Photo of Nathaniel Sanders, a Priest.

Priest of Snark: Why One Young Man Heeded the Call

by | December 27, 2022

From the lectern, Nathaniel Sanders looks out at the small crowd gathered at St. Columbkille Parish in Brighton. The family and friends of a teenage girl who took her own life look back at him. He didn’t know them and didn’t know her. But his responsibility now is to offer faith and hope in a near-hopeless situation.

Sanders, 31, has been a priest in the Archdiocese of Boston for since May, and though this is his third mass for a death by suicide, it’s his first for someone so young.

On this November morning, only the first few pews are filled in the large stone church, built to accommodate an entire devout neighborhood but now rarely at capacity. On a sunny day, the stained-glass windows filter light in technicolor up to the vaulted ceilings. Today, as the sky threatens to open, they’re barely noticed.

This funeral is Sanders’ second of the week, following one for a man who died of a drug overdose. Preparations are similar regardless of who the deceased is, but the emotional weight is different.

In the case of funerals of the religiously devout, there is a hope and joy that permeates the sadness of death, Sanders says. That’s not the case here. The situation leading to this funeral, distressing enough already, is also marked by fragmentation in the family, a lack of unity even in tragedy. Few mourners come forward for communion, and many have come dressed in casual attire.

A priest’s job at a funeral is to provide meaning in a religious context, and the specifics of who he is don’t much matter. Sanders knows he’s there for a purpose, but it’s hard not to think about how much more the strangers in the pews are now up against.

“It’s trying to find the balance of recognizing how terrible and just tragic that whole situation was,” he says later, “without becoming subsumed by it.”

Without pretending to know her, all he can do is perform the sacraments and proclaim the story of the gospel in the hopes of offering some semblance of meaning.

“Her life and love has changed, not ended,” Sanders tells the mourners.

The choice to become a Roman Catholic priest carries 2000 years of baggage. The church, hemorrhaging both parishioners and priests, still expects a life of complete service to God. Entering the priesthood is the sacrifice of one’s own life for the church.

“Sacrifice is just giving what you have to another,” says Sanders. “And what I have is basically: the rest of my life, my skills, and my will and intellect.”

For Sanders, the motivation is a fervent, consuming belief that Catholicism is the truth, a realistic understanding of the world’s response to it, and a growing desire to live out what he feels he was meant to do.

Now approaching his first Christmas since ordination, he feels confident in his choice despite the standard anxieties of a new job, the larger issue of the precarious role of religion in the United States, and the challenges of navigating the priesthood in a world where idealism about the Catholic Church has largely disappeared.

In his clerical uniform, there’s no mistaking his profession for any other, but Sanders doesn’t fit many preconceived notions of the priesthood, either. He is tall, clean-cut, and dark-haired. His friends describe him as a Joseph Gordon-Levitt look-alike, a comparison he accepts.

He’s sarcastic, bordering on snarky, with a list of things he found annoying about priests from before he became one– maintained to avoid falling into the pitfalls of those before him, but one he shares animatedly, nearly gleefully. He hates the sign of peace, hates when priests try too hard to be cool and relevant, and hates when they give themselves extra time to speak beyond the standard homily. He also thinks most hymnals “suck.”

Yet here he is. “I know,” he says. “Maybe it was so I didn’t have to listen to any of their homilies anymore.”

Sanders is quick to offer up his own shortcomings, too. “I sympathize with the boring since I too have been told that I am boring,” he says, referencing a comment received from a parishioner.

Sanders has “one of each kind of brother”- one older, a twin, and one younger. Born in Texas, his family moved to Pennsylvania and then upstate New York by the time he was in high school. Despite being raised in a religious household, where their father read the Bible to them each night, Sanders says not all his siblings have remained devout.

He started attending daily Mass at his Catholic high school for extra credit, and it snowballed from there. His twin, Jonathan Sanders, a software engineer in Brooklyn, remembers doing homework in the hallway while his brother was one of few students attending morning masses.

“I wasn’t really sure, like, what’s right and what isn’t right.” said Jonathan. “He was obviously very sure. And he always had a sort of moralizing view. That’s just the way that he was.”

Their mother, a Catholic, and father, a Protestant, were opposed when Nathaniel started seriously considering the priesthood. Jonathan remembers them asking if he thought it was a phase, or if his brother was serious. They were alarmed when he said he thought he was.

In fact, they tried to talk him out of it.

“There’s the point that it wasn’t sort of a natural thing to want to do,” Sanders remembers as part of their reason. “And in a way that’s right.” They worried he was rushing into things impulsively, and “whether the church was a good thing to get involved with,” he says of his parents’ protests.

For him, though, it felt significant and worthwhile. “I thought it would be something that would make me happy and fulfill the longing in my heart,” he says. “I felt like it was what I was meant to do. But then because of that, it would be sort of the only thing that I would find, like meaning, fulfillment, purpose.”

While Sanders started thinking abstractly about joining the priesthood in high school, he began to feel certain while a student at Boston College.

He entered seminary immediately after, but his journey to the priesthood was circuitous. He first joined the Dominicans, a religious order distinct from the diocesan priesthood, but after five years, he was unhappy- the community life of the Dominicans made him “in a way, miserable.” He chose not to make final vows with the order.

He left and went to teach at a boarding school in France for two years. He considered staying longer, but ultimately decided to return to Boston and re-enter priestly training at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton after discerning between not wanting to be a Dominican and still wanting to be a priest. To extend his time in France, he reasoned, was delaying his calling.

“The more I prayed about it, the more I felt like it was what my life was meant for,” he says.

It’s unusual to step into day one on the job as an authority figure, but such is the nature of the role of a parish priest.

“It’s sort of surprising, in a way, how people just immediately treat you like a priest from the very first week,” says Sanders. “Even if they don’t know you, they trust that the process worked, and it’s then sort of a witness to people’s faith that they know nothing about me, but are willing to, like, believe what I’m doing.”

Beyond several weekly masses, responsibilities for a priest include preparations and performing of baptisms and marriages, wakes and funerals, last rites and administrative tasks. A key role is hearing confessions, which rack up– Sanders hears 30 to 40 on a weekly basis.

He doesn’t get nervous about delivering the sacraments, largely because of his belief that what he says is happening is real, but being new, every “first” comes with its own worries, he says. He’s still learning what’s helpful for people to hear, both in his preaching and individual pastoral guidance.

“It’s more in the act of giving advice when I’m preaching where I think ‘I’m an idiot, I hardly have my own life together, I’m utterly reliant on God’s grace,”’ he says. But the very nature of becoming a priest means he has faith as a basis for believing that loving God is enough.

Sanders speaks about himself with self-deprecating humor that functions as a mask for genuine humility. “I feel like an underachieving son,” he says of his relationship to God, “but [God is] a father who’s continually offering me more and more chances.”

One afternoon a week, Sanders goes to his friend Paul Rose’s Allston apartment to record the Liturgy of the Hours for a podcast Rose created. They call it a podcast, but to tune in, as nearly 10,000 weekly listeners do, is to experience something different.

Instead of recording episodes about current events, comedy, or politics, they sing and speak Gregorian chants from 1100 AD in an English-Latin hybrid.

The recording studio is a messy attic bedroom in Rose’s Allston apartment, equipped with sound-proofing foam panels and high-quality microphones, scattered hymnals, and three bibles on the desk. Called “Sing the Hours,” Rose started the podcast in 2018. When the two met last fall at a seminary retreat, Rose asked Sanders to join as a chaplain.

Its purpose, Rose explains, is to give worshippers an opportunity to sing to God instead of being sung to. He also tries to explain that R&B music follows some of the same musical patterns as the chants.

They begin their warm-ups. Sanders starts singing “I believe I can fly.” It’s like watching any two friends fool around in a sound booth, but here one calls the other Father rather than his name.

They work through the recording, often needing multiple takes to adhere properly to the centuries-old sheet music, crossing themselves when they reach the “Our Father.” “Yeah, you’ve got the Boys II Men sound right now,” Sanders tells Rose as he trips over a note.

It’s an example of bringing the ancient into a modern context. It’s not a matter of proselytizing, but rather, proclaiming what’s already there. Sanders wants to return to the traditional in mass- more singing, chanting, and reverie that might mean masses are longer than they have been. Whether the congregation also wants that, Sanders doesn’t know.

Being a priest is a job, but it’s also an identity in a way that few careers ever can be. Beyond the day-to-day responsibilities, there are weighty vows a priest makes, particular to the Roman Catholic Church, that dictate fundamental aspects of life.

For the last thousand years, priests have been required to make a vow of celibacy prior to ordination. The rationale for this promise is that a priest is technically married to the church. “The idea is, basically, that it should receive the entirety of my love, and effort, and time, and sacrifice,” says Sanders.

This means never marrying, never having physical intimacy, never having children. It’s a discipline of Roman Catholicism with the intention of priests being more Christ-like. It’s a central sacrifice to the priesthood.

To make this kind of commitment, you have to believe there’s a purpose to it beyond deprivation. “Celibacy is valuable, I think, because it shows that you’re meant for something beyond this world,” says Sanders. “Promising celibacy for the sake of the church is saying that this world is not everything. And that there’s a reality beyond.”

Diocesan priests like Sanders don’t take a vow of poverty like other orders, but do make a commitment to living simply. The salary for a first-year priest in Boston, about $30,000 a year, makes adherence more of a necessity than a choice.

Though there are limitations and expectations unique to the vocation, the life of a priest is “still the same humanity. It’s still the same basic problems that we all have,” he says. “People can get the idea that our issues are radically different. And sometimes they are, but sometimes they aren’t.”

It’s a challenging era for humankind, and equally so for a new priest. Rates of depression are high, and rates of religion are low and continue to decrease. Nearly 10 percent of American adults suffer from depression, following a trending increase of the past decade, according to the National Institute of Mental Health,. Rates of belief in God are at an all-time low in the United States, with 81% of Americans responding “yes” to the question of belief in a 2022 Gallup poll– down 6 percent since 2017. Just over two-thirds of American adults describe themselves as Christians according to the Pew Research Center, down 12 percentage points over the past decade, while 26% are agnostic or atheistic, up from 17%.

Sanders thinks the two are inherently related, though he’s careful to acknowledge that correlation is not causation. Societal distance from God is a major reason for collective unhappiness, he believes. “I think it makes people miserable,” he says. “By any quantifiable stat we live in, like, the saddest era.”

And so, if lack of religion is the culprit Sanders blames for unhappiness, then in his view, religion must be the answer. The purpose of his preaching and religion in general is not to bring about happiness, but rather growth in faith. “The goal is to share what I believe is the truth, and that in itself is a good thing,” he says. “It has a corollary of making people happier. And I think modern theories about human beings are false, and it has the corollary of making people unhappy.”

If it is a fraught era to be a priest, then Boston is a particularly fraught place, too.

The Catholic church has seen a decrease of 2% of parishioners per year since the late 1960s, and New England was hit harder than elsewhere. The decline began long before the revelations of the abuse scandal in the early 2000s, and has continued at similar rates since, with a shattered image of the church and lack of accountability as the backdrop.

“The church here certainly hasn’t given people much reason to have hope in its future,” says Sanders.

Acknowledging this lost idealism, Sanders says that seeing the persistent faith of parishioners in this era is affirming. “In a way, given how terrible the Church in New England has been for the last several decades, to see people still come is a testimony to a God being at work in their hearts and in their lives.” he says. “They’ve really been given nothing of much substance. It’s also a testimony to the idea that no one’s coming for me. No one comes to this parish because I’m here. It’s just because they believe in what the church does.”

Despite the declining religiosity of Americans, the job of a priest isn’t to be a recruiter focused on filling pews on Sundays.

“It’s not like a sales position where you’re trying to get numbers,” Sanders says. “The point is to sort of be faithful, rather than successful.”

Still, no matter how fervent his belief is that turning to God is of individual and societal benefit, there’s not much factual basis to expect a marked increase in Catholicism’s favor. And fervent though Sanders is, he’s pragmatic.

“I don’t want it to just be managing decline, though that has sort of been the MO for a while,” he says. “And it very well could be.”

Boston is where Sanders chose to commit to for his tenure in the priesthood, and an urban parish with people experiencing the spectrum of humanity is exactly where Sanders wants to be. “I wouldn’t want anything else,” he says of the location and congregation, nearly half of whom are residents of a housing project close by.

Why? “It may be a strange thing to say, but humanity seems realer,” he says. When people are in difficult circumstances, Sanders thinks, they’re “more open and honest. And when that happens, I think people are more willing to let Christ in.”

That’s the privilege of being a priest, he thinks. People from different backgrounds let you into their lives– their struggles, joys, and most defining life moments– and he in turn helps them use those occasions to turn to God.

So although there’s no easy answer to solving the decline in religious practice across the U.S. or invigorating the masses, Sanders has chosen to dedicate his everything as an act of faith.

“There aren’t many signs of life in the church.” he says. “And I think when people see a younger priest, it gives them hope.”

Isabel Tehan’s work has been published by the Associated Press, WBUR (Boston’s NPR station), and the Philadelphia Business Journal, among other places. She was also a contributor for a Washington Post investigation.

Photography by Julia Monaco.