The Rev. Michael Trail, 31, is the new priest at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, 5472 S. Kimbark Ave. The Detroit native is beginning a six-year term at the 152-year-old parish, with a possibility for another term after that.
After getting the assignment at the beginning of the month, Trail has been meeting with various constituents: from his parishioners on Sunday to partners at the Catholic Theological Union, 5416 S. Cornell Ave., and the Calvert House Catholic Center at the University of Chicago, 5735 S. University Ave.
"I don't know much about (Hyde Park)," he admitted. "As long as I've been in Chicago, I've spent most of my time on the North Side, but I've heard a lot of incredible things about Hyde Park. I've heard a lot of incredible things about St. Thomas the Apostle and our legacy here. We've been here since 1869.
"I'm excited to learn more about how we can be good partners to the community and how we can continue to be instruments of God's love and God's peace," he said.
What does he see himself doing at STA? "Bringing people to Christ and giving people the space to have a true, authentic relationship with Christ."
What are his professional ambitions? "Nothing," he said, laughing. "This is it. The one thing I've always wanted to be is a pastor, and that's it. I'm literally living my dream."
Trail was raised Catholic, the son of a Puerto Rican mother and a Kentucky-born father who moved to Michigan when he was a boy. He went to Catholic school through eighth grade followed by a charter high school, then to Loyola University in Chicago.
"I always say that there's a movement of faith when you move from your mom and dad's to your own faith, when you own it and you claim it. My first year of college I spent owning and claiming it as my own," he said.
When he started college in 2007, Trail wanted to be an urban planner. (He likes cities: "I like the fact that there's a church on every corner for a reason," he mused.) But the idea of the priesthood crept into his head, and he entered the former Saint Joseph College Seminary in 2009, graduating three years later with a philosophy degree. Then he went to Mundelein Seminary, was ordained in 2016 and started ministering in the southwest suburbs and on the Northwest and North sides.
Trail is STA's second Black priest, after the short service of the Rev. Chris Kituli two years ago. Trail supposes he will be the first Black priest to minister at the church for a while.
"I realize that that has an impact," he said. "I don't know how that's going to shake out yet, because I'm walking into a new family, and every family has its own dynamics. I recognize that by me being Black, that does play a part in that. I don't know what that's going to look like yet, whether it be specifically here or in the larger context of the South Side, I don't know."
"God called me as me. God called me as Michael, and I bring my whole self. I bring that I'm from Michigan. I bring being Black. I bring being half-Puerto Rican as well. I bring all of that stuff with me to the people who I am called to minister to and who I'm called to walk this journey of life and journey of faith with," he said.
A year ago, the administration of the STA School, 5467 S. Woodlawn Ave., observed that they had a largely White staff leading a predominantly Black student body. At the time, Principal Erin Monahan told the Herald that teachers are in high demand in Chicagoland, with Catholic schools competing against public ones during hirings, and that STA was prioritizing hiring a diverse staff.
Trail is not a school administrator, but he has a relationship with the students. His office is in the school building. When he was an elementary student in Catholic school, he forged a strong bond with his parish priest and still keeps in touch with him.
Trail wants to have a similarly strong relationship with STA students: to know their names, their stories and where they come from.
"Everybody wants to see somebody who looks like them," he said. "I didn't meet a Black priest until I was in seminary. If a young man has a call to the priesthood or even a young woman a call to religious life, if they can see someone who looks like them who's living that out, then why not?"
Trail has not taken a vow of poverty — he has student loans to pay back — but he has taken vows of obedience and chastity. Asked how he, as someone who will not have a romantic partnership or children, gives marital or parental advice to his parishioners, he pointed out that he does come from a family himself, with joys, struggles and parents of his own.
"Though I am not married, there are ways that I can speak to the beauty of marriage," he said. "I think there is something very beautiful to the idea of complementarity, that just because I haven't gone through a certain situation like getting married, that doesn't mean that I can't shed light from a different perspective."
Trail said he and other priests also know when to step back and refer people to marital or grief counseling.
The Catholic Church's positions on birth control, marriage and the status of women have created profound disagreements. Sexual abuse scandals have also drawn sharp criticism around the world.
Commenting on these controversies, Trail said, "There are a lot of things that the church needs atonement for — a lot of things, a lot of things. And if I can be part of that atonement and healing, why not? But for me, my driving force is my relationship with the Lord, the sacraments and the way I can bring God's grace into a world that needs it."
Trail looks to the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church, with its periods of great growth and schism, and the fact that it exists underground in authoritarian countries even today.
Asked about his own relationship with God, Trail said, "I think it's incredible that God made the stars in the sky, the earth, the sea, the same God who does all these incredible things, who inspires mankind to do all these incredible things, that this God would love me personally and have me in mind.
"That I can pray and talk with God and wrestle with God with the daily questions of life — Who am I? What am I supposed to do with my life? What do I do with everything going forward? — I think there's something very beautiful about that, about being able to have this relationship with that same God who loved me from the very beginning."