Even though they act "in persona Christi," priests are people too, and a wise guide is a gift from God
Just as mentorship programs are of value in the business world to help new employees “learn the ropes” of working for a new company, some U.S. dioceses have adopted mentorship programs to help newly ordained priests learn from experienced pastors.
One of the longest running and most successful of these programs is in the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio, which serves 700,000 Catholics with 185 churches. It has an impressive 78 seminarians at the college and graduate level, reported Fr. Daniel Schlegel, diocesan Vicar for Clergy and Religious, “the largest student body in many years.”
Once Cleveland’s priests are ordained, they participate in a transition workshop named “New Beginnings.” They are matched with their first pastors, meet with their bishop, pray and listen to talks, and are introduced to the mentoring program. The new priests request their mentors, but the diocese must agree to their choice. It is the ultimate goal of the mentoring program, Fr. Schlegel said, “to help the newly ordained integrate into priestly ministry with the help of a seasoned priest.”
The first summer can be especially difficult for a new priest, Fr. Schlegel explained. He commented, “The new priest knows no one, doesn’t have any major responsibilities other than to be present, and is trying to adjust to the personality of the pastor.”
Concerns new priests typically share, Father said, include issues related to factions within parishes, how much involvement to have in the parish school, getting along with pastors, creating a cadence in prayer and work, and adjusting to having to cook for themselves.
Fr. Schlegel suggests to his mentees that they learn to be flexible and adapt. He said, “Priestly life is less like that of a CEO and more that of an EMT worker. You have to be there when people need you most – no matter what you’re doing.”
He continued, “I have found, over and over again, that few people will remember what you say, but everyone will remember that you were there. To be the presence of Christ means walking with folks through their joys and sorrows, their hopes and dreams and disappointments.”
He added, “It also means working through difficulties with those closest to you, including the pastor. It’s a sad commentary when men don’t get along in the rectory yet expect families and homes to be places of peace.”
Fr. Schlegel, who was ordained a priest in 1988, shares that in his own life, when he made the decision to become a priest, he knew there was no turning back. He continued, “I had known too many people who said, ‘I could’ve, I should’ve, I might have.’ I knew my commitment to priestly life was not for a day, a year, but a lifetime.”
To help him he keeps a “box of affirmation” of letters and cards of support and affirmation from parishioners and friends which, on difficult days, he takes out and reads. He said, “Many of those folks are long gone but their sentiments and reflections and observations remain a part of my own self-understanding and they represent God’s love for me and the impact of my calling, even when I can’t see it.”
He began his priesthood, he said, reflecting on the question, “Can I do this?” Once he realized he could, he reflected on the question, “How am I going to do this in a healthy manner which will allow me to do this for a lifetime?” He continued, “Self-care, dealing with pressure, ministering through sadness, supportive relationships – these were all realities I had to deal with if I wanted to stay in priesthood for the long term.”
Fr. Joseph Mamich is pastor of St. Joseph Church in Strongsville, Ohio. He was ordained in 2006, and chose Fr. Schlegel as his mentor. He says he is grateful for the advice he’s been offered. Fr. Mamich said, “It’s been neat to have another priest who was not my pastor but advanced in seniority to offer a different voice about things I encounter as a priest.”
Helpful advice Fr. Schlegel offered, he said, included the importance of balancing work at the parish with prayer time, as well as making personal time to engage in such activities as exercising. Fr. Schlegel also stressed the importance of priestly fraternity and mutual support; the two priests are still involved in a monthly get-together with eight other priests during which they socialize, pray Evening Prayer, have a meal and talk about an issue in the Church.
The diocesan mentorship program has been “absolutely helpful” as a priest, says Fr. Mamich, as Fr. Schlegel has been a valuable resource to him to offer ongoing counsel. Fr. Mamich concluded, “I think of him as a ‘wisdom figure’ in my life.”