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From frat boy to priest, a determined man seeks to serve and transcend

TAMPA

Father David Toups is stuck at a light and saying the Rosary. He has one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the beads as he crawls down Dale Mabry Highway. He has night classes coming up, a sermon to start, a $2 million budget to keep in mind, First Communions to do.

He has 10,000 members of Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa who all seem to have left urgent messages. He could be returning those calls.

But Toups fingers those beads. He has to pray. He has to recite the Liturgy of the Hours. At some point, he has to meditate. He has to concentrate, to go deep within himself, the way he did once when he spent 30 days in prayerful silence.

What Toups is doing echoes the church's stronger emphasis on prayer and spirituality in American seminaries. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued such a blueprint in 2006. It imposed higher standards for prerequisite studies in the humanities and philosophy and ordered a deeper focus on interior prayer, on skills and behaviors to live celibate lives.

After decades of crisis and scandal in the priesthood, Toups is fully aware that his every action is scrutinized. Just Thursday, the Diocese of St. Petersburg confirmed a settlement of $75,000 paid to a man who claimed he was sexually abused by a monsignor who worked at Christ the King Church in 1980.

Today, Toups is an anomaly in a denomination damaged by scandal, starved for young pastors. He is 39, tall, dark-haired, handsome and charismatic.

In leading Christ the King Church, he has to be perfect.

"There's no option," Toups says, "but to be holy priests."

• • •

Toups attended seminary in Florida at the same time Father Albert Cutié did. Cutié was another handsome, popular priest, nicknamed "Father Oprah" in his Miami Beach parish. Toups and Cutié have since written dead-opposite books about the priesthood.

Cutié writes about the "natural desire" in everyone to love another human being.

Toups writes about supernatural love between God and man, one that transcends everything, even sexual desire. Toups' book, Reclaiming Our Priestly Character, tells about priests struggling to define who they are in the wake of scandal. Toups sees celibacy as one issue among many.

Other issues entangle him as pastor of Christ the King Church, a giant parish that's growing. It includes a school for 500 kids. As pastor, he's a seven-day-a-week CEO with a $2 million budget. Every year there are almost 200 First Communions, 130 baptisms and 70 funerals. He has one priest helping him. They celebrate 13 Masses a week, including five on Sundays. It's a grueling pace that even the pope says jeopardizes the church.

Release from celibacy would not lessen those demands. The only way he makes it, Toups says, is complete surrender to God through prayer, not merely prayer at Mass, but interior prayer — prayer in private, while he writes checks or heats leftovers. He says the Rosary while he runs laps.

Cutié's book, Dilemma: A Priest's Struggle With Faith and Love, tells about his affair with a parishioner at his Miami Beach church — an affair that led him to leave the church, marry, have a baby and become an Anglican priest.

In his book he writes: "It isn't just about breaking a promise to the Church or committing a sin. It is more about the very real emotions and complex struggles experienced by those serving the Church as they try to do what God expects, what the institutional Church expects, and what others expect from them — no matter how unrealistic those expectations may be."

Cutié got out of the priesthood.

Toups is going deeper.

• • •

Pope Benedict XVI has a special sympathy for parish priests, whose numbers have been in sharp decline — a trend that may be reversing. Before he became pope he wrote a stark portrayal of what their lives are like:

"A pastor today, who is in charge of three or four parishes, and always on the move from one place to the other, is becoming more the norm. . . . The priest, who must try to guarantee the celebration of the sacraments, is tormented by administrative duties, is challenged by the complexity of every kind of question, and is aware of the difficulties of persons that he does not even have time to contact. . . . Externally stretched and interiorly drained, he loses the joy of his vocation, which in the end he feels to be an unbearable burden. . . . There is nothing left but flight."

The pope went to on emphasize the importance of an interior prayer life in the face of what seems an impossible task.

The crisis is most acute among parish priests. Other orders are different. Each has a charism, which is like a mission statement. Jesuits teach. Franciscans minister to the poor and sick. Toups calls a parish priest a "general practitioner." They have no particular charism. They're a little of everything.

Toups is the kind of guy who organizes 5K races for the kids and runs with them. He shoots hoops with them. He's on the front steps after Sunday Mass, big smile, right hand stretched out. No one escapes a handshake. He teaches adult night classes. He tags along on the "Faith and Ale" nights out for churchmen at the sports bar.

He remembers names, the stories the church ladies tell him about their grandsons' A's in biology and twisted ankles on the soccer field. Two weeks later, he'll ask if the brilliant grandsons have picked out their science projects yet, or scored more game-winning goals.

All those are part of Toups' definition of "father," but they are also in a sense another kind of pressure — the parish priest's need to be all things to his church.

Outside of monastic orders, which require entrants to complete a kind of intensely spiritual, meditative boot camp called a novitiate, interior prayer was not emphasized in American seminaries until recently.

But now there's a boot camp — a 10-week summer retreat for seminarians hoping to become parish priests started in 1995 by the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha, Neb. Similar to a novitiate, it consists of silent meditations, prayers and contemplative exercises. It has become hugely popular nationwide. Every seminarian in the Diocese of St. Petersburg attends.

Toups has attended a 30-day retreat there, spent in complete meditative silence. He had never experienced such intense spiritual concentration over so long a time. "I felt like I learned to encounter God in a new, profound way."

He has tried to continue that. He celebrates Mass daily, practices a daily "holy hour of meditation," prays five times a day.

In his book, he lists survival steps for parish priests:

• Recite the Liturgy of the Hours, a set of prayers, psalms and meditation for every hour of every day.

• Wear the Roman collar, always. It's "a visible sign of the radical commitment of the priestly life."

• Visit homes. Attend those church soccer games. Greet parishioners after Mass.

• Don't get buried in executive minutiae — what Toups calls a parish priest's "tendency to busy himself to the point of forgetting the very reason he is a priest."

"The priest who loses the sense of supernatural transcendence and ceases to believe he possesses a sacred character is on the path to ruin."

Whether the added emphasis on spirituality correlates, the Diocese of St. Petersburg now has 32 seminarians. When Toups was in seminary, he was among 19.

Last Sunday, Toups announced the formation of a "Parish Enrichment Vocation Team" and set a goal: five young men for the seminary from Christ the King in the next five years.

There are none from Christ the King right now.

• • •

Back at Clearwater Central Catholic High School in the 1980s, Toups would not have been voted the student most likely to become a priest, much less one advocating a "reclaiming" of the priesthood.

His father had once been a seminarian, and Sunday Mass was not optional in the Toups household. But Toups played sports and chased girls. He liked to tell jokes. He always thought he was going to be a lawyer. He went off to Florida Southern College in Lakeland, joined a fraternity and dated.

But after two years at Florida Southern, he changed. He says it's hard to explain the change, but he became more careful, more serious. He told his parents he was considering the seminary. They were apprehensive. His father reminded him the seminary needn't be a definite commitment. When he began attending vocation dinners, they knew he meant business.

From then on, Toups hit the fast track, or what passes for a fast track in a denomination that views five centuries ago as recent history.

He studied at St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami, then studied more in Rome. He was ordained in 1997, then was assigned to St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Spring Hill for four years. He went back to Rome in 2002 for his doctorate. His thesis later became his book, Reclaiming Our Priestly Character.

Returning to Florida, he taught at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach until 2007. Then he was named associate director of the newly formed Committee for Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Suddenly, Toups found himself in the media hot seat, an official church spokesman, called frequently by newspapers to comment on priest shortages, on homosexuality in the priesthood, on pedophile scandals.

Then last year, he was sent to perhaps the hottest seat in the priesthood — that of parish priest. He would have to practice what he'd long preached.

• • •

If Toups was going to be more holy, so was his Christ the King congregation, come hell or high water. He urged his parishioners to pray in silence at least five minutes a day, to read the Scriptures at least another five minutes, to pray with family, and to say that Rosary while stuck in traffic. He called it "texting Our Lady."

In November, he released another of his famous how-to lists, this one the Top 10 "table manners" list for people coming to Mass:

It included:

• A dress code ("what you might wear to a wedding").

• Washing up before Mass (meaning confessing sins as well as hand-washing).

• Coming on time and genuflecting at the entrance.

• Eating politely (not gobbling the Eucharist as if it were a french fry).

• Not sneaking out early (Toups calls ducking out the back doors "the Judas shuffle").

How's that working? Are the good folks of Christ the King Church taking his Top 10 lists to heart?

"Probably not," Toups says. "But this is what a father does."

• • •

In his book, Cutié writes that seminarians are taught that every action in their lives, every word and thought, must be connected to their vocations.

"What we don't realize," Cutié writes, "is that we are bound to go through a series of transformations and personal struggles just like anyone else. We mature and grow, our perspectives evolve, and sometimes the very ideas of what we often hold so sacred change. Nobody is ever frozen in time."

Toups has his own struggles and transformations every day as a parish priest. They come at any hour.

Holiness is so far his best deflection.

"I'm still here."

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 893-2258.

From frat boy to priest, a determined man seeks to serve and transcend 01/14/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 14, 2011 7:47pm]

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