Priest's focus moves from heart to heart - Catholic Courier

Priest’s focus moves from heart to heart

Saturday, June 1, 1996, was a very, very warm, sunny, summer-like day. Sacred Heart Cathedral was packed with family, friends, parishioners and others from the diocese who had gathered to celebrate this day of ordination with Frank Fusare and me.

As I reflect on 10 years of ministry as an ordained priest, I see the years through the lens of the human heart. Prior to my ordination and in the first several years of priestly ministry, I believed God had given me the heart of a priest. To me, this meant bringing God to the people and bringing people to God. And, at least early on, I thought the best way I could fulfill this calling was to simply relay to people all that I had learned in the seminary. I figured my enthusiasm and the textbook-based clarity I had about what was or was not to be could truly transform, inspire and bless people’s lives.

Little did I know that through the goodness, encouragement and love of the people of St. Charles Borromeo in Greece (where I spent my first four years as a priest), that I would come to know the complexities, struggles and challenges people face and that life is not always “black and white” or filled with easy, applicable solutions and fixes. I came to learn that “the heart of the priest” meant more than relaying my knowledge; it also meant love, kindness, struggling with and accepting my own and other people’s humanity and limitations.

Two years of wonderful ministry followed in Ontario County — especially St. Bridget’s, Bloomfield, St. Patrick’s, Victor and St. Mary’s, Canandaigua. Driving 29,000 miles each of those two years was the norm, and I felt tremendously blessed and grateful for the graciousness, kindness and hospitality of the people of these parishes.

Six years after ordination, I was appointed the pastor of the Church of the Good Shepherd, Henrietta, where I continue in ministry today. On Tuesday, June 25, 2002, my first official day as pastor, the secretary told me I needed to choose a name for my column in the bulletin. Almost immediately I responded, “Call it ‘From a Shepherd’s Heart.’” Six years into priestly ministry, my image of priesthood had shifted from “the heart of the priest” to that of the shepherd. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, was one who led, guided, and gave himself for others. This was the image I sensed God was holding out to me. I, like Jesus, would lead, guide and give myself for the sake of others in and through this particular ordained ministry.

Now, after 10 years of ministering as an ordained priest, I believe the greatest of all hearts is not that of a priest or of a shepherd, but rather the heart of Christ. Over the past months — beginning in September 2004 with 40 weeks of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola at Mercy Prayer Center — I have been taken up by who and what Jesus is like: his qualities, characteristics and attributes. When I realized through the reading of the four Gospels that those on the margins — the “public sinners,” the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and other outcasts — were the ones who responded to Jesus with such deep confidence, trust and love, I started to more deeply question who and what this Jesus of Nazareth was for them and is for me in my own life.

I have fallen in love with Christ and his heart in a new way over the past 20 months, and I love, admire, long for, and worship the heart of Christ. I still long to be like Jesus — even if I fail miserably at times in this pursuit. But I have such a strong desire to have the heart of Christ, and it is this heart that moves me in ministry as an ordained priest as I celebrate my 10th anniversary of ordination.

Conversion is about change of heart. I remember someone in the seminary saying that this calling of God is first and foremost for your own response to and growth in God. If so, as I reflect on my first 10 years as a priest, I am grateful for all those whom I have encountered and known because I am very aware of my own change of heart — from the heart of a priest to a shepherd’s heart to the heart of Christ.

God and the People of God are so good, and I am blessed and grateful.

Father Doug DellaPietra is pastor of Church of the Good Shepherd, Henrietta.

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