Fifty-five years have passed, and the warm thoughts of his priestly ordination still resonate clearly for Father John Rosse.
"Oh sure, it’s always prevalent in my mind," he said while leafing through a photo album of the big day.
And yet, despite all the precious memories, Father Rosse also recalls having experienced apprehension: "I was going to be doing this for the rest of my life, and how well was I going to do it?" he remarked. Yet those thoughts quickly dissipated as priests approached him one by one during the ordination, ceremonially laying their hand on him in blessing, he said.
"You felt that touch on your head and thought, ‘What a confraternity I’m entering,’" said Father Rosse, who lives in retirement at Irondequoit’s St. Margaret Mary Church.
Father Bill Coffas likewise had found the prospect of priestly life daunting, going back to when his sister first floated the idea by him at a restaurant one evening several years ago.
"She said, ‘I think God is calling you to the priesthood.’ I did experience it as a compliment, but not one I was deserving of," Father Coffas recalled, adding that he eventually pursued that vocation after others also mentioned that possibility to him. He was ordained in 2004 — exactly 50 years after Father Rosse.
Priestly ministry can involve work that’s physically, mentally and emotionally taxing. A priest might be entrusted with the spiritual care of hundreds or even thousands of families, in anywhere from one to several faith communities. He might celebrate Mass when ill, fearing that nobody else would be available; he might do emergency hospital visits in the middle of the night. Add in such regular ministerial duties as sick calls, preparing homilies, counseling parishioners, paperwork and meetings, and 24 hours in a day doesn’t seem nearly enough.
But when Fathers Rosse and Coffas were asked if they had made the right choices, they quickly replied in the affirmative. Would Father Rosse do it all over again?
"Oh, in a heartbeat. And I wouldn’t change much," he said.
Thus far in his priesthood, Father Coffas feels the same.
"I would just say the priesthood has been a blessing for me — all the different experiences I’ve had with parishioners, and the lay people and deacons I’ve ministered with, to have this opportunity to know them and to see how Christ is moving in their lives," said Father Coffas, parochial vicar at Our Lady of Peace Parish in Geneva.
Father John DeSocio said he’s expressed similar sentiments when, at various times during the past year, young men have asked him why he does what he does.
"They just want a deeper meaning to life. They’re searching; they feel they find an emptiness in other things. So they ask me about my life, what I’ve done, where I’ve gone, the things I’ve been called to. They’re amazed at how the Lord calls you in different ways," said Father DeSocio, a priest of 32 years who is pastor of St. Mary Southside Parish in Elmira.
"I’m very happy," Father DeSocio added. "Things are not always easy; there are very difficult, hard times. But you have a great sense of peace in ministry with the Lord."
This is a doubly special time to celebrate positive stories about the priesthood. The Year for Priests, as designated by Pope Benedict XVI, recently passed its halfway point, and National Vocations Awareness Week will be celebrated Jan. 10-16.
In a letter kicking off the Year for Priests last June, Pope Benedict noted that the observance is meant "to deepen the commitment of all priests to interior renewal for the sake of a stronger and more incisive witness to the Gospel in today’s world." The year is being held in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests worldwide.
The pontiff noted that in their daily service, priests are "striving to be one with the Lord in their thoughts and their will, their sentiments and their style of life. How can I not pay tribute to their apostolic labors, their tireless and hidden service, their universal charity? And how can I not praise the courageous fidelity of so many priests who, even amid difficulties and incomprehension, remain faithful to their vocation as ‘friends of Christ’, whom he has called by name, chosen and sent?"
Several diocesan parishes have arranged activities in conjunction with the Year for Priests. Examples are in Elmira, where parishioners are praying for a different priest of the area each month; parishes in central Steuben and northern Tompkins counties, where a "traveling chalice" initiative encourages families to take a chalice home for one week and pray for vocations during that time; and in other parishes that have offered holy hours for vocations. At St. Stephen Church in Geneva this past Oct. 7, Bishop Matthew H. Clark celebrated a liturgy along with 13 concelebrating priests honoring the Year for Priests. Approximately 800 Catholic-school students from the Finger Lakes region attended.
"I think the timing is just right," Father DeSocio said of the Year for Priests. "I think we need a little boost and a little focus on it (the priesthood) — a little more understanding for people of what we do and what our commitment is."
"I was grateful when the Holy Father declared it. We need to celebrate this priesthood," Father Coffas said, calling his life choice "a wonderful vocation begun by Christ."
Father DeSocio, a retired Navy Reserve chaplain who also has served as a seminary vice rector and diocesan vocations-awareness coordinator, spoke of "the many hats that we wear" as well as "the many good people we meet" in the community at large.
"It’s not boring or repetitious," he remarked of being a priest. "Every day is new in what the Lord brings to your ministry."
Father Coffas observed that the Year for Priests serves as a timely morale boost for priests during an era when numbers are thinning across the country and fallout persists from the priestly sex-abuse scandal earlier this decade.
"Priests have had a tough time of it the last couple of years," Father Coffas said.
Meanwhile, Father DeSocio noted the emotional challenges priests bear from "dealing with families who are going through really difficult times — death, disease and sickness. Probably the hardest is the death of a child." He stressed that it’s vital for priests to share those feelings with their brethren and perhaps even with counselors.
Fathers Rosse agreed with Father DeSocio that it’s a tall task for a priest to keep his own emotions in check in order to be a spiritual rock for his flock.
"He can’t let himself show his own problems to the people he’s ministering to. And so, you need prayers," Father Rosse said, adding that he’s always gratified to know he’s getting that kind of support.
"So many people tell me that they’re praying for me. It’s amazing that people are doing that," he said.
Spreading the word
Whereas Father Rosse was among 12 men ordained for the Rochester Diocese in 1954, Father Brian Carpenter was the only diocesan priest ordained in June 2009 — and there won’t be another ordination here until at least 2013.
Will the Year for Priests draw more men to the priesthood?
There are many concrete signs of hope. Five men are currently studying for the diocesan priesthood, and the diocesan Office of Vocations Awareness has many efforts under way, including the annual "24 Hours with the Lord," a gathering held each June for men in discernment. In addition, Father Coffas hosted a dinner on Nov. 13 that drew seven men considering the priesthood. Highlighting that night were presentations by Fathers Jim Lawlor and Edison Tayag.
"Priesthood is an awesome gift, and I want to share that with other men who may be called," said Father Coffas, who has been involved in several vocations-awareness efforts in the diocese. "I firmly believe that men are being called to the priesthood, and we have the responsibility of fostering that and encouraging that."
This coming March, Father DeSocio will continue his annual tradition of hosting a vocations retreat for the junior class of Elmira Notre Dame High School.
"It’s a blessed moment even if it doesn’t lead to ordained priesthood," Father DeSocio said, noting that many lay men who have seriously weighed a priestly vocation remain highly involved in church life. "It’s never a loss."
In his Oct. 2, 2009, "Along the Way" column, Bishop Clark emphasized his hope "that our priests will share their vocation stories with the people whom they serve as it is appropriate — in homilies, with the parish pastoral council and youth groups, in personal conversations."
Father Coffas added that it’s vital for promotional efforts to be carried out by the laity as well — not only by praying for vocations, but also openly encouraging them. For instance, he said a parishioner recently approached him to pass along the name of a man she knows is discerning.
"I called him to set up a time to have lunch, and now I’m in contact with him. Obviously if she hadn’t come forward with that name, that wouldn’t have happened. She recognized a potential calling he may have," Father Coffas said.
He explained that the discernment process often involves a feeling of, "Well, I’m not worthy; well, I’m not being called," which might make somebody hesitate to take that first step forward. Using his own experience as an example, Father Coffas recalled that his sister was first spurred to mention the priesthood to him because she’d just come from a Mass featuring a homily on the need to spread vocations awareness.
"It does take the gentle nudge," he said.