In the city around him, Anthony Ferguson’s fellow millennials were just waking up, shaking off hangovers, checking messages on dating apps and getting ready to make their way in the world.
But Ferguson was already out the door on this Friday morning — wearing the same black shirt and white collar he always wears — sitting in a chapel under the warm light streaming through stained-glass windows. Before 8 a.m., he’d listened to a sermon on the blessings of marriage, about how it allows spouses to love one another the way God loves each of them.
It’s an experience, Ferguson knows, that will remain theoretical, should he continue on his current path: toward priesthood.
He is 28 now and shakes his head at the thought of telling his younger self that he would one day end up here, in the seminary. The cartoon-drawing boy he was in Richmond would never have believed it. Neither would the introverted teenager who felt destined to be a starving artist. The atheist he was in college would have laughed him out of the room.
But here he is, living in a dorm with 80 other men, learning how to preach to the masses and minister to the dying. And wrestling even still with what life as a priest will — and won’t — entail.
Religion has always been a backdrop of Ferguson’s life. When he was a child, his family went to Mass on Sundays and prayed when a family member was sick. But his father had been raised in the Protestant tradition, so the emphasis was on the shared fundamentals of Christianity rather than the particularities of Catholicism. Besides, the stories in the Bible didn’t interest him nearly as much as the characters in “The Lord of the Rings” or the creatures crawling out of his imagination and onto the pages of his sketchbooks.
But when the veracity of his faith was challenged, it shook him. Attending the University of Richmond on an art scholarship, he took a few world religion courses that offered alternate perspectives on God, including the possibility that there is no God.
“I was kind of taken aback by that,” says Ferguson, who has close-cropped hair and wears the thick-framed glasses trademarked by Brooklyn hipsters. “I couldn’t believe that anybody would believe anything else. . . . I was sheltered. College was an experience of losing that shelter.”
And because he couldn’t offer a bulletproof response to the atheists he encountered, he joined them. “But you know,” he says, “I still wanted to believe in God. I wanted to believe.”
That desire drew him to a campus Bible study group. Led by evangelicals, the sessions offered a much more intimate view of Christianity than the distant-seeming Catholicism of his childhood.
“That’s what I started to see in this Bible study,” he says. “That if I’m gonna follow this Jesus guy, it’s gonna have to change pretty much everything.”
And it did. After his junior year, he stopped partying and dropped friends who seemed to be negative influences. For his senior project, he painted his angst onto six-foot pieces of plywood. “I just dumped all of these struggles and questions about spirituality, about God, into my art,” he says. “It became this cathartic outlet for dealing with my junk.”
But his romantic vision of life as a starving artist met reality a few months after graduation. So he got a job as a graphic artist and moved out of his parents’ house. With time and space to be alone, Ferguson began reading religious meditations by C.S. Lewis and Saint Augustine.
“There was a deepening of the conversion — kind of an opening of my eyes that, ‘Yeah, this is something that I could rest my entire life on,’ ” he says. “Those questions were being answered, and I was becoming more confident. And more prayerful.”
He helped establish a young adult ministry in the Richmond diocese and was soon spending almost every evening in the company of like-minded 20-something Catholics, either studying scripture or volunteering in the community. All the while, he says, he was looking for “the right girl. I wanted to date and marry — that was my goal.”
But late at night, unencumbered and alone, he also started wondering about the priesthood. “I’d switch away from the EHarmony tab to the vocations website,” he recalls. “There was a growing little ember of curiosity. At first it was horrifying. It was horrifying.”
A priest who became a friend sensed Ferguson’s interest. And in 2012, that priest invited him to take part in a Good Friday service, helping to hold up a large cross for parishioners to venerate. “Standing there, holding this cross as it was physically being pushed down by people who were leaning on it, I was moved with love for these people,” he says. “And I remember standing there in the middle of the church, thinking to myself, ‘God, if You want me to spend my life serving these people, I will.’ ”
But the decision to take the plunge didn’t come that easily. Ferguson told almost no one that he was considering a life of the cloth. “I waffled like crazy. A couple weeks would be like, ‘Oh, I’m really interested in the priesthood.’ A couple weeks would be horrified at it,” he says. “It was really a mountaintop/trough experience.”
The question came to a head just before Christmas in 2013. Ferguson had spent a couple of months dating a former colleague who seemed ready for a more serious relationship.
“I felt like there was a fork in the road,” he recalls. “I could either choose life with this really nice girl, or I could apply to seminary. I knew I had to decide, and I knew if I decided one way, it would kinda close off the other path.”
At a Sunday Mass he prayed for guidance. “The response that I really sensed back — and I’m not going to say it was a Charlton Heston voice — it was just very gentle, quiet, placed-on-the-soul interior realization that it didn’t really matter which way I chose. The Lord would be there either way.”
Knowing that made it easier for Ferguson to consider what he truly wanted. “And when I thought about going into the priesthood, I really did feel that there was a warm sense of peace,” he says.
So in January 2014, he started the application for seminary, and in August of that year, he showed up at the Theological College at Catholic University in Brookland. It has been 2½ years now of religion classes, daily Masses and meals with his fellow seminarians. And soul-baring talks with his mentors about the life ahead.
“It’s amazing the time that seminary affords in realizing what makes you tick,” he says. “I describe it as realizing who you are in the sight of God.”
Which is not to say that the concerns about what he’s giving up have washed away. “There’s a question of, ‘Will the benefits of priesthood be enough to make me happy? Will the blessings of priesthood be enough?’ ” he says. “Sometimes it’s hard to see families. A little kid running to their dad. There’s a closeness there that we’re created to have. . . . And that’s hard to see sometimes. There’s a pang there.”
But when that pang arises, he also imagines himself offering Mass on an altar and thinks about his experiences ministering in hospitals and using art to teach children about God. Mostly he just thinks about God. And he’s drawn back from his doubts.
“It’s all about letting go and allowing God to do his thing,” he says.