The Rev. Michael Shanahan is struggling to find the Spanish word for pedophilia. First, he ad libs, referring in Spanish to the "crimes of the priests." Then, seeing the rows of blank faces, he resorts to saying pedophilia with a Spanish accent--which turns out to be right. A white Roman Catholic priest of Irish descent ministering to a mostly Hispanic congregation, Shanahan, along with his flock, is the picture of the Roman Catholic Church's future in the U.S. For a year and a half, he has been the only full-time pastor for the 600 families, most of them Puerto Rican, at St. Mark Parish in near-northwest Chicago. At Mass last Thursday, he became drawn and somber when he talked about the recent scandals, calling them "broken promises."
But if you want to know what Shanahan thinks about late at night, what truly gets him agitated, ask him about the boiler. It comes on for 20 minutes and then goes off. He cannot get the church above 60[degrees] for Sunday Mass. He has put up a huge thermometer poster, marking the slow progress of a campaign to raise $55,000 for a new boiler. A couple of weeks ago, he got an anonymous voice-mail message that left him devastated. The furious caller said he had got sick from the frigid church. "Why don't you use some of the money we're paying out for these scandals on a new boiler?" the caller asked.
"That would be a good example of when I had to dig deep," says Shanahan, 39. Apart from being publicly profiled as pedophiles, priests have a job that is harder than ever. As always, people expect their priest to deliver inspiration on Sundays and know the name of every parishioner, to show up at the hospital at 4 a.m. and to keep the church financially solvent. And let's not forget he is supposed to be the face of Jesus. But now most Catholics have only one full-time priest, instead of the three or four their parents had. And when he lets them down, he is much more likely to hear about it.
Simultaneously, the priesthood has become the most countercultural profession in America. "We live the last of the medieval lifestyles," author and priest Donald Cozzens said. Isolation is a constant threat. Fewer nuns and fellow priests means less peer support in an increasingly secular and sexualized society. "When I got ordained," says the Rev. Tom Pelton, 61, who became a priest in 1966 and is a mentor for Shanahan, "it was much easier to hide in the priesthood. You live in a fishbowl now."
Shanahan has calm blue eyes and a faint goatee and caps many sentences with a hopeful "You know what I'm sayin'?" On Sunday nights he goes to a downtown steak house to play piano--a lifetime passion he calls his "salvation." He has known he wanted to be a priest since he was a teenager. He spent 10 years "testing" himself, he says. He dated, got an engineering degree at the University of Illinois and went to work. But "the call" persisted. Since his ordination in 1992--during Chicago's pedophile-priest scandal--he has had to do things differently from the way Pelton did as a new priest. Shanahan has never met with a child behind closed doors, lest he open himself to false accusations. If he has to drive a group of kids home, the last one out will be the one closest to the church or the one whose family he knows best.