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Letter from a Black Catholic post-seminarian

Nate Tinner-Williams reflects on a major transition.

Nate Tinner-Williams on the Transitus of St. Francis at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America in Washington on October 3, 2022. (Christopher Malano, CSP)
ci·​vil·​ian. n. a person who is not a member of a particular profession or group, as viewed by a member of that group.

Life for me today is not as it once was.

I, like many African-American Catholic men before me, desire to become a priest. I, like a good number of them, wish to serve my people in ordained ministry, in one of the many places where they reside in good number. I, like relatively few of them throughout history, was successful in entering seminary—in a religious community dedicated to serving African Americans, at that. I was fortunate.

I converted to the Catholic faith in 2019, after much soul-searching about the Christian religion of my youth, of my early adulthood, and of the conflicted and wandering days of my post-college years. I was a zealot in some ways, energized by a newfound spiritual and sacramental path that was leading me intractably toward what my new friends called a “vocation.” Apparently, I had one and I needed to answer the call.

Sometimes, however, calls are known to drop.

After two years of study, traversing the time-tested philosophical paths of the Greek masters, the Roman-era sages, the medieval scholastics, and the modern and postmodern luminaries, I have decided to leave the seminary and return to the working world.

What exactly I am resuming is hard to say. I feel a certain change, mostly a loss of a seemingly privileged state. When you are one of only a few dozen African Americans studying for the priesthood, you become known to your community. You answer “What do you do?” in a peculiar way, and the response gains a peculiar reaction. You are loved and supported and feted in a way that is at times unsettling, and challenged in ways that are often unexpected. You are preparing for a life that is uniquely set apart, and everyone knows it.

(Wikimedia Commons)

When you leave the seminary, you are acutely aware of the shift in the state of affairs, before anyone else knows, outside of your formators and your close friends. You may not have yet experienced the ontological change of ordination, but to be a seminarian in itself seems to involve an inner transformation. But often, regardless of the draw and the graces, you must recognize and reckon with a different sort of transition. 

Sometimes, after all, a call drops due to a poor connection, on one end or on the other. The culprit cannot always be determined and perhaps both parties happened to be in a disadvantageous position. Sometimes the carrier is simply of poor quality, unable to sustain the necessary back-and-forth of electromagnetic wave and length across lands and peoples. Other calls fail for no good reason at all, the mistaken “end call” press or click.

Other times, though, you simply need to hang up the phone. No matter how important the conversation, how riveting the dialogue, not every call can be completed in one sitting. Your interlocutor, be it your mother or perhaps your celestial Father, will surely not be dismayed should you sincerely confess: “I really must go. We will finish the conversation at a later date.”

And so it is that some re-enter civilian Catholic life. I myself return in good spirits, unsure of the future but ready for the world. Not to be of it, but certainly to be in it once again after a length of days relatively far away. My philosophy books are now closed, my room in a spiritual high castle thoroughly vacated. My possessions are packed tightly in confined space for a journey to God-knows-where. (And he does.)

Here’s hoping that this is truly not the end of the call, sectioned though it may be. Vocations are many, they say, not limited to those sacerdotal and consecrated. And while I believe that is true, I would be remiss to pretend I do not still feel very much beckoned to the latter both. 

I expect, in latter days, to seek the seminary and the priesthood once again, should the Lord allow. Still with the aim of serving my people, as so many have done before in my Catholic Church. Their witness sustains me, as do their prayers. 

I hope I will have yours too as I muster out for now. Wish me godspeed.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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