Michael Carter strides eagerly across the lawn at Saint Anne’s Shrine and greets his guest with a broad smile and an outstretched hand. I’ve traveled to this sleepy waterfront hamlet on the western shore of Isle La Motte to meet the newest member of the Society of Saint Edmund.
The all-male Roman Catholic order, which founded Saint Michael’s College in 1904 and still serves as its spiritual backbone, once numbered in the hundreds; today, its ranks have dwindled to 40. These days, it’s hard to find young American males willing to commit to a life of celibacy, poverty, communal living and unquestioning submission to a higher authority.
As we climb a grassy hillside to find a quiet place to talk, Carter nods to a pair of French Canadians entering the small, open-air chapel. They cross themselves dutifully before an altar and kneel in silent worship while a gentle breeze sparks the meditative buzz of cicadas. It’s understandable that Carter has come to this serene pastoral retreat, which is owned and operated by the Edmundites, to reflect on his recent, life-altering decision to become a priest. Even to a nonbeliever, the place feels steeped in spirituality.
A Burlington native, Carter graduated in May from St. Mike’s with a degree in religious studies. At 22, he is the youngest of the Edmundites, and a rare commodity. At a time when the Catholic Church and its religious orders are struggling to find new recruits, Carter is one of just four young “brothers” to join the Society in as many years, breathing new life into an otherwise graying community.
“It’s very unusual for us,” says Father Mike Cronogue, the 63-year-old superior general of the Society. Although the Catholic Church experienced a huge resurgence of men entering the priesthood following World War II, from the 1970s until very recently, the Edmundites didn’t invest many resources in recruitment. And, as Cronogue puts it, “We’re a lot more selective now, for a variety of reasons.”
Indeed, as the church focuses on rebuilding its aura of legitimacy, its congregations and its finances in the wake of multiple sex-abuse scandals, Carter admits that merely mentioning his desire to become a priest invariably raises eyebrows.
“That’s something you’re always cognizant of,” he says. “You realize that, even if people don’t say it out loud, if you’re walking around wearing the collar, that’s something that’s probably crossed their minds.”
Actually, it’ll be at least five years before Carter dons the collar and other priestly vestments. He’s only just begun his “novitiate,” or yearlong introduction to the Edmundites. Yet, even as he embarks on “formation,” or entry into religious life, Carter has already witnessed some of the ways the church is coming to grips with its past demons and renewing itself.
Under a 2010 state law, members of Vermont’s clergy and religious orders are now mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect. Just weeks into his formation, Carter underwent rigorous screening, which involved a criminal background check, a written psychological exam and a several-hour interview with a licensed psychologist who delved into his childhood, upbringing and “psychosexual history.” Many classes and workshops are still to come.
As a member of the Edmundite Society, Carter isn’t allowed to be alone with a young child, even a relative. “I have to be with another adult at all times,” he says, “just so there’s never a question and no ambiguity about it.”
“Nowadays, a lot of our training has to do with child protection,” Cronogue explains. “We’re looking for warning signs in the candidates of inappropriate behavior, weeding out some people and having people recognize the boundaries that we have to be careful about.”
At first glance, Carter seems like an unlikely candidate to choose a life of abstinence. With dark, tousled hair, five-o’clock shadow and a handsome face, he bears more than a slight resemblance to Irish heartthrob Colin Farrell.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t something I’ve struggled with,” Carter says about the formal vow of celibacy he’ll take one day and informally lives by already. But, while he confesses he’s had his “share of relationships” with women, he adds, “For me to be fulfilled, I don’t need to share my life with someone on that intimate a level.”
Of course, Carter isn’t just relinquishing pleasures of the flesh. The Edmundites live and work together “in common.” They share all their money and worldly possessions, which they sign over to the Society upon their death. While it’s not a joyless, monastic existence, it’s also not a lifestyle to which most twentysomethings are accustomed.
“It’s very much a soft sell. We want to make sure it’s right for you,” Cronogue explains. “Because if it’s not right for you, then it won’t be right for us.”
What attracted Carter to the priesthood, given that he grew up in the most secular state in the country? As he does frequently, Carter pauses before answering, closes his eyes and tents his fingers in an unconsciously priest-like way.
From an early age, he explains, he was fascinated by the ritual and mystique of the church.
“But that can’t be the be-all and end-all of it,” he emphasizes. “If you’re not careful, that can breed a haughtiness. It becomes more about the robes and the incense and the fanciness and less about the people who are coming to mass who need your help.”
Carter describes himself as “introspective,” “philosophical” and a “big bookworm” who loves history.
“But it’d be dishonest of me to say that I was always the most faithful and devout person,” he adds. “Certainly, there were times when the whole ‘religion thing’ wasn’t my cup of tea and I was just going through the motions.”
At Burlington High School, Carter discovered a fondness for public speaking. He got involved in the drama program, developed an easiness before audiences and earned a reputation for his quirky sense of humor.
At BHS, the valedictorian doesn’t give the graduation speech. Instead, the graduating class chooses a speaker from the student body. “For whatever reason, they voted for me,” he says.
When he delivered the speech, rather than looking back and orating on the fun he and his classmates had in senior year, Carter says, he saw this as a rare opportunity to “say something more.” His speech, though not overtly religious, addressed the importance of community, social justice and making a difference in the world, both materially and spiritually. Later, Carter began wondering how he could continue speaking in public on social-justice issues.
Ironically, considering his current path, Carter was a “spotty” student in high school and wasn’t sure he’d even attend college, he recalls. (Unlike some religious orders, the Edmundites will not accept any initiate without a college degree.) It wasn’t until his senior year at BHS, after an Advanced-Placement teacher, who also coached the St. Mike’s swim team, agreed to “make some introductions,” that he applied. Carter was admitted so late in the process, there was no on-campus housing left or him. He commuted from home his first year.
Unlike some who share his vocation, Carter says he never experienced a single, revelatory moment when he felt God called him to a clerical life. However, his senior year in college was bookended by a pair of personal tragedies: Someone close to him twice attempted suicide, which is considered a mortal sin in the Catholic faith.
“That really colored my outlook on life,” Carter remembers. “I thought, In what way could we have reached out to help her?”
At first, Carter didn’t discuss these experiences with friends or faculty. It wasn’t until he mentioned them to Father Brian Cummings, who heads the campus ministry, that the two men began discussing a religious life as “a way to do the work I had always envisioned.”
Upon graduation, Carter was invited to spend three months living in the Edmundites’ formation house near the airport in South Burlington. Soon thereafter, he began his novitiate. After “a year and a day,” he will return to Saint Anne’s Shrine and take his first vows.
How did Carter’s family greet the news that he was entering the priesthood? His mother, a French Canadian raised Catholic, was thrilled, he says. His sisters, who “aren’t into the Catholic scene,” didn’t understand his decision, he continues, but knew it wasn’t one he’d make lightly. His father, neither a Catholic nor otherwise religious, was “very resistant” to the idea.
“To this day, if he were able to write the book on my life, he would not choose or want this path for me,” Carter says. “He doesn’t understand it, but he’s become more interested in it.”
Recently, Carter invited his parents to supper at the formation house, where he’ll live for the next year under the tutelage of Father Marcel Rainville, the novice director. According to Carter, it was a good opportunity for his parents to meet the Edmundites and realize that, in his words, “they’re just normal guys” — who happen to live communally and to have dedicated their lives to serving God.
When asked about the future, Carter seems less focused on the sacrifices he’ll make than on the rewards of joining the brotherhood. For the next year, he’ll go wherever his novice director goes and have few responsibilities other than praying and studying.
During that year, and for years to come, nearly all of Carter’s financial needs will be covered, including his room, board and — if he remains in the order — tuition for seminary at Boston College. Eventually, he says, he hopes to return to St. Mike’s and teach.
Perhaps most importantly, Carter says, he is excited to be part of a close brotherhood of men who share not only resources but common values. The Edmundites have a long history of working for progressive causes, including poverty relief, civil-rights advocacy, and the promotion of peace, nonviolence and social justice. He says he looks forward to opportunities to do missionary work in Selma, Ala., and New Orleans, where other Edmundites now serve.
“When you become a priest, you never really know who’s going to call on you for help,” Carter says. “In this day and age, it’s good to know there still is a role and a place for this type of life, and it’s still something of value and relevance.”