Father Mark Reamer is the vice president for Mission at Siena College and the Guardian of Friary, among his many jobs. (Mike Matvey photo)
Father Mark Reamer is the vice president for Mission at Siena College and the Guardian of Friary, among his many jobs. (Mike Matvey photo)

Father Mark Reamer, O.F.M., is a man who wears many hats. Father Reamer is the vice president for Mission at Siena College, the Guardian of the Friary, former U.S. Navy chaplain, Episcopal Vicar for the Diocese of Albany, chaplain for the Colonie Police Department, mentor for newly ordained priests in the Diocese and chaplain to Catholic Central High School in Troy. Mike Matvey of The Evangelist talks with Father Reamer about his many ministries and much more in this installment of Catholic Voices. Catholic Voices features a wide range of men and women in the Capital Region and will appear periodically in the paper and online.

TE: Tell us about your upbringing?

FR: I was born in New Jersey, the youngest of eight kids. My dad (Ray) died in 2008 and my mom (Frances) is still alive; in fact, we just celebrated her 101st birthday. She is still living independently in New Jersey, doing great. Being here at Siena, this is my first time as a friar being in driving distance, so I get to see her once or twice a month.

TE: Did you come from a religious family?

FR: I grew up in a Catholic household and a great diocesan parish (Our Lady of Mercy in Park Ridge, N.J.). I was an altar server there and one of the priests, Father Tom Kleissler, went on to found Renew and Renew International. It was really a Vatican II parish; it was very dynamic. It was just a great experience, the priests as well as parish ministry. But (what sparked my interest in the vocation) was really our family vacationing to the Jersey Shore in Long Beach Island. There was a Franciscan parish there (St. Francis of Assisi) and it was there that I met the friars. So when I was in high school thinking about the priesthood,  the priests I grew up with were great role models, but it was something about the friars that I would now be able to describe as their fraternity, their community, the sense of being part of something greater than themselves that attracted me to the friars.

TE: What else led you to the Friars?

FR: When I choose to come to Siena (as a student),  the friars on campus continued to nurture my vocation; seeing how they interacted with one another, how they lived together; again that sense of fraternity. Also what attracted me was the diversity of ministries. As I looked at the Diocese, it looked like all the priests were parish priests, and I know now that is not true, but that was my perspective and when I looked at the friars I saw missionaries, retreat centers, chaplaincy, high school and college, as well as parish. I was exposed to a number of experiences during my time here at Siena that made it easy for me to think about joining the friars. My major was religious studies education and I did student teaching at Catholic Central High School. ... Some of those experiences I had at Siena and Catholic Central, really were nurturing to my vocation at the time. Siena had a vocation program and we would meet regularly with friars along with other men who were discerning and we would have a retreat once a semester. It was then an easy decision to say, ‘Yes, I want to take the next step.’ And before I made solemn or final vows, as I reflected back, it really was a lot of little yesses along the way that confirmed that decision to say, ‘Yes, this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.’

TE: How did you end up in the Naval reserves?

FR: After joining the friars, every summer there are different ministerial experiences, which I found to be very helpful ... After a year-long internship, I hadn’t had any parish experiences. I  served in Triangle Virginia (Va.,) at St. Francis of Assisi parish. It was located at the front gate of Quantico Marine Base.  That experience introduced me to a number of families of Marines. The youth minister on base, Margaret Bruni was a great spiritual leader, a great mentor and she inspired me to think about joining the Navy. The Navy chaplains service the Navy, the Coast Guard and the Marine Corp. I went to the Minister Provincial at the time, Father Anthony Carrozzo, O.F.M., and asked if I could think about this; would this be something that the province and the friars be open to?  I had in my “back pocket” the reasons why I thought it would be worthwhile and (the provincial) gave me all those reasons plus more; it’s really young adult ministry and would be worthwhile and a good thing. So I went through the application and was commissioned in the same year I was ordained (1991). My first 13 years of ordination, I served as a reserve chaplain in the Navy.

TE: And you also spent time overseas?

FR: After 9/11, when the Iraq War began in ’03, it’s termed an “involuntary recall,” in other words, I didn’t raise my hand and say, ‘Hey, I want to go.’ It’s just part of the reserves, you get called and you have 24 hours (to  report). I can remember being in the cemetery just finishing a graveside (funeral) when I got the call. Cell phones in 2003 weren’t as clear, the petty officer called and I said ‘Ok, I’ll stop down.’ But the petty officer said, ‘Sir, do you understand you are now covered under The Uniform Code of Military Justice,’ kind of reading my rights, I said, ‘Oh, I’ll be right down.’ I was able to get a one-week extension to get my things in order and two weeks later I was on the border of Iraq.

TE: What was it like being in a war zone?

FR: It was the best experience-worst experience at the same time. It was a very lonely experience and yet a very enriching experience. Lonely in that I went over not knowing anyone and they needed Catholic priests and they pulled me out of my unit and sent me over. But I quickly discovered, I wasn’t the only one searching. What was most comfortable was the Eucharist. Celebrating the Eucharist helped form a sense of community and that community nurtured and fed me as well as others there, too. I was assigned to a Hospital Services Battalion. In some ways, if you have seen the TV show “M*A*S*H” and Father Mulcahy, I was kind of like Father Mulcahy for the Sailors and Marines. I was there to serve the Marines and it really was a very meaningful ministry in terms of real life and death; blessing the bodies of some of the first casualties of the war; being very much involved as a priest and as a chaplain. And there was a certain sense of the iconic nature of priesthood; in terms of being present was very important for some of the sailors and Marines.

TE: How did you become involved in police ministry?

FR: I have never been the type of person to plan out my career and say, ‘What am I going to do next?’ It was really a matter of saying yes. I was ordained in September 1991, a few months later we were decorating the church and we had a call from the police department, a terrible tragedy had happened. Two parents, Donna and Jerry Gerdes, were killed in a car accident. They were on their way to go Christmas shopping for their four kids, they were parishioners at St. Francis, and (the police) asked if a priest could come up to the house and be with the children. So I did and I met Larry Tingle, a Methodist minister who was the police chaplain for Prince William County (in Virginia). I went through that, very sad and tragic; just a heart-wrenching experience at Christmas time. Shortly after that Larry asked me if I wanted to be a police chaplain and I said ‘Absolutely not if this is what you go through.’ But then six months later, we met again at an ecumenical gathering and by that point the emotions had subsided and when he asked again, I said yes.

TE: What does a police chaplain do?

FR:  It really depends on the department. I am a volunteer … it involves going on “ride-alongs,” getting to know officers. In some ways it’s what I would call ‘creative loitering’ so when something happens I am a known, trusted person. I am one person who can be a resource. Often if a tragedy happens, I would get called out. I am primarily there for the officers. Sometimes in Raleigh (N.C.) or Prince William, they would ask me to come along to do a death notification. In the Navy, I did a number of death notifications as a reservist. In Raleigh, if a Navy personnel was killed overseas ... I was called to go with the Casualty Assistance Officer. If you saw the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” there are no words. If a chaplain and an officer show up, it’s not good news. We are not coming to sing “Happy Birthday.” And it was the same thing with the police. I would purposely wear religious garb, my roman collar, and (along with) the police officer, showing up on the front door, you could see in their eyes that this is not going to be good news. One of the things that I learned in doing it, and this is in some ways self-care, was saying to myself “I didn’t cause this death, I am here to begin a process of healing and reconciliation with the reality of loss.”

TE: How difficult it is to deal with the sudden loss of life?

FR: It’s a privileged position as a priest to be invited into people’s lives particularly at the moments of great joys, baptisms and weddings, but also in times of deep sorrow, such as tragedy and death. I would even broaden that to a real sense of loss, whether someone has lost their house or lost a cherished relationship, through divorce. That’s where being a priest certainly has enriched my life and helped me appreciate the vulnerability of life. Ultimately it’s a matter of reconciling with what has been loss.

TE: How did you make your way back to Siena?

FR: A little thing called “obedience” in the Church. I had been in Raleigh for 19 years and knew my time was up. … Everybody who is up for transfer needed to be by their phone at 3 o’clock on a certain day. I left the parish office to go over to the friary, and my simple prayer was whatever I am asked to do, I can say yes to full-throatedly and with an open heart. So when they asked me to come to Siena, I was surprised. I was expecting another parish and the only thing I had asked to do (was) something a little bit different, not another suburban parish. When asked if I would come to Siena, the provincial, it was Father Kevin Mullen ... asked if I would serve as the Guardian, which is like the servant leader of the friar community, and the Mission Officer of the college. So I am your typical first mission officer of a college — a member of the founding religious community and an alum. The last five or six years, have been looking at how to be a resource and create additional programming to help us be faithful to who we are as a Franciscan and Catholic College.

TE: Talk about Siena’s Mission Statement?

FR: There really are four aspects to our Mission Statement. One is we are a learning community and that happens both inside and outside the classroom. Obviously, we are liberal arts, but I think our distinctive value is we are Franciscan and Catholic. Franciscan means that our education is a tremendous resource. How do we use this? Not only to make a living and live a good life but also to make a difference in the world in terms of caring for the poor. And (the other component is) the Catholic intellectual tradition, which roots itself in Catholic Social Teaching — the sacredness and dignity of the individual and the common good. The Catholic Intellectual Tradition is about seeing God in everything.

TE: Tell us a little more about being the Guardian?

FR: The Guardian of the Friary, if I am talking to students, it’s like being the RD or Residence Director, but ... it’s really being the servant leader of the community. My role comes into play when a friar is ill or hospitalized as this past summer with Brother Ed (Coughlin’s) illness and unexpected death. It’s caring for the friars. The easy part is making sure the lights are on and the bills are paid, but the Guardian, the word refers to “guarding the rule of St. Francis,” is to ensure we are being faithful to who we say we are. ... I think Siena is unique in having a friar connected with every residence hall. I am the “Townhouse Friar.” I go to their staff meetings, wander through the Townhouses. Father Larry (Anderson) is in Ryan Hall, Father George (Camacho) is in Plassman, Father Dennis (Tamburello) in Snyder (for example). Our role is like grandparents. We have no authority; we simply foster a sense of community. Sometimes, because maybe we are not the authority person, we can have a gentler impact with students in terms of influencing good decisions and good choices.

TE: Talk about the Franciscan pilgrimages?

FR: I’m fortunate to lead pilgrimages to Franciscan, Italy, in the footsteps of Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi, Bernadine of Siena. For the May 2020 (trip from May 19-31), we had a “Meet The Pilgrims” (recently); everybody who is going on the trip is invited to come together and meet one another. Every month, we have a gathering and different presenters talk about the Franciscan tradition and spirituality, Francis and Clare, the art work we’ll see. Our Italian professor, Lucia Bianci teaches us the pleasantries of Italian, how to say ‘buon giorno,’ ‘buona sera,’ ‘prego’ ... so we are not the “ugly Americans.” By the time we get on the plane, everyone knows one another and there’s a sense of bonding. ... My agenda, isn’t simply to take people over, but to form a sense of community on campus and to instill our Franciscan tradition mission; it’s what undergirds Siena’s distinctive value. After the first pilgrimage faculty members said to me, “This is like a three-credit class. You should offer this for students.” With their help, I developed it into a Franciscan Leadership course for students in the School of Business. My doctorate from Duke is in leadership so it’s a natural fit.

TE: Talk about your role in mentoring priests?

FR: In the Diocese, (Bishop Scharfenberger) has asked me to serve as a “mentor” for the newly ordained: the ‘five-and-unders.’ We gather about five times a year and it’s really facilitating conversation. It’s a humbling experience. What I enjoy about it is it keeps my hand in the pastoral and allows me to use the pastoral experiences that I’ve had for the last 30 years to hopefully help the newly ordained to transition into priesthood.

TE: Do you have a go-to scripture passage?

FR: Book of Sirach, Chapter 2: ‘My son, if you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal. For as gold is tested in the fire, so too were men in the crucible of humiliation. Trust in God and he will help you.’ The other one I like is from the Psalmist, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ Get off your own high horse and be still, recognize God is God and nobody else is.