I next discovered that deciding to become a priest was just the first step, really. Then I had to decide whether to be a diocesan priest or a religious order priest. Religious order priests (i.e. Jesuits, Franciscans, Holy Cross fathers, Vincentians or Dominican priests) have a particular “charism” that the man feels called to. The Jesuits teach, for example. Religious orders also have a founder or famous saints to whom the member of the community feels drawn. The diocesan priest on the other hand lives in a determined geographical area such as the four counties of central New Jersey and is under a diocesan bishop. I decided to pursue the diocesan route.
At first I debated between joining the Archdiocese of Newark and the Diocese of Trenton. I lived in the Archdiocese of Newark at the time, in Park Ridge, but I went to college at Princeton University in the Diocese of Trenton. At one meeting a priest tried to cajole me to come to Trenton by saying “We have the shore!” I admit that the shore was quite a draw (although I have yet to be assigned to a shore parish.). Eventually I decided on the Trenton Diocese. The Bishop of Trenton John M. Smith sent me to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary outside of Philadelphia for one year to study philosophy and then sent me to Rome to study theology at the North American College. In Rome (where yes I did have to learn Italian) one is able to see the “universal Church” – to attend lectures with a priest from Spain while sitting alongside students from France, Africa and Malta. I was also able to attend and serve at papal liturgies. Those were two of the special blessings of studying in Rome.
There were three famous saints/churchmen, who inspired me in my path to priesthood, who I would like to mention.
|Pope St. John Paul II|
The first was Pope St. John Paul II. I was over in Rome in the days following his death and leading up to the Conclave that elected Pope Benedict. It was a spiritually intense and powerful time. He died on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday. Millions of people poured in to Rome from all over the world to see his body. Every media outlet was there. Every president and king was present at the funeral Mass presided over by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. But it was not so much John Paul’s place in history or on the world stage that attracted me and so many other people to him. It was his holiness, his courage in suffering, his connection to youth, his closeness to God, and the fact that people really felt that he meant it when he told them that he loved them.
|St. Jean Vianney|
The second person who inspired me was the “Curé of Ars”, St. Jean Vianney, the patron saint of priests. Even though this priest lived in a small town/parish in backwater France, thousands and thousands of people poured in from all over France and Europe to see him and especially to go to confession to him. Sometimes he would hear confessions for up to sixteen hours per day. His preaching, commitment to catechesis and pastoral charity were all models of priestly life. He was a man devoted to the Eucharist. He led a life of simplicity yet was influential nevertheless in the world; he helped convert France to Christ after the bloody French Revolution.
A view of Ars, a tiny village in France
where St. Jean Vianney was
pastor for forty years.
|Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI |
Christmas Mass as pope
The third man was Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. There were certain homilies and texts from him that helped me tremendously along my path to priesthood. One was his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), which he published in December 2005. This encyclical helped me to realize that priesthood and the Christian life in general are ultimately about love: love for God and neighbor. This teaching was expressed profoundly by St. Jean Vianney who believed that “the mercy of God is like an over flowing torrent, it carries along hearts in passing,” and who said, “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.” Another important text for me from Pope Emeritus Benedict was a homily he gave at the Chrism Mass in Rome on Holy Thursday, April 13, 2006. In that homily Benedict talked about the hands of the priest. He called for priests to “put our hands at his [Our Lord Jesus’] disposal” and allow Him to lead us. He encouraged the priests present not to be afraid but to trust in Jesus. He quoted the verse from the Gospel of John, “I no longer call you servants but friends.” All of these images were very helpful for me as I drew closer to priesthood.
My day of priesthood ordination finally arrived on May 20, 2006. My ordination class also included Rev. Joseph Jakub (currently pastor of Corpus Christi Parish, Willingboro) and Rev. Brian Woodrow (currently pastor of St. John Parish, Allentown). It was a beautiful, grace-filled day culminating in the moment in which Bishop Smith laid hands on my head making me a priest. My prayer that day was ‘Lord, help me to be your instrument.’ ‘Help me to cooperate with you through the Bishop to spread your love, goodness and grace in our world especially through the sacraments.’
Photographs from my Ordination Mass,
Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, Trenton, New Jersey, May 20, 2006:
Fr. Joe Jakub, Bishop Smith, Fr. Brian Woodrow and me
Anointing of the newly ordained priest’s hands with oil
Bishop Smith laying hands on me
The Litany of Saints