Amidst the storms of allegations shaking up the Catholic priesthood, two local men have taken the first steps of formation at Christ the King Seminary. Gregory Zini, who has practiced law for 22 years, and John Callahan, fresh from Niagara University, are both now pre-theology I students, or freshmen, at the East Aurora educational institute.
"Both of these guys had a conviction and had an attitude that made it clear that they felt as if they were part of something that was much greater than themselves," said Father Andrew Lauricella, director of the diocesan Vocations Office. "They came in with a very humble approach, and really a sense that this was not their ambition that brought them there, but rather a humble submission to the voice of Christ who had called them."
Callahan, 22, a communication major who is quick with a metaphor, said the priest abuse crisis can take its toll on the faithful, but should not distract from the root of the Church - Jesus.
"It get's you angry and it gets you upset. But, you have to stay true to Christ," he said. "It's like you're on the phone with your mother. The dog's barking. Your brother is mowing the lawn. All this chaotic background noise is going on and the conversation is getting bumpy, but you know you have to hold on because sooner or later it'll be over and that conversation will be clear again. You feel better keeping that conversation."
Callahan, who grew up in South Buffalo, first heard that conversation with God as a young child. At 6 or 7 years old, he held his own Mass for kids in the neighborhood, using potato chips and Oreos as Communion. He even used a soup strainer as a collection basket.
He attended Holy Family and Our Lady of Victory schools before switching to South Buffalo Charter School where his mother worked. He then went to Hutchinson Central Technical High School in Buffalo.
The calling stayed with him all through high school. But, as life rolled on, he found a girlfriend and planned to get married and serve the church as a deacon. Eight months into his relationship, he felt the call again. When the relationship ended, Callahan moved to Lockport and joined All Saints Parish, where the pastor, Father Walter Szczesny, was the former director of the diocesan Vocation office. They talked often. Even though parishes have seen a dramatic decrease in attendance in the past year, Callahan was not swayed.
"It really was this crisis situation that brought me deeper in my faith because I knew that with everything going on right now, I need to double down," he said, reflecting. "I need to grow deeper in my faith. Growing deeper in my faith really kind of solidified the fact that the priesthood was what God is calling me to do. That relationship with Christ nourished going deeper."
Zini, who received much recognition during his successful law career, felt stuck in a hamster wheel. He took a moment to look at his life and see if he was living the joyful life God wanted for him.
"It led me to reconsider previous rejections of a calling to the priesthood that probably started when I was 12 or 13. I came to the conclusion that it was time to think about it more seriously," he said.
Growing up Catholic, he thought about the priesthood, but also thought about girls. The gentle tug of God kept returning, so he contacted Father Lauricella, who gave him the book "To Save a Thousand Souls," a vocation guide by Father Brett A. Brannen, which resonated with him. He discussed this with his family and girlfriend. He thought of joining the Russian Orthodox or Anglican churches, which allow priests to be married, but he wanted to remain in the Roman Catholic Church in which he grew up. Zini, 48, felt he had to at least apply to the seminary. After being accepted, he felt he had to set foot on the path.
"That's where the support of family, friends, former colleagues has been so valuable because it's a scary path to step on after 22 years of doing something else," he said. The support is "like having handrails on that path. It makes it easier."
Although they have been attending the seminary only a couple of months, they have found the 132-acre campus to be nothing less than serene, despite being in the news for a number of protests asking the seminary to be shut down.
"As we sit here, what are my concerns?" asked Callahan. "Nothing."
"Same," added Zini, raising his head from a book on Aristotle.
The first email Callahan received from his seminary account was from a seminarian complaining about an unhealthy, hostile environment on campus.
"I was nervous coming into here. You hear about all these kind of stories from the '90s, the '80s. It gets you nervous about what's going to happen. I get here, and it's the complete opposite of everything that has been portrayed about this place. The guys here are amazing. The friendships that have already started are out of this world."
Zini called the claims that the seminary promotes a culture of sexual immorality "nonsense."
The talk of sex on campus has been limited to Father James Croglio, from the Diocesan Counseling Center, lecturing on the life of a celibate priest.
"It needs to be said," said Callahan. "We're at a seminary to become Catholic priests that are celibate. We need to have those kinds of conversations. It's not a sexualized place."
He compares it to a typical college campus. The guys gather to watch sports and movies. "It's one of the most normal environments that I can imagine for a group of guys who are studying to be Catholic priests."
Zini, a lawyer remember, cannot speak to the what happened last year, but said he has not seen any evidence in his first five weeks at CKS.
"God needs good men to step into the breech, period," he said. "Now is not the time to turn away. Now is the time to turn toward."