They want me to talk like I’ve never read a book.
Seminarian exit interviews were the best interviews. Think postgame press conferences with bible quotes.
Men who sign up for the seminary do not always make it to the altar. They realize that something else is pulling them or that another avenue needs to be explored or that their service to the world is better expressed outside the collar.
No matter the more deeply set reasons, though, the surface-level ones are more memorable.
There was the guy who was forever angry that the seminary college would not accept his Blue Cliff masseuse credits as replacement for entry-level philosophy. Or the one who finally figured out an all-beer diet during Lent was not a sustainable fast. Or the fellow who announced his departure but then stayed locked in his room for the better part of a week, finally exiting with the sword that had accompanied him to formation.
Oh, and the book guy.
When I heard that he read into his departure a reading problem, I tried to be reassuring. Changes in life are hard. And: You do read a lot. Best: Reading wouldn’t make a good priest.
Finally, the comfort caught up to the reality: Wait a minute, I’ve read a couple books, too! And I kinda like it here.
Seminarians can come up with many exit interview reasons, but the nicest thing about the Catholic priesthood is that none of the reasons completely fit. The variety of interests and personalities and types of priests make the Baskin-Robbins varietals look dull.
Priest can read books. I know this because of Paul Desrosiers.
My childhood pastor and dear friend was remembered this week after dying in his sleep the Saturday before Thanksgiving. He was 76, with a transplanted liver, diabetes, AFib, and uncommonly loud grunts when rising from chairs. But he also recently had two cataracts removed, so who’s to say he wasn’t the picture of health?
More significantly, he had books. Lots of books. Let’s just say, the complete works of James Patterson may be looking for a new home. Before I even knew of his sagging book shelves, however, his curious, approachable intellect caused me to flip back and want to learn more about this new parish priest.
Paul became pastor of St. Frances Cabrini when I was in 6th Grade. How should I say this…6th Grade was not the pinnacle of my academic career. I was suspended in the fall (fighting), received a detention shortly after (helping myself to a teacher’s candy jar), and was threatened with another suspension in the spring (stink bomb capsules, evidence of which fell just below the requisite burden of proof).
Up came this Fall River, Massachusetts native, with his strange sounding accent and strange approach to homilies. He told stories—not canned ones or disconnected ones or corny ones (if I had a dollar for every Boudreaux and Thibodeaux opening…).But stories that commented on modern society, that used bright language and bold verbs, that punched up to power and never spoke down to his community.
The liturgy could break open the mysteries still unfolding—and not be a mere recitation of Catechism quotes. It was nothing short of a revelation.
Long before Paul moved into Gentilly, his curiosity brought him to New Orleans itself. Already considering a religious vocation, Paul heard an advertisement for Catholic Charities Summer Witness Program, a summer camp provided for Black children in New Orleans amid the clamor of the Civil Rights era. Remarkably, this project pulled religious-minded, socially conscious young adults to our city. (Sadly, the Witness Program is long gone, but the Olympic-size pool at Notre Dame is a relic of the work. When local officials attempted to prevent desegregation by claiming broken pumps at all public pools, Archbishop Hannan looked out his window and said, “They can swim at the seminary.”)
So, Paul made home with us, serving as a priest for forty-seven years in New Orleans, throughout it looking for ways to explore his curiosity practically.
In the 1980s, he was assigned to the Marigny in what was then Holy Trinity Church (and what is now the Marigny Opera House, of Solange Knowles wedding fame). There, he was assigned to care for the Catholic deaf community—Archbishop Hannan provided him a dog and sign-language classes for the task. Paul would later reflect that the Eucharistic Prayer’s “This is my body” never struck as hard as when he was signing them, physically striking his chest as he repeated Jesus’ words.
Later at Trinity, during the trauma of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Paul championed care for those dying alone, in fear, as the modern-day leper. From this developed Project Lazarus, a home for those living with HIV/AIDS—or in those days, more properly, dying from HIV/AIDS.
Everyone died in those days.
And Paul was there, eyes open, wrestling with life and death. Thirty-seven years later, Project Lazarus is still there, having shifted from funeral planning to sustainable housing and job support.
Paul marked my life. He vested me at my ordination, ceremonially placing his mantle on my ministry. Curious and convicted, quick-witted and slow to forget, Paul was a great conversational foil.
So the silence now feels oh-so perpetual.
In the days since the surprising news of his death (days after Paul and I last spoke, me explaining my homeless sleepout, him cackling over how cold I would be), I heard the common refrain of comfort: “At least he went peacefully.”
Yeah, but he went, I mentally replied.
Until Monday came.
After the horrific news of the deaths of Fr. Otis Young and Ruth Prats—with whom I lived and worked from 2014–2016—I quickly found my internal peace: Yes, it is better to go peacefully.
Blunt force trauma. Burned bodies. Downtown Covington. Otis and Ruth.
We seem to be playing the most twisted game of MadLibs imaginable.
I never wanted to go to Covington. I think it’s pretty clear I’m a New Orleans guy. And my introduction to St. Peter’s reinforced my reluctance.
I entered Ruth’s office for my getting-to-know-you meeting and heard: “Father, this is Covington, not Mandeville. We do not go across the lake here.”
It seemed like someone else had pride in a hometown.
Thanks to Ruth and Otis, though, any reluctance to life in downtown Covington quickly disappeared. I love a hard worker, and they were the hardest duo I ever encountered. Their commitment to parish building sucked me right in. Ruth always had another ministry to check on; Otis always had another angle to analyze.
If Paul had his library to accompany his ministry, Otis had his abacus. An accountant by training, Otis loved to dig in—not just to numbers and budgets and forecasts, but to everything. I’m not sure if there was ever a Saturday morning that I awoke to our twenty-foot-long conference table not littered end-to-end with papers. Meeting minutes. Diocesan requests. Drawings of that dadgum French drain in the Middle School building. Otis grinded his ministry. And he loved it.
And as Otis grinded, Ruth smoothed. St. Peter uniquely contains an 800-student school and 150 home-school families, newcomers and born-into-it Covingtonians, a strongly pious spirit and commitment to social activity. They all found welcome and respect and haven because of Ruth. Who is the next person to tap for leadership? How can they feel empowered? Where is the next movement for spiritual sustenance? This was the Ruthian way.
Her faith was imprinted on St. Peter’s, but it was deeper still. A few years after I left, while Otis was convalescing from a stroke, Ruth was abruptly told that her services were no longer needed. I’m sure there was some reason for summarily handing out a pink slip to a woman who committed decades to the faith project. Regardless, this forced retirement was painful for her. And yet, even there, her faith was vibrant, seeing it as God’s gift to now be free to ferry Otis to doctor visits, parishioner appointments, and sacramental duties.
Around this time, she also became more involved in prisoner rehabilitation.
Sorry, there must be something dusty that got in my eyes. Deep breaths.
Otis and Ruth didn’t take on faith as a spectator sport or a like-minded club membership. They attempted to put it into action to the point of inconvenience. They did it with their personal work ethic but also with their attitudes. I don’t know more details than what has been reported, but I know Ruth was committed to valuing every person as God’s gift and, in turn, giving people second chances.
And if one of those second chances in any way contributed to Sunday’s tragedy, there’s a simple conclusion: Ruth Prats and Otis Young are martyrs.
Classically, the martyrdom measure is odium fidei, that is, death caused by hatred of the faith. I think it could also be construed as death caused by faith propelling you to a place of danger. Not faith as recklessness, but as authentically lived. The award for that is the martyr’s crown.
For a martyrdom under this conception, there need not be a purely evil villain either. Again, all I know is that two dear friends were brutally murdered, and an arrest has been made. Before the St. Tammany corner even made the positive identification of our deep fears, however, the arrestee was already plastered throughout the media. A shirtless, muscular, large Black man was to be the direction of our anger. A monstrous, made-for-the-south boogieman. I think our martyrs Otis and Ruth would note the evil, but move beyond any racist trope.
Beyond was always their movement. Life, it’s said, is a collection of Good Fridays and Easter Sundays. That Easter dawn will struggle break our horizon any time soon. But if we are stuck in a Groundhog Day of Good Fridays, I want to flip to one in particular.
Otis and I had just returned to the rectory from a marathon of religious liturgies—all on a fast-day stomach, I might add—and somehow we got to talking about a secret pleasure: his record collection.
There were no meetings to run to, no more liturgies to plan, and (again) nothing to eat, so I listened while his gravely voice switched to Hi-Fi, speeding through his musical preferences. Once he was going fast enough, his body responded. He leapt up and went into his room, retrieving a 1960s time capsule. Bob Dylan. The Moody Blues. Black Sabbath, even (which we refrained from playing, of course, Good Friday being what it was).
He stopped longest on Elton John’s greatest album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The seventeen tracks produced some of Sir Elton’s biggest hits: Candle in the Wind, Bennie & the Jets, Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting. But it starts with one lesser known: Funeral for a Friend.
Paul Desrosiers. Otis Young. Ruth Prats. Funerals for friends, all whom long abandoned any yellow bricked roads in favor of quiet journeys of service. Different styles and backgrounds and gifts, but common membership in our local church community.
After Paul’s burial at St. Joseph Abbey, my paul-bearing complete (sorry, had to), I decided to pop into St. Peter’s Church. Prayer for my friends, that grieving community, their current pastor—it was the only appropriate place. When I crept inside, I was not surprised to find myself accompanied by others. It was 3:00 PM, the traditional time for a rosary, and ten parishioners were keeping watch.
Fittingly, it was a Sorrowful Mystery day. More of those are still to come.
May that Easter break of dawn soon, somehow shine on us all.