Idol Chatter

Meet Joe, Steve, Mike, and Dan, four men who star in a new five-part A&E series called “God or the Girl?” which begins airing on April 16th. Why the quandary in the title, God or the girl? Who’s to say you can’t have both? Well, these 20-somethings are engaged in discerning whether or not to enter into the Catholic priesthood, which, of course, requires a vow of celibacy–read: no girls.

Yet, aside from the girls question, what makes this show tick? After years of considering whether to enter seminary, all four of these young men agreed to make their final decision about the priesthood at the end of four weeks of filming, giving the show that “countdown feeling” we audiences seem to love.

A bit about each cast member:

Joe is 28, living in Ohio, and has been debating whether to become a priest for 10 years. His interest in the priesthood seems almost entirely based on his mother’s desperate need for one of her six sons to become a priest, and viewers get to observe her disturbing onscreen presence in Joe’s life; she says she thinks he’s not fit for marriage and hounds him about making his decision so she can be relieved of her “stress” of not knowing. Joe’s mom is not at all shy about how disappointed she’ll be if he fails her in this endeavor. Perhaps a better title for Joe’s dilemma would be: My Mom or the Girl?

Steve is 24, a rich, successful former frat-boy from UVA who gave up his career to become a poor missionary after he began to feel the call to the priesthood. His story relies heavily on the fact that he’s given up his $500,000 condo, $80,000/year salary, and a four-year relationship with his girlfriend for a life of poverty, celibacy, and devotion to the church. Aside from a missionary trip to Guatemala, which Steve undertakes only after much pressure and convincing from a mentor, his story is the least interesting of the four. His overriding dilemma: God or Money?

Mike from Pennsylvania seems to be the only guy in this series, ironically, who actually has a girl about whom girl to debate. His story centers on his very happy and healthy relationship with his pretty girlfriend, Ally, whom he loves very much and whom his parents clearly hope their son will marry. This, in addition to Mike’s aspirations to teach elementary school–which somehow are painted as in conflict with the priesthood–is central to his debate. I’m not sure why, as a priest, he also couldn’t teach elementary school, since lots of priests are teachers, but somehow this has become a conflict for him. Aside from his real dilemma about his girlfriend, the most interesting and disturbing dimension of his story is the “mentor priest” in Mike’s life, Father Paucelli, who is supposedly “helping” him discern his calling. But, as viewers will see, Father Paucelli really just seems desperate for Mike to break up with his girlfriend and become a priest, regardless of the clear affinity Mike shows for marriage in his future.

Dan, 20, and also from Ohio, is perhaps the most interesting of all four: He is both what his ex-girlfriend calls a “Chick Magnet” (think Heath Ledger back in his “Ten Things I Hate About You” days) and what only can be described as a Catholic zealot. Dan’s story revolves around his decision to carry an 80-pound cross (yes, you read this correctly–just like Jesus) for 22 miles in the company of the guys he lives with in Catholic community. He undertakes the challenge at the urging–disturbingly–of his mentor, Father Jeff. Father Jeff’s bright idea is that by literally suffering like Jesus by carrying this cross, Dan will be able to better make his decision about the priesthood. Dan doesn’t seem to have much of a dilemma at all, and perhaps his story is best titled: God or God?

As I watched the stories of these four men unfold over the course of the series–A&E sent four of the five episodes to reviewers–I kept wondering: Was each episode intentionally cut to emphasize the more controversial dimensions of what these men experience or is the priestly discernment process itself simply a framework for extreme behavior and advice? For example, does Father Jeff contrive Dan’s cross-carrying journey for the purposes of the show, or does he genuinely conceive it as a method for discernment? Is the intense, self-interested pressure placed on these aspiring priests by their mentors par for the course in the discernment process or peculiarly unique to the men on the show? Between Joe’s mother, Mike’s Father Paucelli, and Dan’s Father Jeff, the “guidance” given by these advisors appear to be largely self-interested and even desperate at times–desperate to attract young men into the profession, even at the cost of what obviously seems to be their best interest. (Steve is the only one of the four whose mentor does not seem to have ulterior, personal motives in whether or not Steve chooses the priesthood.)

Whether or not the issue of girls is really at the crux of the discernment process, as the title of this series implies, or is just a clever device to spice up the show is a question that lingered in my mind as I watched the stories of Joe, Steve, Mike, and Dan unfold as they tried to make this major life decision. Yet, regardless, this show is sure to draw viewers, if only for the unique nature of the topic, and the strange desire audiences will surely feel as they wonder whether Dan will be able to manage his 22-two mile trek with an 80 pound, homemade, wooden cross–or whether Joe will finally tell his mother to go to hell.

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