“Nathan Ricci of Warwick, who was awarded a bachelor’s degree during Providence College commencement ceremonies held on May 20, was recently honored for his academic achievements,” according to a press release from Providence College.
“Ricci graduated summa cum laude and earned the highest academic record in political science and highest academic record in philosophy. He also received the Aime J. and Gertrude B. Forand Scholarship Award for political science. He is a member of the Liberal Arts Honors program, Phi Sigma Tau, and Phi Sigma Alpha Honor Societies.”
On the face of it, you would be justified in thinking that Nathan Ricci was preparing himself for a career in politics; if not as an elected official then as a high-ranking bureaucrat or cabinet secretary. But the next line of the press release reveals the real goal of Ricci’s academic efforts: “He will pursue a graduate degree in sacred theology at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.”
Now it has become reasonable to assume Ricci has decided on a career in the Catholic Church and those assumptions were quickly validated by a conversation with Ricci at the Beacon office on Monday.
“I’m studying to be a priest for this diocese in the next four years,” he said. “After my studies in Rome, I will come back to Providence and be ordained, I hope, by Bishop Tobin and serve as one of our diocesan priests.”
Given the many public relations set backs the Roman Catholic Church has endured in the last decade, it’s surprising that one of the best and brightest, with political experience dating back to his sophomore year in high school, would choose what very few Americans consider a “status” job.
“There was a time when becoming a priest was considered a true professional goal, a successful career,” said Ricci, “But that’s not the case today. Very few consider becoming a priest a prestigious career.”
With his academic record, Ricci could go in just about any field he chooses, so why did he choose to be a priest?
“Like most kids, I thought about doing lots of things when I was younger and I wanted to be everything, including an architect and a politician,” said Ricci, who served as a page for the Rhode Island Senate for most of his high school career.
But something happened when Ricci enrolled at Bishop Hendricken. He became aware of a community of spirit there that he did not see in his previous schools.
“I had never gone to a Catholic school before that,” he said. “I had religious education, of course, but now I was being taught by priests and brothers and sincerely faithful lay teachers. There was a community of spirit there that grew in me.”
He said his daily exposure to Catholic theology at Hendricken drew him into the mysteries of his faith and his faith led him to his calling.
That is not unusual for men with a vocation for the priesthood. According to a Center for Applied Research in the Apostate (CARA) at Georgetown University, almost half of the newly ordained priests attended a Catholic elementary school, a rate slightly higher than that for all American Catholic adults but Ricci’s high school experience appears typical in many ways. New priests, according to CARA, are somewhat more “likely than other U.S. Catholic adults to have attended a Catholic high school and they are much more likely to have attended a Catholic college [45 percent, compared to 7 percent among U.S. Catholic adults].”
“I can’t pinpoint just when it was I decided to be a priest,” said Ricci. “Every vocation is a mystery, but I do know that it was the Hendricken community that stirred in me, made me feel what it was like to make that commitment. I got involved in campus ministry and the feeling kept coming back. I took it to prayer, and then I took the step.”
More importantly for Ricci, his political experience at the state capitol began to make politics an element in his spiritual ambitions.
“I began to see the interplay of faith and politics and that gave me some focus,” he said. “I began to ask what role the Church has in public life.”
Ricci contends that the Church had always been a force in American political life, a significant voice that had some positive impact on the life of the nation. He sees the Church as just as vital now.
“While some people believe that the Church has no place in public life, I believe that the Church cannot remain silent about what it stands for,” said Ricci.
So, why should Ricci be a priest? Why not a sincerely faithful lay Catholic working as a politician or lawyer? Ricci said those questions became less important to him when the nature of his task became clearer.
“One of the greatest tasks, and the task as indicated by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, is the new evangelification of the Church, of bringing people of all walks of life back to the Church,” said Ricci.
Ricci said that recent tragedies, such as war and terrorism, have fundamentally changed the way people feel and people need a source of relief from the world at large.
“Right after 9/11, people began to walk into churches,” said Ricci. “They were looking for some answer or meaning for it.”
More importantly, Ricci believes they are looking for some guidance and that being a priest will equip him for that task. Unfortunately, he will be getting less help with that pastoral task than in decades past.
Statistics from the CARA in the Apostate at Georgetown University show just how few. In 1965, there were 58,632 ordained priests in the United States. Last year, the count was 39,466. There were 994 priests ordained in 1965 and only 467 this year. It will take a lot more men like Nathan Ricci to make up for that sort of shortfall. According to CARA’s data, the average age of men ordained to the priesthood in 2012 is trending younger with the median age for the 2012 class at 31.
“Two-thirds of the class are between the ages of 25 and 34. This is slightly younger than last year and follows the trend over the past six years,” according to the study.
Those figures are from “The Class of 2012: Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood.” The study indicated that mostly white men of European ancestry continue to become priests but about three in 10 were born outside the United States, with the largest numbers coming from Vietnam, Colombia, Mexico, Poland and the Philippines.
But Ricci is optimistic about his future and the future of his Church, and a good part of that future will be reaching out to Catholics and people of other faiths.
His optimism comes in spite of his doubts and not because of his naiveté.
“I have had my doubts,” he admits. “I am only human and humans have doubts, but I always come out of them with faith.”
Ricci said it is not blind faith that sustains him. He believes in and relies on science as much as the rest of the world does to make life easier and explain the world to mankind. You don’t get very far in philosophy without solid science and Ricci doesn’t see much conflict between the facts of science and the truth of faith.
“Science tells us how things happen,” he said. “Faith tells us why.”
Compared to fundamentalists in all of the world’s religions, Ricci sounds outright rational and sane, but he does see a kinship between his and other faiths that must be acknowledged.
“There are many truths that we share with other faiths and many we don’t,” said Ricci. “But, as a response to terrorism, we all share a yearning for truth and justice.”
For Ricci, it can be found in the Church but he believes anyone can find it in his or her relationship with God and sees his calling as a way to help them build that relationship.
“The deepest joy there is in the world is the joy we get from God.”