Today Mr. Strand is in Rome.
Four days ago he was teaching philosophy in the basement of Creighton Prep to seniors itching for spring break.
Now this young priest-in-training is with 25 other Omaha travelers — Prep students, some parents and fellow teachers — on a trip with serendipitous timing.
It's doubtful they will be in Rome long enough to see the white smoke rise from the Sistine Chapel, signaling the selection of a new pope. Still, their long-planned trip coincides with one of the most historic moments in modern church times.
“To be at Rome, at this moment,” he said, “is providential.”
I've asked Vince Strand to be a tour guide for us on this trip.
He's been to Rome before, has great historical recall and is the type of interesting tourist drawn not to the big and obvious but to the simple and profound. He'd rather see the places where early Christians were put to death than the beautiful churches.
Strand's two brothers are priests and one is currently studying in Rome and will celebrate Mass for the Prep group.
But the tour I'm most interested in has little to do with the Eternal City.
I've asked Strand to take us on a journey of his calling.
Not on his calling to teach — although, based on a rigorous, entertaining, 85-minute philosophy lesson he gave last week, any student of his is a lucky one — but his calling to preach.
This young intellectual idealist has been described to me as “the real deal.” As someone so committed to his vocation and this church, in this scandal-racked, uncertain time, that his presence seems striking. A throwback.
The 30-year-old has feet firmly planted in two worlds: society and the Society of Jesus, one of the Catholic Church's largest orders of religious men, which is known for its scholarship, focus on education and long training period. It takes about 11 to 12 years to become a Jesuit priest, from start to a second master's degree finish. Strand has three years and one master's degree left.
It's not a path that leads to Rome.
By design, the Jesuits, as part of their nearly 500-year-old charter, don't seek positions of church office, such as bishop, cardinal or pope, and aren't therefore in the pipeline — as Strand's two brothers, both diocesan priests, would be.
Occasionally they are appointed to those roles, but no Jesuit has ever been pope. And one of the few Jesuits who served as a cardinal reportedly prayed to God to “spare me from the papacy.”
Of course, the Jesuits have nothing against power when it comes to heading up major universities. The head of the order, called the superior general, is seen as so powerful that outsiders derisively dub him the “black pope,” in reference to the color of his robe.
But that's inside baseball, and Strand has no desire to hold the church's top post.
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He does have opinions about who should. Strand said he hopes the next pope is a lot like the very first one, St. Peter.
Someone who lived among the people, as Simon Peter, a fisherman from Galilee, did. Someone who made mistakes and learned from them. Someone human.
“This might sound cliché,” Strand says, “but I hope fundamentally (the new pope) is a man of deep prayer and deep faith.”
And someone who can steer the church through the clergy abuse scandal, waning membership, shrinking religious orders and questions over Vatican bureaucracy and governance. He said he prays the Holy Spirit will work through the cardinals to select “the best man for the job.”
Strand said he isn't blind to the church's struggles. He joined the Jesuits at a time when the clergy abuse scandal was just breaking in the United States. It has reverberated in the years since. Strand tells of a time he was walking in New York City wearing the black slacks, black shirt and Roman collar of a priest, only to have strangers shouting “pedophile” and obscenities at him.
Then there's the issue of workload and loneliness as the number of religious men and women, including Jesuit priests, declines. Fewer than 10 men live at the Jesuit Residence at Prep, which was built to house many more. And Strand is one of two Jesuits — neither of them priests yet — teaching there.
In his Wisconsin Province, Strand is among just three who entered at the same time. There were five of them in 2005, but two have since dropped out.
“There is still a group of us,” he says of young Jesuits. “We just have to travel more.”
We sit in the cavernous Jesuit residence, where just three plates are set for dinner.
Why, for the love of Pete, I ask Strand, are you becoming a priest?
“I didn't hear a voice. The skies didn't open,” he says.
But the call was so persistent, so nagging and so transcendent of present-day church struggles that he had to answer it.
“Really, the center of my life,” he said, “is my life with God.”
And once Strand committed to that idea, once he dropped the idea of medical school and a family, he said he felt incredible joy and peace and freedom “in a way difficult to describe.”
“It remains to me,” he said, “a mystery.”
Despite the church's struggles, Strand is hopeful and fittingly philosophical about what is next.
He said he draws strength from the faithfulness of others and sees “a lot of life in the church.”
“There is a lot of hope,” he says, “even amidst the trials. I believe very firmly the Lord will always be with the church and that he is present even now in a very real way in the people of God.”
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