Ed's story: Lose a dream, find a life

By Brian Doyle "I'd thought about being a priest, but I thought about it like most Catholic kids--idly, poking at the thought here and there, never really facing what it might mean, the joys of it, the hard parts, the reality."

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A TEENAGER named Ed Obermiller is flat on his back in the hospital. His shoulder is a mess. He can't use it at all, it hurts all the time, the doctors have tested him for this, that, and the other thing, and finally they discovered that his spine was leaking, which was slowly killing the nerves in his shoulder and arm, and so Ed is confined to bed for months.

Months.

Talk about your dark night of the soul.

And Ed's a mighty lively teenager--very fine tennis and racketball player, tuba player in the band, jack-of-all-trades at The Mergus, the best restaurant in all of Canton, Ohio. Ed's long hours at The Mergus are actually vocational training, for what he wants to do more than anything is be a chef. He's headed for the Culinary Institute of America in a year, doing his necessary year's internship this year at The Mergus.

Well, he was doing his internship until his shoulder started screaming, and now he's on his back day after week after month.

"I was a little desperate," he says quietly now. "It wasn't that I was terrified--I mean, I knew I'd walk again, I knew that--but it was a dark time. It forced me to be reflective, and that's a word that couldn't have been applied to me then.

"I'd thought about being a priest, but I thought about it like most Catholic kids--idly, poking at the thought here and there, never really facing what it might mean, the joys of it, the hard parts, the reality. I'd gone to Catholic grade school and high school, I'd gone on retreats, but I always had things to do--sports and cooking and Boys' State and the school band, everything.

"But there in bed day after day I had to stare reality in the face, and reality was that my arm would never work quite right again, which meant I couldn't be a professional cook. So as much as I loved cooking, I had to really chew on the possibility of being a priest. And I concluded that I had to pursue the urge, to see where it led me.

What are my options?

First it led him to the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio, the diocesan seminary (and interestingly the only Vatican-sponsored seminary in the United States). There he was essentially a college guy--majoring in psychology, swimming every day, hanging out--and still trying to face the reality of what it might mean to be a priest. Then on to a year of graduate school at Mount Saint Mary's near Cincinnati, this time burrowing into theology.

The man behind the collar

 Worst thing about being a priest?
Mothers of the brides.

• Most humbling? 
Celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Being in the presence of someone trying to acknowledge their weaknesses, their desire to be closer to God—that’s riveting and powerful. No one wanders into confession, you know. People are there because they want desperately to unburden themselves, to cleanse themselves. It’s always a stunning moment.

• Most entertaining? 
When I walk into a grocery store wearing my Roman collar and without fail someone asks if I am going to a costume party. Also wearing a collar in the elevator, which seems to be an invitation for people to tell me their most personal thoughts.

• Favorite pro sports team? 
The Cleveland Browns, of course. Do people care about other teams than the Brownies?

• Favorite part of the Mass? 
Other than the miracle? Preaching, which gives me a chance to provide some nuggets for thought. One of the graces of being at a campus is that I know the exact age of my audience, so I can point my remarks right at them. I love preaching.

• What’s the perfect length of a homily? 
Seven to ten minutes. I try to be tight, short, and clear. Attention spans are rare and precious creatures.

• Why’d you want to be a priest? 
I felt called to try to help lead people toward seeing and using the gifts God gave them. Everybody has such gifts. Garbarge collector, physicist, teacher, priest—there are many gifts.

• What books are on your bedside table?
The Soul of a Chef, and my Liturgy of the Hours, which is crammed with scraps of paper, prayer cards, etc.

• Favorite day of the Catholic year?
Easter Vigil—the power and poetry is astonishing, the darkness into joy. It’s especially moving being there with students who have decided to join the Catholic Church. To welcome them into the church is a remarkable feeling, very emotional for me every year. Not to mention for them.

• Favorite saint?
Michael the Archangel—Michael is my Confirmation name and my childhood parish was named for him. Michael reminds me that there are many people who support and guide those who choose a religious life. You cannot do it on your own. Trust me.

— Brian Doyle

Then came another epiphany moment for Ed Obermiller.

I liked what I was doing, but increasingly I realized that a diocesan life wasn't for me--I wanted a family, I wanted a band of brothers. For one thing I was used to a family--I have two sisters and a younger brother. To me it was a matter of options--I felt that if I pursued a vocation as a diocesan priest, my sole option would be working in a parish. Which is a great job, a remarkable job, a crucial job--but I wasn't quite sure at that point it was the job for me for the rest of my life.

"By then, at age 24 or so, I was sure I wanted to be a priest, but I wanted to be a priest with choices. So I picked up a copy of Vision, believe it or not, and paged through it trying to feel which of the orders was a good fit for me."

Three orders looked especially interesting to Ed: the Franciscans, the Paulists, and the Jesuits. All were in Ohio, all were service-oriented, all were communal, and so he called and wrote and talked and interviewed and visited, and he came close enough to the Society of Jesus that he had a Jesuit spiritual director during his year at Mount Saint Mary's.

Then one bright autumn day he went to visit a friend in Indiana. The friend was Jeff Cooper, who'd gone from the seminary in Ohio into the Congregation of Holy Cross seminary at the University of Notre Dame. The Holy Cross was a new order, relatively speaking - founded in 1837 in France, arriving in America in 1842 when Father Edward Sorin and seven Holy Cross brothers made their way from New York to what were then the wilds of Indiana, by the south bend of the Saint Joseph River. In America particularly the Holy Cross men focused on education--not just of the mind, as their founder Father Basil Moreau had insisted, but of the heart as well.

The stubborn and visionary Sorin had invented the University of Notre Dame, and then Saint Edward's University in Texas, and then the University of Portland in Oregon, and by 1989, when Ed Obermiller stopped in one day to see his Holy Cross friend, the order had spread across the world, teaching and running shelters for the poor and schools in North and South America, Asia, and Africa.

Family men

"I knew within days that this was the community for me," says Obermiller. "The familial feeling, the educational focus, the vitality, the vibrancy, the energy, the passion, the commitment, the humor of these men appealed to me enormously. I mean, here were brilliant men--college presidents, scholars, professors, pastors, novice masters, spiritual directors, historians, all sorts of men--and they were utterly devoted to community, to education, to work as prayer. I was hooked."

Ed joined the Congregation of Holy Cross the next year, was ordained in 1996, and since then he's been director of campus ministry at the University of Portland. He's been wildly busy in recent years--a stint as Religion Fellow in the National AIDS Policy Office in Washington, D.C., further study at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, even a year with another debilitating affliction, this time hepatitis so severe that his skin changed color and he slept 18 hours a day--but asked about the daily life of Father Ed Obermiller of the Congregation of Holy Cross, he laughs and rattles off adjectives:

"Exhausting, invigorating, humbling, gratifying, confusing, hilarious, and sometimes I think I am crazy to like this life," he says, grinning. I'm a chaplain in Villa Maria, one of our eight residence halls, and so while I don't get much sleep, what with counseling students and such, I can get my computer fixed by geniuses within minutes, and now I know that Smashing Pumpkins is a noun, not a verb.

A day in the life
What's a normal campus priest day, Ed?

"A meeting with architects to talk about our new chapel--dedicated to Brother Andre Bessette of Montreal, the first Holy Cross man to be beatified by the church. Confessions at night. A visit to the hospital to see a sick student. Three students asking me to take a look at their theology papers. A mother calls--her dad just died and she wants me to be with her daughter when she finds out her grandpa died. Mass, followed by a quick workout--I'm still trying to strengthen my shoulder, which will never work properly, I'm afraid. Half an hour of prayer, at least--a must, or I will go nuts. A jazz concert with students from my hall. Lunch with four priests here. A talk to a local Catholic girls' school. A meeting about University administrative matters. Reading through a draft of the University's new prayer book for students. Trying to write a grant for a new campus ministry program. Then maybe a Smashing Pumpkins CD played really loud just to tease the students in my hallway."

You like being a priest, Ed?

"I love it. I love having an effect on students here. I love having an effect on a whole university. I love having an effect on the girls at the high school, where they told me they'd never really spoken to a young priest. I love trying to connect students to divine joy. I love trying to show them how every minute can be holy if you let it."

Advice for young men and women idly poking at the thought of a religious life ?

"Be honest with yourself--only you know what you might want to do with "your one wild and lovely life," as the poet Mary Oliver says. A life as a priest or a sister or a brother is a focused life, a channeled energy, a deep driving commitment. It's hard. It's not lonely, like I thought it would be--I am buoyed and carried and saved by my community. But be balanced--for me it's a balancing act among community, prayer, my sisters and brother and nieces and mom, and my close friends.

"And cooking--I love cooking for other people, partly for the amazing holy symbolism of shared food, although my guests say I love cooking because they have to do the dishes. But to me one of the great true marks of the genius of Christ is his insistence on sharing bread and wine. How ancient and elemental and holy and human that is, that sharing! And I suppose that if I were to choose a single word to define being a priest, it would be that one--sharing. That's what our lives are for, I believe.

"Well--that and a good red wine with dinner."
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland. He is the author of Credo, a collection of essays, and (with his dad Jim Doyle) of Two Voices, a collection of their essays.

2003 © TrueQuest Communications

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