Joe Hurley explains why he became a priest

In this scene from Pontiff, Father Joe Hurley explains to Lieutenant Kathleen Morelli, a lapsed and very suspicious Catholic, why he became a priest. They have teamed up to try to track down a possible threat to the Pope when he visits Boston, and are driving back from interviewing someone who might have information about the threat.

This is something of an antidote to the theology I talked about in this post.


Morelli glanced over at him. She was beginning to think she had misjudged him, somehow. Priests weren’t all alike, she supposed, but still… “So what’s your story, Father?” she asked. “How did you end up—you know—”

“Trapped in Holy Orders?” Hurley suggested. “Doing a thirteenth-century job in the twenty-first century? It’s strange how often I’m called upon to defend my career choice.” He paused, as if considering how much to give back in return for her life story. “Well, to begin with,” he said, “I was raised in what I’d call a relaxed Catholic family. Nothing like yours—which probably says a lot about how to bring up your kids if you want them to be religious. Anyway, we went to Mass on Sundays, but if we skipped it was no big deal, and we didn’t bother with much else. I was mostly a jock growing up—football meant a lot more to me than God. I was a star in high school, got an athletic scholarship to Boston College, and then things sort of went downhill. I had some injuries, and maybe I wasn’t quite as good as I thought I was, so I spent most of my varsity career as third-string quarterback, getting ready for an opportunity that never actually came.

“But looking back, that was all to the good. Gave me a chance to think, to focus on the big picture. And the big picture, much to my surprise, didn’t include football. I had pretty much decided in my senior year that I wanted to enter the seminary, and then I just had to put up with people—including my family—trying to talk me out of it.”

“But why?” Morelli persisted. “Why become a priest? I just don’t get why anyone would want to do that nowadays.”

“Exactly what my family and friends said—and even quite a few of the priests I talked to. I felt like a freak. Perfect strangers would hear about my decision and feel compelled to come up to me and tell me I was making a big mistake. And this was at a Catholic college, right? So I’m a weak person and eventually I caved in. I graduated and I went to work on Wall Street for a few years—and, you know, I wasn’t bad at it. I made a pot of money and my bosses told me I had a great future and I thought about applying to business school. I left religion for Sundays. All my friends breathed easier, as if they’d saved me from becoming a Moonie.

“And it didn’t take. I just couldn’t get the priesthood out of my mind. Now you can keep asking me why, just like my family and friends, and I could give you answers that have to do with helping people and making a difference, but they wouldn’t be the real story, because my reasons are beyond logic, beyond rational explanation. They call it a vocation—a calling. God called me. I have no idea why He called me instead of my roommate or the middle linebacker on the football team or that kid in Economics class who actually looked like a priest; but He did. I’m as sure of it as I’m sure I’m sitting in this car. So eventually I gave up trying to please everyone else and trying to kid myself, and I did what I knew I had to do. And here I am.”

Morelli took the Brighton exit off the Turnpike, and she made her way toward Hurley’s apartment. What about sex? she wanted to ask him—wasn’t that all anyone really wanted to know about a priest?—but she didn’t. He still made her uncomfortable—even more so now, after she had heard his story, and she knew he wasn’t some mama’s boy who had been saying the rosary since he was three and never had a thought of living in the real world. He wasn’t in the priesthood, apparently, to hide from life, or because he had some big problem to work out. He was just like everyone else—except he had chosen to be different.

She decided to ask about something else. “So, with this calling of yours—does that mean you agree with all the Church’s teachings? I’m really not trying to be obnoxious about this, Father. I just don’t know how it works. I’m only used to one way of looking at things—my father’s way.”

“First,” Hurley said, “if you don’t call me Joe, I’m going to jump out of the car.”

“Okay. Joe.”

“Thank you. Second, you don’t check your brain or your conscience when you enter the seminary. At least, I didn’t. This may sound stupid—all right, I know it’ll sound stupid—but I think of it like being on a football team. You may not agree with the play the coach is calling, but he’s the coach, and you know that the only way you can win is through discipline and sticking together. If you worry about why he’s doing what he’s doing, you’re going to mess up. His job is to call the plays, and your job is to execute them.”

“But football is about winning,” she pointed out. “Religion isn’t about winning, it’s about the truth.”

Hurley shook his head. “Religion isn’t about anything,” he responded. “It is. Religion is the sport, the gridiron, the reason you’re out there wearing pads and helmets and cleats and having three-hundred-pound men hurling you to the ground. It isn’t about whether the coach calls a draw play when you think you should be running a play action. It isn’t about punting instead of going for it on fourth down. Those are just… details. It’s a mistake to get lost in the details.”

“That is totally sick, Joe. Those ‘details’ ruin people’s lives, if they can’t get access to birth control or a legal abortion.”

“What I mean is, yeah, they’re important, but we shouldn’t confuse them with the game—with religion itself, I mean. Um, I think my metaphor has gotten out of control.”

Morelli looked over at him, and he was grinning sheepishly, and she found herself grinning back, something she never expected to be doing when arguing religion with a priest.

She parked in a handicapped space near Hurley’s apartment building. Time to call it a night.

“So, what’s next?” he asked.

“Well, I’d say we still need to track down Bandini, if we can.”

“How—the phone number?”

“That’s a start. We can trace it. I’ll let you know what we come up with.”

“Thanks. I appreciate it,” Hurley said. He reached over and touched her arm. “And I appreciate your telling me about yourself, Kathleen. Seriously. I hope you don’t consider me the enemy. I don’t want to be your enemy.”

Morelli could feel herself blushing. Her Jeep seemed far too small all of a sudden. Hurley seemed to realize his mistake, because he retreated immediately, smiling nervously, in perhaps his own version of a blush.

“Of course you’re not my enemy,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean the Church doesn’t have a lot to answer for. Anyway, I hate football.”

“Maybe that’s because you haven’t played enough of it.” He opened his door. “Goodnight, Kathleen.”

“Good night, Joe.”

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