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Today, Easter holds new meaning for 5 men

Five guys sat around a table Thursday. This Easter Sunday is especially profound to them. They poked fun at themselves. They sat around the table at the Chancery office of the Wichita Diocese and openly confessed their flaws.

Maximilian Biltz said he is a bad, bad procrastinator. Yancey Burgess said he lacks patience, "the one virtue you can't fake."

Chad Arnold, when the other four guys arraigned him playfully on the charge of stubbornness, grinned big and confessed guilt.

They are spending today with their families. Most of these guys grew up in Kansas farm country, and Patrick Reilley is spending today with his family at a farm. Curtis Robertson is spending it with his grandmother and other family.

This is their last regular Easter.

On May 29, they will do something that most of us would never do.

They will take vows of poverty, of celibacy, of obedience.

They will be ordained into the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church, a church that is suffering a shortage of priests, that is running parishes where pews are not as full as the church would like them to be. They will join the priesthood as the church endures its worst scandal in centuries.

Why would anyone become a priest, or join a church, or become a Christian, or get religion in any way today?

We asked.

They answered.

* * *

Burgess came to the priesthood by way of Pepsico; he joined a seminary only after selling Pepsi, smoking cigarettes, seeing the world through the eyes of a businessman. None of this was ever a good fit, he said.

Burgess is 43, having gone, like the other four, through the grinding intellectual fire of six to eight years of seminary, studying philosophy, theology, church doctrine. It's the equivalent of a long, drawn-out master's degree or Ph.D.

There was no crisis that drove him to this, he said. When he reached the age of 30 he could feel the Call, as priests call it. Christ was calling.

For a long time he did not listen. "But when Christ starts calling you, and if you don't answer, he just keeps calling. I finally replied. 'Lead the way.' "

* * *

None of them sidestepped the scandal, though at the Chancery office on Holy Thursday it was not the chief topic under discussion. It is clear that it pains them. Hundreds of reports of clerical sexual abuse, including of children, have surfaced in Europe in recent weeks, as hundreds surfaced in the U.S. in the past decade and a half.

More bad news was yet to come; a few hours after they met at the Chancery, the Associated Press reported that the head of Germany's Roman Catholic bishops said in an unusually forthright Good Friday statement that the church in the pope's homeland failed to help victims of clerical sex abuse because it wanted to protect its reputation.

Yet there's so much more to this church than that. Last week in Wichita, the Lord's Diner, run by the church, served its millionth meal to the poor. It served 156,774 meals in 2009. In Wichita last year, Catholic Charities served 25,602 people, took in 595 people at its St. Anthony Family Shelter, helped 16,777 individuals through its Help Center and Hispanic Social Services.

In Wichita in 2009, it became known that Emil Kapaun, a former Wichita Diocese priest from Pilsen, a hero who sacrificed his life for his soldier flock in North Korea, was being recommended for the Medal of Honor by the Army and studied for sainthood by a representative from the Vatican.

All across Kansas, Catholic priests go into prisons and talk to prisoners. They go into hospitals and homes and nursing homes to comfort the sick and the elderly and the frail and the grief-stricken and the dying. By its leaders' own admissions in recent years, the Catholic church could have done better for many people, but has done much good that goes unreported for so many more.

* * *

Three of these guys were young when the Call came. Patrick Reilley felt the Call when he was only 18, and after he'd decided to study pharmacology. There may have been a crisis that inspired him to do this, but if so, he said, it was only an internal crisis, a searching that led him to the seminary, a decision that finally brought peace to his restless mind.

Biltz, who calls himself Deacon Max now, knew virtually from childhood that he'd be a priest; he was 20 when he joined the seminary, captivated from the beginning by the heroics of Pope John Paul II and St. Thomas Becket.

Chad Arnold went to Kansas State for a year before succumbing. It was clear from the beginning at K-State, he said, that studying history and political science and throwing Frisbees around wasn't for him; the only place he felt truly at home there was at daily Mass.

Curtis Robertson was more like Burgess; he came to the seminary later in life, after he'd earned a degree in criminal justice from Kansas State, after he'd joined ROTC, after he'd served as an officer in the U.S. Air Force for five years. While in the Air Force, at a midnight Mass on Dec. 24, 2000, in a dirt-floor tent chapel in Saudi Arabia, "It finally hit me, what I needed to do."

Up until then, he said, "I'd been living for myself."

None of these guys will live for themselves anymore. Whatever else might be reported about priests in the coming years, the fact is that the job, when it is done correctly, means giving all your time and all your life to the fragile souls around you.

* * *

But why do that?

Why do that when it's so hard for the church to recruit priests and nuns in the modern world, when scandal has so rudely challenged the church, including the pontiff himself? Why go to church, why become Christian, why be religious? Why go to Easter Mass at all?

The five guys at the table, hearing these questions, glanced at each other.

For a few moments, they stayed silent.

"Love," Arnold said. Love of God, he said. Love of other people.

"Emptiness," Robertson said. "Many people feel the pain of emptiness and the pain of searching for something. Everyone wants to be happy, but the only person who can offer happiness is Christ. He will give you everything you need, and you only have to look at a crucifix to see what he was willing to give us — he was willing to give us everything."

"The church is the family of God," Deacon Max said. "When Christ calls us, he is calling us to share in his family, calling on us to share in the family of God.

Burgess nodded, leaned forward.

Not everyone is called to do what he will do with his life now, he said.

"But all of us, we are all called to grow closer to God."

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