Last weekend, Scott Holmer, a 33-year-old former high school English and religion teacher from McLean, was ordained as a Catholic priest. He was one of six in his class in the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, where the number of men joining the priesthood has been going up since the 1990s after a plunge that began in the 1960s. But when the number of Catholics in the United States and the number of priests retiring are considered, experts say, Catholics will continue to adjust to a new normal: less access to priests and more involvement by laypeople. In some ways, the role of the priest is changing, but in others, it remains the gateway to Catholic ritual and identity. Holmer responded to some questions during an interview this week.
Q: Tell me a little about your faith background.
(Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post) - Father Scott Holmer
A: Growing up, I went to Mass, but my own faith wasn’t something I really valued. I wasn’t that much of a religious guy, per se. Then I went to Georgetown [University] for college in 1998 and was really impressed with the intellectual honesty of the Jesuits. I had never known the intellectual depth of the Catholic faith and was blown away. . . .When you go to Sunday school [as a child], they’d just say: ‘It’s a mystery. It’s a mystery,’ and I wanted to know more. And the Jesuits had spent their lives exploring the more.
What were your questions?
How do you reconcile science and faith in your own mind? [The Jesuits] wrestled honestly. The thing that stuck out most for me was Father Thomas King [a popular Jesuit priest and theology professor who died in 2009]. He’d celebrate Mass by candlelight at 11:15 p.m. every single weeknight, and it was the most spiritually moving experience I had ever had. And I wanted to be a part of that.
What did you want to do with that?
I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. My dad was a lobbyist for pharmaceutical companies, and I thought, maybe I could work for a pharmaceutical company. [Dad] worked on the Hill and in the Reagan administration [he was the deputy U.S. trade representative]. I interned on the Hill in college [for U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.]. But it just didn’t excite me. Didn’t give me joy. . . . Then one day, I went to Dahlgren Chapel [at Georgetown] as a senior. I spent, like, six hours in prayer. Going back and forth. It really occurred to me I wanted to teach the faith.
How did teaching at DeMatha High School lead to the priesthood?
Being with high school kids, you read their papers and talk to them, and you realize what they needed more than teaching — and I think teaching is great, especially Catholic education — but what they needed was a spiritual father like I had with Father King.
I didn’t want at first to take a vow of celibacy, that was like: Wow. The whole vow of celibacy thing. I couldn’t imagine being celibate for my whole life and being happy. It was too foreign a concept to accept. But my last summer teaching [he taught at DeMatha for four years], I thought: I could be celibate for the rest of my life as long as I could teach the faith — I’d be happy.