Becoming a university English professor or a research scientist is not a job someone takes on lightly. It’s not like the local Walmart or Target, where you fill out an application at the kiosk one day and find yourself stocking shelves wearing a name tag the next.

The former career paths involve years of preparation and focus, most often starting in high school, if not before. But men who are being ordained this spring are walking away from those careers — and, in many cases, the investments of time, money and love they put into them — to pursue vocations to the priesthood.

Scientific mind

Among them is Father Matthew Bozovsky, who was ordained May 18 for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Father Bozovsky was not terribly religious when he grew up in the suburbs of Chicago; he joked that it wasn’t until he arrived on campus at Loyola University Chicago that he realized that being a Jesuit university meant it was Catholic.

Father Matthew Bozovsky at Mundelein Seminary, the major seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago. Courtesy photo

But required religion classes piqued his interest, and he ended up with a bachelor of science degree in biology and a minor in theology when he graduated in 2001. He stayed at Loyola and stayed in the science field, earning a master’s degree in biology in 2004. He then moved on to Northwestern University in Chicago to pursue a doctorate in biology while maintaining instructional duties at Loyola.

Over the course of his academic career, Father Bozovsky studied the structure of human chromosomes in relation to Down syndrome, the premature aging disease progeria and the genetics underlying the relationship between human hormones and cancer.“My lifelong desire since I was 5 years old was to become a biologist, to get my Ph.D. and run my own lab,” he said. “I was a practicing scientist long before I was a practicing Catholic.”

Indeed, he said, he did not attend church for about 10 years, from the day he was confirmed until his mid-20s, when he was embarking on his Ph.D. studies.

“Priesthood still wasn’t on the radar, as my passion was still in biology,” he said. “But, the longer I was at Northwestern, the more I would find myself reflecting upon the spiritual or theological reading I had done the night before when I was supposed to be running an experiment. It was then I realized something was going on — turns out, most scientists are not reflecting on the ‘Autobiography of St. Ignatius Loyola’ or the ‘Diary of St. Faustina’ when they are sitting at their lab bench. The idea entered my mind for the first time at the end of 2006: What about priesthood? I immediately dismissed the idea. ‘I might be crazy,’ I thought, ‘but not crazy enough to be a priest.’”

He is among many priests who have spent time in another career before discerning a vocation to the priesthood. Some are older men, occasionally widowers; others just took a meandering path to their vocations. This year, the median age of men being ordained in the United States is 32, according to “The Class of 2013: Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood,” the annual national survey of men being ordained priests for U.S. dioceses and religious communities. The study was conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). That’s about six years older than men who know they have a vocation early and go straight through the seminary.

Life in academia

Deacon Jayme Stayer, scheduled to be ordained a Jesuit priest at Loyola University Chicago’s Madonna della Strada Chapel on June 15, did not have to make such a radical change.

Deacon Stayer, 44, devoted his early professional life to developing an academic career as an English professor, specializing in T.S. Eliot, and to singing professionally, mostly in symphony choirs. He already knows that his first assignment as a Jesuit will be teaching — yes, literature — at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio.

“When I was getting ready to enter the seminary, I almost got rid of all my books,” he said. “I was giving up my old life. But then I asked the vocation director if I might need them again.”

It was when he was working as an assistant professor of English at Texas A&M in Commerce, Texas, that the idea of becoming a priest took hold and wouldn’t let go. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy teaching and writing; he loved it. He just felt that something was missing in his life — a “vague unhappiness” — and he decided to make a radical change. Thus the decision to give away his books.

“I had no intention of returning to academia,” Deacon Stayer said. “I had every intention of being obedient and going where I was sent.”

Deacon Stayer

But being an academic and being a Jesuit are by no means mutually exclusive, and the vocation director suggested he might need those books again. In the meantime, Deacon Stayer kept some ties to the academic world, serving on the board of the T.S. Eliot Society and writing some articles and reviews. He had two books published while studying theology. He sees a deep connection between theology and literature.

“Literature provides us with a doorway into human experience, into all the mess of human emotion,” he said. “The essence of being Catholic and being Christian is that knowing creation is good. Literature lets me talk about God with my students through the back door. A theology professor goes in through the front door.”

Building up to vocation

Dominican Brother Thomas Schaefgen, much like Father Bozovsky, also grew up with a vocation — in his case, to designing buildings. So he pursued architecture until, while in college, he saw the need for priests on a service trip to Guatemala. He thought someone should do something about that, he said, and briefly wondered if that someone was him.

But he finished his degree and got a job working for an architecture firm. There, much like Deacon Stayer, he began to feel that something was missing. He was in a new city, and his main social group was drawn from an organization of Catholic young adults, and he became more active in practicing his faith.

He will be ordained June 22 at St. Peter Church in Memphis, Tenn.

Stage presence

It’s not exactly a previous career, but Deacon Mark Bentz, soon to be ordained for the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., earned money for several years by performing as a magician and juggler.

Dominican Brother Thomas Schaefgen planned an architectural career before entering the seminary. Courtesy photo

“I started juggling and performing magic when I was 10 years old and got a couple paid gigs every year during high school,” he said. “Since I was from a small town, that mostly meant birthday parties for friends, public library summer programs, and once for the local Prudential Real Estate Company picnic.  For two summers, I worked at a local theme park as an actor in an outdoor children’s theatre, and in my off time I would juggle and do magic in the park.”

The experience was valuable, Deacon Bentz said, because it taught him stage presence as well as how to think on his feet and engage an audience.

“If you start juggling or blowing fire, people gather around,” he said. “If you wear a Roman collar and juggle, it has a powerful evangelical impact.  I’ve been all over the world, and even when I don’t speak the local language, juggling in a collar has been a way of joyful witness to the Faith for me.  Many people are blown away that a priest or seminarian would do something so ‘cool’ — I guess many people think priests are boring or ‘too holy’ to do such things.” 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.