By Friday afternoon, when most teachers are looking forward to the weekend, I am already gearing up to spend most of Saturday preparing my Sunday homily. My Sundays are spent celebrating Mass at the parish run by my religious order in Brooklyn, or at a nearby church where I often help out. By Sunday night I am often bone tired and collapse just as I start picking through the newspapers.
Despite those challenges, I wouldn’t change a thing. To live and work in a community of priests and brothers who are firmly committed to pastoral ministry in the spirit of Vatican II, and also to teach in an outstanding Catholic high school, means I am living the vocation to which I have always felt called. I consider myself richly blessed.
When I first contemplated a religious vocation, it was largely because of the fine example of several of my priest-teachers in high school. I entered the diocesan seminary after college, but I realized that, given the shortage of priests in ministry, the possibility of being able to teach full-time as a priest was becoming more and more unlikely. I left the seminary shortly before ordination and found a teaching position in a Catholic school. Then I began my long quest to combine my desire to teach with my call to priesthood. Through a series of twists and turns (where, in hindsight, I can clearly see the hand of God), I found my way to the Brooklyn Oratory of St. Philip Neri. Here was a religious community that would allow me to live out the hyphenated priesthood I had felt God calling me to for some time.
The Brooklyn Oratory was started in 1988, but it is part of a tradition that stretches back to 1575, when St. Philip Neri founded the first Oratory in Rome. It was Neri’s vision to gather a group of like-minded priests and lay brothers who would live in the same house for the rest of their lives while they pursued all sorts of work (care of the sick, ministry to pilgrims, support of music and art) in addition to a full sacramental ministry. I was attracted to the Oratory’s emphasis on both stability and flexibility in ministry. At the Oratory parish I found exquisite music; a reverent-but-modern liturgical style; prayerful, thoughtful, and engaging homilies; and parishioners who formed a true community, who knew and cared for one another. It seemed almost too good to be true.
Since I was ordained in 2007, I have had to ride the subway from the rectory where I live in Brooklyn to the Jesuit high school in Manhattan where I teach—up to three train lines each way, every day. When I hear my fellow priests complain that living above the store makes it difficult for them to separate their private and professional lives, I remind them that the daily grind of commuting is not much fun either. But it is part of the life I have chosen for myself as a priest and a teacher, both flexible and stable.
I think (or hope) I have enough energy for at least a few more years of this dual role. Lately, though, I am spending a wearying amount of time counseling discouraged parishioners and students, trying to offer reasons for them to stay in the church. They are turned off by statements and actions from church leaders that seem out of step with their lives. The latest onslaught of clergy sexual-abuse allegations and the revelations of episcopal mismanagement have only made their disillusionment worse.
But the Catholics I know won’t give up easily. Not long after I found the Oratory parish in Brooklyn, I learned that few of its parishioners live within the parochial boundaries. A number had been lapsed Catholics who were drawn back into regular practice of the faith by the vibrant community and worship at the Oratory. Now they’re committed, so much so that many ride the subway to Mass every Sunday—which says a lot, since most New Yorkers find taking the subway Monday through Friday to be penance enough. They’re willing to go to a lot of trouble to get to where God is calling them to be. I look to them for encouragement.