In late June of last year the Rev. Steven Bauer packed his possessions-clothes, books, and iBook computer-into his new Chrysler Sebring and drove to St. Benedict’s Parish on Chicago’s North Side. It had been only a month since Cardinal Francis George had placed his hands on Bauer’s head and ordained him a priest. Now, Father Bauer’s heart pounded hard with nervous excitement as the St. Benedict’s bell tower-visible from more than a mile away-came into view. “I was entering a new home, a new role, a new job, a new identity,” the 34-year-old Bauer recalls a year later. “My whole world was changing as I’m driving down Irving Park Road watching the bell tower grow.”
Steve Bauer had lived a secular life and found it wanting. He left that life behind to be a priest, believing it was what God had created him to do. Despite sacrifices and long days, after a year as the associate pastor at St. Benedict’s, he says he is very happy. “It’s been a very fulfilling year spiritually, personally, and ministerially,” he says. “I can see that I’m able to have a positive impact on people’s lives, and in that sense I’m having a positive impact on the world.”
Bauer has found happiness in a vocation that few choose. There were only 38 men in his class at Mundelein Seminary (the major theological school of the Archdiocese of Chicago), many of them from overseas-Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Poland, and Vietnam-and many also embarking on second careers. “One was a gourmet chef,” Bauer says. Nationwide, Bauer was one of only 533 priests ordained in 2004, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a research institute at Georgetown University. (By comparison, 994 men were ordained in 1965, CARA says.)
Though his choice of vocation sets him apart, Bauer remains a regular guy in many ways. He loves The Simpsons, science fiction movies, and German beer, roots for the Cubs, and still gets together with old friends for a monthly Saturday night poker game. But he also wears black clothes and a clerical collar, and the wedding ring on the third finger of his left hand was an ordination gift from friends signifying his marriage to the church.
“He’s a what-you-see-is-what-you-get person,” says the Rev. Bob Heidenreich, who left St. Benedict’s in August after 14 years as the church’s pastor. “He’s not different from other people his age, except that his calling to be a priest has shaped him differently.”
STEVEN Bauer grew up in Wheeling, the son of an East German immigrant father who worked as a boilermaker and a German American farm girl who came from Iowa to Chicago for college. As a child, Bauer attended St. Joseph the Worker Church in Wheeling with his family, but he wasn’t particularly religious. His sense of spirituality began to deepen at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where he graduated with a B.A. in rhetoric in 1993. He lived for three semesters in a Catholic dormitory, joined a Catholic youth group, and began re-evaluating his faith. “I knew the do’s and don’ts, but I wanted to know why. Why does the church teach these things?” he explains. “In learning the why, I found a real integration of life itself that the world didn’t seem to have before.”
He continued his religious inquiry while working as a graphic designer after college, teaching religion classes at St. Joseph the Worker and taking part in a Bible study group. After a few years, he quit his design job to work for a year with a ministry program that conducts religious retreats with students. The fulfillment he got from guiding other people spiritually, the sense he felt that God was working through him, led Bauer to begin considering the priesthood.
Still, he wasn’t certain. He took another graphic design job, but it left him feeling there was more to life. “The best the world had to offer me wasn’t good enough,” Bauer says. “That’s when I knew only God could fulfill the desires in my heart.”
The choice to enter the priesthood requires a vow of chastity and a simple lifestyle, but people who knew Bauer well found his decision natural. “We already saw that he had this deep spirituality about him, and his personal dedication to other people, his caring for other people,” says his mother, Judy Bauer.
“He’s simply not a selfish person, so he won’t miss the material things that others may,” adds Tony Benvenuti, who has been a friend of Bauer’s since high school.
Of course, Bauer was giving up more than just material things. He had been in love with a girl in college, though the end of the relationship had left him heartbroken. Since then, he had dated other women, though none seriously. Now he was committing himself to a life without romantic love, marriage, sexual intimacy, and children.
Bauer is unabashed and forthright about being a virgin. Since childhood, he has believed in the Catholic Church’s teaching that sex is a gift from God that should be saved for marriage, a belief reinforced by the problems he saw sex causing his fellow U. of I. students-“people getting angry and bitter and resentful, and [getting] sexually transmitted diseases,” he remembers.
In today’s culture, a vow to live without sex may be the most unorthodox sex-related practice of all, but Bauer thinks he can find a greater fulfillment in its place. “The deepest desire of the human heart is not for sex, but to love and be loved in return, to have some kind of intimacy,” he says. Bauer maintains that his loving connections come from his relationships with friends, family, his parishioners, and the divine. “Part of the sacrifice [of the priesthood] is realizing that God can fulfill that love.”
While his immediate family and friends were supportive of his decision, some colleagues at his design job found it strange. “To my face nobody expressed any criticisms, but I know there were people who didn’t quite get it,” Bauer says. “[Their reaction was] you must be some Bible-thumping Jesus freak.”
Bauer felt more at peace with his decision as he proceeded. He underwent the battery of psychological tests and background checks the seminary required and then began the course of study. Over five years, he advanced through the levels of ministry, while studying philosophy, theology, morality, church history and doctrine, scripture, spirituality, and homiletics (i.e., preaching). The curriculum aside, it was much like any other graduate school. Seminarians are no longer cloistered. Instead, the dorm rooms have high-speed Internet connections, and Bauer regularly visited friends and family. Even so, he sometimes felt overwhelmed by his commitment. “That’s natural,” he says. “You don’t make a major decision on how you feel one day.”
The unfolding clergy sex abuse scandal also forced Bauer to re-evaluate his choice. He recognized that some people would view him and his vocation with suspicion. “In my own prayer life, I came to the realization that I’m not going to let other people’s sins stop me from serving Christ,” he says.
Bauer received his master’s of divinity from Mundelein in May 2004. He said his first Mass as an ordained priest at St. Joseph the Worker, but he was already assigned to St. Benedict’s, on Irving Park Road between Damen and Western avenues. German Americans once dominated the neighborhood, but it’s now a bastion of gentrification, with new houses and young professional couples replacing the older residents and their houses. The vestiges of the neighborhood’s past make the area a good fit for Bauer-he holds his youth group leadership meetings at one of the remaining German restaurants and makes it a point to have a beer with dinner.
The congregation at St. Ben’s, as the church is known, is large, with 2,200 families registered as members. More than 200 babies were baptized at the church in the past year, and more than 60 couples were married there. The ceremonies keep Bauer busy. In addition, he says one of the two masses held each weekday morning, and conducts two of the church’s five weekend services. He works with the parish schools, visits patients, hears confessions, and offers counseling.
He enjoys preaching and sprinkles his sermons with pop culture references. Benvenuti sees the change from the shy friend he remembers from high school and college. “Sharing the good news seems to give him strength,” Benvenuti says.
Still, the emotional and spiritual demands of his ministry can take a lot out of him. During his first year at St. Ben’s he comforted the parents of a dying newborn child, baptizing her in the intensive care unit and leaving the hospital in tears. He has heard parishioners’ confessions of adultery, alcoholism, abortion. “I’ve heard everything,” he says with a wave of his hand. “Except cannibalism.”
He knows that priests risk burnout, so he tries to avoid working on his day off each week. Instead, he goes to his parents’ home in Wheeling, where he can sleep in until 10:30 and then spend the day doing nothing more difficult than a crossword puzzle.
Overall, he says, his first year as a priest has filled him with profound satisfaction. “I have a much clearer understanding or appreciation of the fact that God works through me,” Bauer says. “We talked about that in the seminary, but [there] it was theoretical. Going from talking about it to living it is really amazing.”
Three years ago this August, a former high-school religion teacher named Jenny DeVivo moved into a convent in Ravenswood, intent at 25 on becoming a nun. She shared the facility-a nondescript three-flat-with three nuns older than 50 and another aspirant, a 46-year-old Vietnamese woman. During the day, DeVivo went to her regular job, working for the Archdiocese of Chicago. At night, she and her older companions prayed, ate, and shared their faith. Within two months, DeVivo was so bored that she seriously considered roller skating in the cement basement of the building. “I’m not even good at roller skating,” she says. “I’d do anything to try and entertain myself.” Occasionally, she met friends outside for a drink and chat, but she grew tired of the disapproving glances from the nuns in the convent.
From the start, the convent hardly seemed an obvious place for DeVivo to land. Her family wasn’t particularly religious, and she’d had a lively, social adolescence-dating, singing in the school choir, and studying tap, jazz, and ballet. “My family thought I had too much going for me, too many talents, to become a nun,” she says. “I didn’t realize how far off my ideas about religious life were until I was living it.” Seven months after joining the congregation, DeVivo left. “I really thought I just needed a break; I wasn’t ready to give up on it,” she recalls. “But once I got settled back into my apartment I was like, ‘Woo, I’m free.’ There’s no way I’m going back.”
Nuns are an endangered species these days. The median age for nuns in this country is 69, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, and fewer than 3 percent of nuns in the United States are under 40. The number of new recruits is minuscule: one order, the Adrian Dominicans, watched the number of yearly recruits plummet from 40 to 60 in the 1960s to between one and four now. Forty years ago, counting all orders, around 180,000 nuns practiced the vocation in this country; last year, the population had dropped to around 70,000. The stark decline has posed a gaping labor shortage for the Catholic Church-particularly in staffing Catholic schools and hospitals. As the church looks desperately for solutions to this crisis, DeVivo’s story provides one telling example of the curious push and pull of the vocational life.
Jenny DeVivo grew up with four sisters in Oak Lawn. She says she was raised as a “Chreaster,” a Catholic who attended Mass twice a year, on Christmas and Easter. Chance and a family tragedy steered her more deeply toward her religion. “I went from being agnostic to a devout Catholic in less than nine months,” she says.
When she was a sophomore at Oak Lawn Community High School-a public institution-her school choir was invited to perform in Toronto. The choir director asked students to go home that night and “pray, meditate, do whatever you do,” DeVivo recalls, so that the board would approve the trip. “‘Pray’? I thought that was wild,” she says today. “I hadn’t prayed in years. So, I went home and instead of rattling off a prayer, some memorized rote thing, I just talked to God. And it felt incredible.” The trip happened. Next thing she knew, she was attending Mass regularly, and she enrolled in an adult religious education course so she could be confirmed. “My dad and sisters weren’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of having to go to church regularly,” she says.
Her father, James DeVivo, an industrial engineer, puts a parental spin on the situation. “I couldn’t complain too much,” he says. “Here’s my teenage daughter wanting to go to church. If only all dads were that fortunate.”
DeVivo’s best friend, Jenny Bryan, also developed an enthusiasm for Catholicism. The two Jennys would stay up late on the phone each night gabbing about scripture. “We’d call each other and be like, ‘I found out where the Ten Commandments are,'” DeVivo recalls.
That same year, Bryan put DeVivo on a mailing list for “Vocation Central,” a sort of recruiting agency for religious orders. “I did it as a joke,” Bryan says. “We were growing in our faith, but neither of us even considered becoming a nun.” Soon DeVivo was getting invited to dine and pray with nuns and receiving handwritten letters from vocation directors looking to gauge her interest. Sister Carolyn Jost, a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a teaching order that originated in Germany, sent a package with her congregation’s literature and a small silver cross that says “God Loves You.” DeVivo carries the cross in her purse to this day. “I’m not sure why I hung on to it,” she says. Sister Carolyn wrote every couple of months, and after a year and a half, DeVivo finally wrote back. “This woman was on my tail, but she was never pushy,” DeVivo says. “So I felt I needed to thank her for her letters and to let her know that the whole thing was a joke.”
The two corresponded occasionally until 1995, when DeVivo started college at St. Xavier University on the city’s Southwest Side, where she studied religion. She enjoyed the usual college entertainments, but she clearly gave off a spiritual aura. (Once, after an evening out, her high-school boyfriend of one year had asked her if she’d ever thought about becoming a nun. “Great way to end a date,” she says. “What woman wants her boyfriend to look at her and think nun?” The young man is now a Lutheran minister.) Questions about her future persisted. “It used to irritate me,” she says. “Just because you have an interest in scripture doesn’t mean you want to be a nun.”
In the fall of her senior year, her youngest sister, nine-year-old Samantha, died suddenly from complications of pneumonia, after having suffered from epilepsy all her life. Reeling, DeVivo looked to God. “I don’t know how anyone could get through something like that without faith,” she says. “I know this is going to sound creepy, but all I had to do was call out to God, and I literally felt as if he came running, threw his arms around me, and said, ‘I’m here.'” It was her “real God moment,” as she calls it.
Not long after, she was cast as a feisty nun in a school production of an opera. She was changing out of her habit backstage when a cast member joked that she looked “very natural” in the severe, all-black gear. DeVivo, then 21, says she thought for the first time that she might want to give it a try. “I kept thinking, No, this can’t be real,” she recalls. “I don’t want this.”
She got back in touch with Sister Carolyn and the two met for lunch. “She was the first person I told when I had this inkling that maybe I should give the convent a try,” DeVivo says. “My family was the last to know.”
She became an affiliate of the School Sisters, Sister Carolyn’s order, a relationship that allows candidates to familiarize themselves with the congregation. After college, DeVivo taught religion for three years in high school, but in 2002, with some “real world” experience under her belt, she left her apartment in Blue Island and moved into the convent in Ravenswood.
At that point she was what is known as a postulant, the first level in becoming a nun. This training typically entails six months to two years of living with sisters in a convent, in preparation for entering the novitiate, where candidates spend a year in rigorous religious training before becoming nuns. As a postulant, DeVivo quickly encountered doubts. The main attraction for her had been the communal life-what she imagined as being able to help others, come home, throw on some comfortable clothes, and converse. “I thought we would be able to talk openly about how we experienced God in our lives that day.” The nuns, however, focused much more on ritualized activities and on reading scripture and other texts. DeVivo came to another realization: “I could teach, have a husband and kids, and have just as much faith as [the nuns] do, so why would I choose to take vows?”
The School Sisters apparently sensed DeVivo’s uncertainty-they had initially recommended that she spend the full two years as a postulant, but once her unhappiness in the convent became clear, they encouraged her to reconsider her plans. Sister Shirley Stockus, the postulant director-a sort of spiritual supervisor-recalls watching DeVivo crumble before her eyes. “Community life isn’t for everyone,” she says. “But Jenny really did try to stick it out. Probably longer than she should have.”
DeVivo points out that the lives of nuns have changed dramatically since Vatican II brought sweeping changes to the church. Dress codes and social segregation have largely been abandoned. The sisters are much more involved in the world. Still, the life wasn’t for her. “For me, it was this idea of a religious community that drew me in,” she says. “But I was way off the mark. It was just too difficult to connect. The differences were too great. I was literally flying solo.”
After DeVivo left the convent, she managed to get her old apartment back, started teaching again, and, after a year, began graduate school at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, in Hyde Park. She is working toward a master’s degree in theology with a concentration in scripture, and studies Greek and Hebrew. And while she still stays in touch with several of the School Sisters, she has absolutely no desire to go back. “I want to become a professor,” she says. “And get married.”