Change is part of priests’ vocation

 by Karen Mahoney
Special to Your Catholic Herald 
After Fr. Ricardo Martin Pinillos spent a few days acclimating to his new home at the Sacred Heart rectory in Racine, he decided to explore a bit. Since he had not seen the basement, he started there. Unfortunately, the trip below was literally quite alarming.
“I went downstairs, but no one had told me that there was an alarm in one of the doors and it went off,” he said. While he the story is funny and cute now, he admitted that while he enjoys change in his life, setting off the alarm was not one of those instances. “It felt anything but cute that day!”
Ordained in 2003, Fr. Martin has had several transitions during his nine years as a priest. In July, he was assigned part time as Administrator of Sacred Heart and with the Metropolitan Tribunal after finishing his studies in Canon Law at Catholic University of America.  He has also served as pastor of Prince of Peace in Milwaukee, St. Patrick and Cristo Rey in Racine and assisted at Good Shepherd Parish in Alexandria, VA while attending CUA.
From the beginning, change can be exciting, but is rarely easy. From infancy, there is a struggle to crawl, to walk and to form sporadic words into comprehensible sentence. The comfort of daily life with parents are exchanged for day care or school and learning to read and write along the way. Finding a niche in a new environment can also be frustrating, and at times, there is a tendency to give up. However, perseverance can bring incredible results that surpass even the most colorful imaginations.
Geographically, a move can be traumatic or cathartic—but surely, the process through the intricacies of packing and leaving friends and loved ones behind, is often an unraveling of detail entwined with memories. But, once the boxes are unpacked, new memories begin to form and often, the move was a positive step into something much better.
For priests, moving is part of the vocation, and it is not always easy. In the Milwaukee Archdiocese, priests generally serve a parish for a six-year term that is renewable once, and new assignments usually begin in June or July. Newly ordained priests will generally serve as an associate priest for three years and then assigned as parish administrator for a year. This gives the priest and the diocese some flexibility in case the assignment is not a good fit before the six-year term begins.  
“I know most people don’t like change but I actually thrive with the emotions and the novelty-getting to know a new place and find out how things work,” said Fr. Martin. “It’s exciting to have the opportunity to meet new people. To see how an institution works, to discern its strengths and weaknesses, to discover the intricacies of how things work, either at the parish or at the Tribunal.”
The most challenging aspect in the move for Fr. Martin is in learning new names, and in not disrupting the flow of parish life.
“But I really enjoy change and new beginnings,” he said. “Meeting new people on the one hand, and discerning the many strengths and the few weaknesses of an institution is an interesting process.”
For Fr. Peter Berger, new Administrator of St. Mary Visitation Parish in Elm Grove, the transition was an opportunity to go back to practicing what he was trained to do, serve the people in a parish. Ordained in 2005, Fr. Berger was assigned to Lumen Christi Parish in Mequon before he was called to serve as Vocation Director for the Archdiocese.
“That was my only experience serving as a priest in a parish prior to moving into working at the Vocations Office,” he said, adding, “I enjoyed the opportunity to serve as Vocation Director for the Archdiocese, but I am thrilled to be back doing parish ministry, particularly in being assigned to St. Mary’s Visitation Parish. Returning to parish ministry is returning to the reason I wanted to be a priest as well as what I feel God has called me to do.”
Because relationships take a long time to build, Fr. Berger finds that the most difficult aspect when transferring to another position or parish.
“Trying to learn people’s names as well as the dynamics of a parish takes time and energy,” he admitted. “But, while it is challenging, it can also be one of the most rewarding parts about being a parish priest-getting to know people and becoming a part of the life of a parish community.”
For some priests, the transition to feeling at home in their new parish takes several years, while others feel most comfortable by the end of the first year.
“Going through the yearly cycle once, builds up knowledge and experience and makes you feel that you know what is going on and you have come to know people and they have come to know you,” said Fr. Berger. “It is a joy being in relationship with others and trying to draw closer with them to Christ and the Church and being present for people in important moments in their lives, but also being present to people in the day to day reality of existence. You also wonder what God is going to do next and while that can be frightening on the one hand, (because of) the unknown, it can also be exhilarating.”
When Fr. Daniel Janasik moved from his first assignment as associate pastor of St. Francis Borgia Parish in Cedarburg to administrator of St. Leonard Parish in Muskego in June, there were so many going away parties that he jokes that it felt as if he were attending his own funeral for two months.
“You hear what seems like all these eulogies about yourself and everyone says goodbye,” he explained. “It was sad to say goodbye for me because I really loved them. But, in the back of my mind, I heard all sorts of great things about St. Leonard’s and I was happy to receive an appointment there. It was sad and exciting, but it was about a new reality and a new challenge.”
Seminarians are prepared with knowledge of what will be taking place throughout their vocations. Workshops and discussions help prepare for the emotional roller coaster that corresponds with moving to a new environment; but when the new appointment comes along, the head knowledge does not always coincide with the matters of the heart.
“Leaving people and saying goodbye to relationships is very difficult,” admitted Fr. Janasik. “We are walking with people through the best and worst moments in their lives and sometimes a mix of all of that. Part of a parish priest’s job is being immersed in people’s lives and in knowing we belong to a wider Church. I don’t think it will get easier as I move to other assignments. You get to love people and then you have to let go of good relationships.”
With his new parish just minutes from his parents’ home, Fr. Janasik is experiencing what he calls, ‘the clashing of two worlds.’ Because the distance is not an issue, his parents are able to attend his Masses. The view from the altar to the pew finds familiar faces mixed with the unfamiliar.
“It is strange saying Mass with my parents there, but yet gratifying as it affirms my vocation,” he said. “I see their friendly faces in the pew and yet, I am learning people. Everything in ministry is about relationships, and the parishioners are strangers to me and I am a stranger to them. We are getting to know each other, sometimes it is fun and sometimes it’s frustrating—it will be much easier once I learn names and get to know people.”
Immensely helpful to Fr. Janasik is former St. Leonard pastor and Vicar General/Moderator of the Curia, Fr. William Kohler.
“He has been mentoring me and been a huge help in this transition,” he said. “I am able to bounce things off of him. He knows this place really well and gives me very helpful advice.”
Similarly, Fr. Sean O’Connell, former associate pastor of St. Dominic Parish, Brookfield, and currently administrator of Queen of Apostles Parish in Pewaukee has come to rely on Fr. Dave Reith, pastor of St. Dominic for support in learning how to run a parish, and handle the nuances, various personalities as well as remembering the names of 1200 members.
“It is challenging now as an administrator because everything comes to my desk,” he said. “When I was an associate I could pass that onto Fr. Dave and now the buck stops with me. I have to make official decisions on financial and personnel issues that arise and everyone is staring at me looking for answers. I consult with Fr. Dave, as he was the greatest mentor I could ask for. I have him on speed dial and have contacted him several times. He has taught me some amazing tools on how to be a great pastor and how to love the people of God. There is no one better than Fr. Dave.”
Becoming the administrator of Queen of Apostles has been a welcoming experience for Fr. O’Connell, who admits that the best part of being a priest is Sunday Mass.
“This is my one opportunity a week to see everyone, or as many come to interact as part of our parish family,” he said. “I am a family person. I come from a loving and supportive family and when I get to see families come to have spiritual enrichment, renewal and celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass, it puts a smile on my face. I am excited to be gathering with this community. I absolutely love being a parish priest and this is the greatest vocation for me, personally—I am already at home here.”
Ordained in 1976, Fr. William Stanfield knows a thing or two about the logistics and emotional upheaval associated with moving to new parishes. For 32 years, he served as pastor of a number of parishes, but the past four years, he served as Vice-Rector and Director of Pastoral formation of St. Francis de Sales Seminary. In June, he was assigned to Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish in North Lake. Not only does he have a new parish to shepherd, but he continues his ministry as Vice Rector and Dean of Formation at St. Francis de Sales.
“This isn’t a big move for me as I have moved six times since I was ordained,” he said. “The most difficult aspect of the move is in getting to know the people and how things are done.”
While he admitted that he couldn’t speak for the parish side of the transition, for him, the move to Blessed Teresa has been a welcoming experience. However, with 2100 parishioners to care for, he admits that he has many new names to learn.
“It will take a while to really get to know them and what goes on in the parish,” he said. “But I love working with people and look forward to working with everyone.”
After serving the Milwaukee Archdiocese as a priest for 20 years, Fr. Timothy Bickel understands the reasons for moving, and while it can be enormously difficult, realizes they are necessary. In June, he moved from pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Butler to St. Mary Parish in Menomonee Falls.
“I was blessed to spend 12 years with the faith community of St. Agnes Parish as their shepherd and mentor,” he said. Therefore, it is very difficult to accept the necessary change. I was very sad to leave St. Agnes, but at the same time, I was excited to begin my ministry with the people of St. Mary Parish. Now that I have been at St. Mary for over a month, I find that there really hasn’t been any difficulty in changing parishes. People are the same wherever you go and all people need love, compassion, a hug and someone to guide them in faith.”
Losing the connection with his parish family and bridging new connections is the most difficult aspect associated with the move to a new parish. Week after week, Fr. Bickel knew what his former parishioners were dealing with on a personal and parish level.
“Now that connection is gone and I have to learn the history of new faces and families,” he explained. “It takes time to get to know the people in the pews and from their perspective, I know they are wondering who I am and how long I will remain as their pastor. They have been very welcoming, and I have been embraced by the young and the old who gather for weekday and weekend Eucharist.”
At times, the changes seem abundant and challenging, but there are also instances, such as when celebrating Mass that Fr. Bickel knows he is already home.
“When we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, it doesn’t take long to feel at ‘home’ because we are all at home with the Lord,” he said. “I know this is where God has called me to minister and to serve. I hope to bring about a spirit of joy and enthusiasm for the faith, which we profess. Getting to know this new community is also rejuvenating and encouraging.”
On the other side of active priestly ministry is forced retirement and the emotional and physical changes that can shatter the very core of lifelong service to God. Ordained in 1955, Fr. John Naus, S.J served Marquette University for 48 years. Among other things, he taught classes in the Philosophy of Humor, served as Dean of Students, Director of Spiritual Welfare, residence hall minister, assistant to the president, associate professor of Philosophy, performed as Tumbleweed the Clown in nursing homes and at Children’s hospital, and frequently celebrated Mass on campus.
Living at St. Camillus since suffering a stroke in 2004, he still traveled to Marquette every day. Three weeks ago, health issues forced him to retire and for the first time in nearly 50 years, he struggles with not being able to go to work.
“This has been very hard on me, because I loved what I did and loved being at Marquette,” he admitted. “There is a store downstairs in St. Camillus and I found this card that had a quote from Jeremiah 32:37 on the front. It said, ‘I am the Lord the God of all mankind, is anything too hard for me?’ Inside it says, ‘When you think you can’t, God’s love says you can.’ It really spoke to me and I think it just says so much.”
While he will no longer be serving in active priestly ministry, the many friends he has made throughout his lifetime comfort the 88-year-old Fr. Naus. Recently, he worked with volunteers to prepare 4000 Christmas cards that will be sent this next season. In addition, he looks forward to a retirement party on August 28, given by the university.
“I am getting through this difficult time of my life by praying, thinking, and keeping in contact with close friends. I am grateful for the dear friends I have had for 48 years at Marquette,” he said. “And I know that despite how I feel and how hard this is, there is still God and he is with me.”
Although officially, Fr. Joseph Hornacek is retired, he appears to be as active as the priests who have not reached the age of retirement. Don’t be swayed by appearances, however, as he is doing exactly what he wants to be doing.
“You know it took me 45 years to be a priest, and now I am doing exactly what I studied and was trained for,” he said, laughing. “I have no leaky roofs to repair, no personnel issues, or budget issues. I love it and am able sleep more than 5 hours a night now. It is just wonderful.”
Throughout his priestly vocation, he moved to seven different parishes, served at St. Francis de Sales Seminary, and in priest personnel work, and in 1998, became the Vicar for Clergy.
“When I was nearing my 6th year as the Vicar for Clergy, Archbishop Dolan asked me if I wanted to renew, but because I had such a difficult job removing priests due to the sexual abuse problems, the last 2 ½ years of that position were very challenging,” he explained. “I told him I wanted to go back to parish work and I didn’t care where he sent me. I was assigned to St. Anthony on the Lake in Pewaukee and stayed there six years until I was 70 and decided to retire.”
Before Fr. Hornacek retired last year, Bishop Sklba contacted him about assisting in priestless parishes, so he began helping out as a supervising priest at St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish in Milwaukee. Working with former seminary classmate, Fr. Richard Mirsberger, the two alternate Mass and confession schedules at St. Catherine, as well as St. John Nepomunk, and Trinity of Village and Manor Park assisted living centers.
“I have a wonderful life and have plenty of time to work on my homilies, do cooking and laundry and my cleaning,” he said. “I get to sit with my sister who lives in the area, and have lunch with her every day. I just love it.”

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