From Prosecutor to Seminarian

by on February 19, 2021

Seminarians at Mundelein come from diverse backgrounds. Teachers, engineers, journalists, accountants or–in the case of seminarian Ben Thomsen–a felony prosecutor.

Ben entered Mundelein Seminary in 2015 to study for the Archdiocese of Atlanta and was freshly out of the courtroom when he wrote a piece (posted below) for The Bridge—Mundelein’s seminarian-produced magazine—about how his career as a lawyer might impact his formation as a seminarian.

Now that Ben is a third-year theologian preparing for his diaconate ordination, we asked him to re-read the column he wrote 5 years ago and share some updated thoughts on how his background has influenced his time in seminary, as well as sharing his vocation story and more experiences from his formation.

Below is the piece Ben wrote in 2016 for The Bridge magazine.

Upon entering my career as a lawyer, a felony prosecutor for the state of Georgia to be precise, I already had the thought that I was called to priesthood. One might find particular irony in a seminarian who was formally practicing law and exercising such a judgmental office. Indeed, I was told more than once that these two career paths seemed diametrically opposed!

So what lessons for seminarians might be learned from such a career, and how is the practice of law, particularly as a prosecutor, reconcilable with later seeking priesthood?

As a prosecutor, I tried eight cases and assisted in several others, while managing hundreds of cases that resulted in plea deals. The potential practical lessons for priesthood are the learning of various skills to include applying principles to individual facts, time management and, obviously, skills in oratory.

The lessons can also be spiritual. You learn a great deal about human nature seeing man in so fallen a state that it is necessary for the force of law to intervene. Unfortunately, not all cases are clearly the happy triumph of good over evil. With the help of law enforcement and juries with good common sense, I have had at least one trial that resulted in an unrepentant man receiving a life sentence, while the repentant man received far less (it is not always easy to bring that about; normally the repentant confessing man receives more because there is more evidence against him due to his confession).

Yet, I have handled tragic cases where young teenagers were sentenced to many years in confinement for a crime spree, although probably appropriately so. On the other hand, there were cases where I wondered if I came down too lightly or too quickly dismissed charges. The great number of cases on an attorney’s docket demands finding the golden mean between working too much and too little. Making the right call in all these particular situations can be burdensome, and requires prayer and reflection — lest one grow too calloused, which ultimately leads down the path of laxity or severity.

Going from prosecutor to priest is perhaps a more harmonious transition than is readily apparent in our age. The work of a prosecutor is not something that must find itself in opposition to the work of a priest, even though a priest obviously ought not be in a political position once ordained. Love is the “will of the good of another.” (CCC 1766) Love is constant in God, even if our good unfortunately necessitates purgatory or worse, and we are only loving when we will the good, even if unpleasant.

Therefore, if it is good of a person to pay his unaccounted temporal debts (what Saint Thomas Aquinas calls “retaliatory” or “restitutive”), that it is good to try and facilitate rehabilitation and that it is the good of the whole community to deter crime, then it seems it is fundamentally love to publicly bring these about when they come into the public’s jurisdiction. The public duty of a prosecutor is to bring these goods in proper proportion, to society and the criminal, through conviction and punishment. Thus, just like being a priest is an expression of God’s love, so, ironically, in the qualified realm of justice, being a lawyer can be a profession of love.

This article originally appeared in The Bridge, a publication of University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary. The magazine archive can be viewed here.