May 15, 2024 at 9:05 a.m.

Everyone leads!

All of the Catholic faithful in the Diocese of Albany must promote and support vocations.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

By Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Whether we know it or not, everyone of us is a leader! The power of example — good or bad — cannot be underestimated. Children learn from their parents and teachers of course, but also from one another. Grown-up “children,” which all of us are, do not behave differently. 

In a recent meeting with our Vocations Advisory Board, we were discussing the importance and the need to engage all of the Catholic faithful in the promotion and support of vocations, especially to the priesthood and religious life. Naturally, and logically, one would see this as primarily the role of priests and religious themselves. There is no question — and surveys and studies support this — that the single most important influence on the life of a man or woman discerning who eventually becomes a priest or religious, is knowing a man or woman who is a happy priest or religious. My personal experience affirms this.

About the same time in my grammar school years when I was beginning to think that I might be going on to become an airline pilot — something I had aspired toward since I first saw a 707 jet (remember them?) in the sky around 1957 — I also had the pleasure of getting to know the priests in my parish of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Ridgewood (Queens). The parish priests were very involved in visiting us in the parochial school which I attended. Some of them were certainly characters. One was a serious ­cigar smoker. I remember one of the sisters saying one day, as she closed the door of our classroom, “I smell Father M …” That was his M.O., but he was also the priest in charge of the altar servers. The culture has certainly changed and today smoking would be discouraged, but my grandfather smoked cigars, too. Somehow the association for me was a positive one. Grandpa used to say that the cigar was his candy. Anyway, that’s not what would attract me to the priesthood. It was something else.

Another priest — I’ll call him Father McD — was known to be particularly popular with young people who were planning to get married. He always had a line in the sacristy after Mass with people who wanted to talk to him. I remember one of my friends saying, “Don’t you wish Father McD was your father?” Both of us grew up in stable Catholic families and I am sure neither of us wanted to trade our dads in for a surrogate. Yet the fact that we saw Father McD as being a good candidate for fatherhood, even our own, says a lot about the kind of man he was, and the kind of man every priest should be: someone who could be a good father in “real life,” not just on the altar or in the sacristy.

So much for the influence of good and happy priests in my life. There were many others, including those who taught me when I decided to enter Cathedral Prep, a high school dedicated to the formation of men who might be thinking about becoming a priest. For what it’s worth, I can say categorically that almost all of them left us with a deep sense of their happiness as priests. We knew they were not perfect. I personally knew many priests who were struggling with personal problems.

My paternal grandfather — the one who smoked cigars — used to have a lot of close priest friends. I think he might even have wanted to be a priest. His father died when he was 10, however, and he had to take up driving a milk wagon while his widowed mother took in laundry to help feed a family of six children. The oldest brother, my grand-uncle Philip, ended up in the priesthood, largely because of the support from my grandfather who eventually founded a business dedicated to supplying religious goods to churches, like chalices, ciboria and monstrances and, yes, even pectoral crosses and crosiers. One of his specialties ended up being the outfitting of newly named bishops. I even remember my grandmother getting involved, and I saw her making miters (bishops’ hats) on the dining room table!

Well, as you can see, I had enough in my background to give me many contacts with clergy, but the picture was not all rosy. My grandfather used to cut my hair, too. I remember when I talked to him about my interest in the priesthood, when I was around 13. He wanted to be sure I was not attracted to it just because of the things he made or the way priests dressed up at Mass. He once said, “Remember: the Pope has to put pants on every morning like every other man — one leg at a time.” There was nothing anti-clerical in that remark, just a healthy sense that priests were human beings and had to live with all the struggles and temptations of any other man. He would know …

My grandparents often befriended priests and religious, some of whom had serious personal issues. One priest in particular who was in their parish had a known drinking problem. He was a wonderful preacher and confessor, but he also was an alcoholic. I don’t know what eventually became of him, but there were nights when I knew my grandparents would have him stay overnight in their home, no doubt after noticing he arrived intoxicated. My grandfather, as I came to learn, would give him some straight talk which, I understand, would lead to the priest achieving sobriety.

It wasn’t only the priest and religious, my parents and grandparents, who helped me on my road to the priesthood. Friends and neighbors, those I met in church and those I knew from the local shops and businesses as well, also supported me on my journey. Not all of them were so encouraging. I was told by more than a few that I should marry, or seek out some other profession, but the ones who I sensed really knew me and cared about me I could figure out, and they made all the difference. They led me to where I believe God wanted me to go.

Today I can say unequivocally that I have never been happier as a priest! It is not that it has gotten any easier, but the joy of spreading the Gospel and feeding my flock — how it is more important today than ever — only seems to motivate me more. The reason I sleep well is, no doubt, because I am too exhausted at the end of the day not to. But I am writing this article not to toot my own horn, but to say a thank you publicly to all those who have led me along this path. All of the leaders, who probably don’t think they are leaders, inspired and encouraged me by their example, prayer and persistence. I hope all who are reading may take a moment to consider that you may be the only Christ another person may know — and that your example and encouragement might just be the spark that leads a future priest or religious to discover Christ’s call: “Follow me.”



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