in Peoria.

The Rev. Michael Bies heard the same call, but before he did, he worked 20 years as a machinist in his native Chicago and even considered marriage. Ordained about four years ago, Bies, 52, is associate pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Pontiac.

The two Central Illinois men aren’t alone in making such monumental mid-life career changes.

Paul Sullins, a professor at the Catholic University of America, said the average age at ordination has risen by 10 to 15 years since the 1970s — part of a national trend toward increased education and later-life commitments.

“An increasing proportion of priests today are entering their second or third careers,” said Sullins, adding the trend may help relieve the shortage of priests in the U.S.

Monsignor Paul Showalter, vicar general of the Peoria Diocese, agreed. Showalter said, in general, the trend toward older priests is beneficial.

It all comes down to “when they get the calling,” he said.

Horton and Bies both agreed their life experience can help them be better priests.

Bies, for instance, can identify first-hand with parishioners who are out of work

because he was without a job several times as a machinist.

Horton, likewise, hopes his experience in the corporate world gives him more empathy for parishioners stressed out by everyday business life.

Horton is unique in another way, having been an Episcopalian until he was 36.

The switch in religions together with his mid-life career switch doesn’t bother Horton’s mother, Johanna Horton of Jacksonville. “It seems right,” she said, adding her son has always had deep religious feelings.

However, there can be aspects of the mid-life switch that aren’t easy.

Hardest for Bies was giving up some of his independence. As a priest, he’s bound to his parish and that “takes a bit of getting used to,” he said.

Knowing that “God is using you to bring solace and peace,” helps him cope, he said.

The celibacy requirement is actually a gift, said Bies, because it “frees you up to see all people as part of your family.”

Bies has adapted to the St. Mary’s family well, said Monsignor Thomas Mack, the pastor there.

“People like him a lot. I’m not sure if it’s his maturity or just that he’s a nice guy,” said Mack, 57, who came to the priesthood the more traditional way: He was ordained in his mid-20s.

“It all comes down to when you get the call,” said Mack, agreeing that priests ordained later in life bring with them a maturity that helps them better relate to people.

John Steffen, 36, who worked this summer with Bies and Mack at St. Mary’s, may become another mid-life priest.

Steffen has four more years of seminary in Ohio and hopes his background in teaching and law will help him. He taught English for five years at Streator Township High School and worked at the Pontiac law firm of Caughey, Legner and Freehill.

He converted to Catholicism from Apostolic Christian as an adult. His new religion, he said, struck a chord he couldn’t ignore.

He, too, thinks older priests, because of their life experience, may have more to offer.

It’s that maturity that leads Horton to realize there’s no going back.

“It (being a priest) is not just your job, it’s your personal identity,” said Horton, who surprised at least one former co-worker by his mid-life switch.

“That switch (from actuarial work to priesthood) is like a 180-degree turn,” said Lisa Mullen, who played on the softball team Horton coached at Country Financial.

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