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Sgt. Earl Lopez, 30, kneels for a photograph in the third-floor prayer room at the Pentagon. Lopez wants to become a Roman Catholic priest once he separates from the Marine Corps in two years. Since age 17, Lopez has been tugged by "the calling" to join the priesthood, an emotion he first fought.

Sgt. Earl Lopez, 30, kneels for a photograph in the third-floor prayer room at the Pentagon. Lopez wants to become a Roman Catholic priest once he separates from the Marine Corps in two years. Since age 17, Lopez has been tugged by "the calling" to join the priesthood, an emotion he first fought. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)

Sgt. Earl Lopez, 30, kneels for a photograph in the third-floor prayer room at the Pentagon. Lopez wants to become a Roman Catholic priest once he separates from the Marine Corps in two years. Since age 17, Lopez has been tugged by "the calling" to join the priesthood, an emotion he first fought.

Sgt. Earl Lopez, 30, kneels for a photograph in the third-floor prayer room at the Pentagon. Lopez wants to become a Roman Catholic priest once he separates from the Marine Corps in two years. Since age 17, Lopez has been tugged by "the calling" to join the priesthood, an emotion he first fought. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)

In his office at the Pentagon, Sgt. Earl Lopez sometimes takes a break from his busy schedule by either saying the Rosary, a string of beads which Catholics use to say a set of prayers, or by logging onto to a Web site that features Catholic prayers.

In his office at the Pentagon, Sgt. Earl Lopez sometimes takes a break from his busy schedule by either saying the Rosary, a string of beads which Catholics use to say a set of prayers, or by logging onto to a Web site that features Catholic prayers. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)

Sailor. Marine. Priest.

Sgt. Earl Lopez has been two of the three, and it’s the latter which he now longs most to become.

The 30-year-old native of the Central American nation of Belize has felt since age 17 “the calling” to pursue a life of a Roman Catholic priest.

But the Marine spent the first part of the ensuing years struggling against the tug, because it displeased his mother, who better accepted her only child’s decision to join the military than the priesthood.

“But I don’t think I’d be happy otherwise,” Lopez said during a recent interview. “If I got married, I would get married for life. What if it’s the wrong choice? I don’t want to live the rest of my life unhappy. I know she wants grandchildren — I know that — but I have to follow this path.”

The disagreement has caused such tension between the two that Lopez didn’t want his mom interviewed for this story.

“I’ve had girlfriends, but nothing serious, and nothing that would have led me to marriage.”

And nothing in life so far has changed his mind — including the recent sex scandals plaguing the church. In fact, they’ve only strengthened his resolve.

“The Catholic church teaches of faith, and to leave that would betray what was given to me as a gift. … But I am so upset with the bishops who did nothing, who let priests run amok within the church. I hold those bishops as accountable as the priests.”

The offenders belong in prison, he said without hesitation.

“Once a pedophile, always a pedophile. That’s something you can’t cure,” he said.

Lopez and his mother, Louise Lopez, left Belize when he was 11 years old — moving to Brooklyn “in search of a better life,” he said.

They found one. And an appreciative 18-year-old joined the Navy in an effort both to quench a desire for adventure and to return the favor.

“I’ve been given so much. America has one of the best forms of government, and the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness must be defended.

“When you sign the contract, you sign to defend this country. That must always be the No. 1 priority. Whatever trade you learn while you’re in the military is extra, is a benefit. What’s No. 1 is the oath to defend the country.”

He served four years in the Navy, entering as an undesignated seaman and leaving with the Military Occupation Specialty of storekeeper.

Lopez then learned he wasn’t self-disciplined enough for college life. Frustrated, he left the world of academia after two semesters at Tuskegee University in Alabama.

Military life suited him and he longed for it, so in 1997, he rejoined, this time going into the Marine Corps.

Today, he’s an administrative clerk for John Young Jr., the Navy’s undersecretary for research, development and acquisition. It’s a job that runs the gamut from coordinating government travel to escorting high-level dignitaries and representatives from the defense industry to the Pentagon to answering the phones.

“Basically, I’m a receptionist,” he chuckled.

Lopez has two years remaining on his commitment to the Corps. Following separation, he plans to enroll at a seminary.

Until then, he prepares himself by seeking counsel from a military chaplain, who also is a Catholic priest.

“I try to do my best for this man searching his own soul for what he wants to do,” said Father (Cmdr.) Mike Dory, assigned to the Navy’s Chaplain’s office in Arlington, Va.

He helps Lopez find answers to things troubling the Marine, such as the brewing storm of sexual misconduct by priests and why the church prohibits women from ministering.

“So many of our [clerical hopefuls] come from the military,” Dory said. “I’m delighted, but it’s really not so unusual. It’s not something that floors you.”


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