Father Rick Lesser, former pastor of Corpus Christi in Round Lake, is now pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Delmar and St. Matthew's Church in Voorheesville. (Mike Matvey photo)
Father Rick Lesser, former pastor of Corpus Christi in Round Lake, is now pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Delmar and St. Matthew's Church in Voorheesville. (Mike Matvey photo)

Most people in the Diocese of Albany have heard of the story of Father Rick Lesser. Father Lesser was married with three children, a successful veterinarian and horse expert. In 2005, his wife, Marilyn, tragically died of a heart attack. Slowly Father Lesser turned to his new vocation, the priesthood, and, in 2015, was ordained at the age of 60 in the Diocese. Mike Matvey of The Evangelist talks with Father Lesser about the vocations of marriage and the priesthood, his new assignment as pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Delmar and St. Matthew’s Church in Voorhees­ville and his role with Diaconate Vocations for the Diocese of Albany in this latest installment of Father Figures.

TE: Tell us about your vocation of marriage?

FR: Vocation in general is being open to what God is calling us to do at that particular moment in our life; whether it’s easy or hard isn’t really part of that. And when I met Marilyn and fell in love and got married, I was absolutely positive, then as I am now, that’s what I was supposed to be doing. I was supposed to be a married man. I was supposed to be raising a family and, just like everybody else that’s married and raising a family, there are easy times and hard times. But there is a certain sense of peace that comes along with whatever your vocation is, that, even if it’s hard, this is where I am supposed to be and I can do this with God’s help. I loved being married and loved raising my kids ... There was fulfillment in that vocation and a great deal of joy.

TE: What led you to the priesthood?

FR: I thought about it as a kid. And interestingly enough, when I did apply to the Diocese, I went to my parents to get the box that had all the certificates in it that I needed and in that box, from when I had been in grade school, there were all these little vocation brochures from all these different missionary priests. It was sort of hero worship as a kid, probably. I did go look at a high school seminary in Pennsylvania and it was not a good experience which was God’s way of telling me that I wasn’t supposed to be going right then. I think God understood that in my life I needed to live a life of joy and sorrow, and happiness, struggle and success in order to form me to be a good priest. And it’s not to say that every priest needs to do that. We have tremendous priests that were not married and have been the gold standard. … A few years after Marilyn died, I still had kids at home and we had always been a typical Catholic family; went to church and prayed, said grace and things like that but (the priesthood) just became more and more of a returning thought. Then all the obstacles to it fell away, one after another: (St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry) was there so I could do my (Master of Divinity) before I got to be too old to go; my kids did well in college and got started well in life; my practice is a big practice, somebody came along and bought it; and my consulting jobs that I had somebody came along and took those. … And people kept saying, “Have you ever thought about (the priesthood)?”

TE: Are there similarities to the vocations of marriage and the priesthood?

FR: The life of a priest is a life of service. Thirty years of being in a service business as a veterinarian was good formation for being a priest. You do things because it’s a service to people and you find joy in being of service to people. In being a father in a family and a father in a parish has suited me for some things. It has made me more patient and understanding of somebody who, like a small child, might need to be reminded five or six times — “No, this is not how we are going to do this” — without losing my cool. It’s all about slow, incremental growth in my parish family just as it was in my own family and it is about taking joy in seeing that small incremental growth just like it was with my kids; to really look at parishioners whose spiritual life has deepened, whose charitable acts have increased, whose sense of anxiety has lessened because they feel safer. To watch that unfolding in the parish is very similar to watching your kids grow.

TE: Do any memorable experiences stand out to you as a priest?

FR: The most privileged moments are hearing confessions of people who really, truly are hungering and longing for rebirth in their life. They’ve been carrying a terrible burden and to be able to be present for them in the image of Christ and absolve them and assure them that God’s serious about that and let them leave like the weight of the world has come off their shoulders, I think that is one of the greatest gifts of being a priest. I love the community aspect of it. Corpus Christi was and is still a big, active parish, St. Matthew’s is a big, active parish and St. Thomas is a big, active parish. I am looking forward to that people of God aspect in addition to the sacramental aspect.

TE: What are your thoughts on taking over at St. Matthew’s and St. Thomas the Apostle?

FR: Help! (Father Lesser said with a laugh). Beloved pastors … great staff in both places. Chris DeGiovine is very much alive and a wonderful preacher. Father (David) Berberian is a wonderful preacher and I am following a guy who has dutifully poured his life out for the Diocese for his whole priesthood. Both of them have been incredibly helpful to me in the transition stage. This model has got to rely on the administrative part not being the pastor’s job which requires us to have competent people and for me to place my trust and faith in them and for them to step up and do those things. I am seeing a willingness and a readiness and the depth of talent that we need in these two parishes to make that happen.

TE: How did you come to your role in Diaconate Vocations?

FR: I had been working with the seminarians (and) with Father (Anthony) Ligato in that office. When it became time for a transition to deacon formation, the deacon formation team and Father Ligato asked if I would be interested in doing that with the gifts they identified that I would bring in spiritual formation and human formation. I had been working with the seminarians and it was a natural outcome of having been a father as well. The formation of deacons is a living document for the Diocese of Albany, it continues to evolve following the year when we ordained 13 deacons. Deacon Gary Picher has come on board as the assistant director for the Formation of the Permanent Diaconate which is a real gift. And part of it too was having been married and appreciating the ministry of the deacon made it pretty easy for the deacon community to think, “This is not a bad idea.”

TE: Can you talk about the process of becoming a deacon?

FR: When men are interested in it, they contact the Diocese and they fill out a very small form which has just bare-bones information. Then they sit down with either the director or the assistant director and we just talk about their prayer life and the voices that are moving their hearts and their souls in this way. Discerning isn’t about explaining to God what you think you should be doing next, it is about hearing what God thinks you should be doing next. The process that is in place right now is men that are interested, enroll in the Kateri Institute and complete at least two of the three years of Kateri and then in their second year they can apply to be an inquirer. And the next year they are an aspirant, which is a year of intense spiritual formation; they do the Ignatian Exercises, they do the 28 Day Annotation. (The husband, wife and spiritual directors) meet once a month with a team of people and after that they apply to be a candidate. There is a whole new interview process that goes on and (after) three years of formation in candidacy, they apply to be ordained. The basic program is six years.

TE: Do you have a favorite Bible passage that you rely on?

FR: John 12:21, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” I lean on that. I was ordained at 60 and I had a big identity engrained in myself: 60 years as a husband, father, veterinarian and a blessed life as a lay person. I don’t wear my collar to tell people that I am a priest, I wear my collar to remind me that I am not the person that I was before I was a priest. I need that reminder. The same thing with that passage. I don’t ever want to be someone that becomes an obstacle to somebody encountering Christ. That little John 12:21 passage reminds me that people look at their priest looking for In persona Christi and I need to be humble and prayerful and be aware of the fact that I am not just a funny lay guy anymore. I’ve got to be able to wear my priesthood comfortably, not as a shield to keep me away from people, but as a nice cloak that lets people come in close.