FAIRPORT — Jeff Tunnicliff’s life is, rather literally, an open book.
The 35-year-old Tunnicliff’s personal Web site (www.geocities.com/jstunnicliff/) is an engaging autobiographical account through which visitors can learn about his childhood in the Southern Tier; his career in engineering; and the process that led to his present state in life — that of a seminarian studying for the diocesan priesthood.
Tunnicliff’s Web anecdotes and reflections don’t shy away from such personal struggles as his lack of involvement in church for several years, or an unsettled upbringing due to his parents’ divorce.
“It’s part of who I am. It shapes who I am and how I can help people,” he stated.
These days, Tunnicliff is helping the people of Church of the Assumption in Fairport, where he is serving his pastoral year under the guidance of Father Ed Palumbos, pastor. He thrives in a number of capacities, including funeral ministry, sacramental preparation, social ministry and stewardship.
“I’m very busy,” he said. “I’m trying to be involved in several different things; I want to do as much as possible.”
Yet Tunnicliff said he has come to recognize the need to sometimes hold this desire in check: “As a priest, there’s a sense of being involved in everything — but you can’t do everything.”
For instance, he sees the value of simply offering a comforting presence and good listening skills, such as when he meets with a grieving family. “Sometimes it’s better to ‘be’ than it is to ‘do,'” he remarked.
Tunnicliff said he plans to empower the laity in his ministerial responsibilities, saying he will regard any church to which he’s assigned as “very much the people’s parish.” He observed that such an approach is vital in this day and age, given the steadily declining availability of full-time diocesan priests.
“I’m certainly in the midst of this. Maybe part of my calling is how do we deal with this. We are reaching a critical point now,” he said, adding that he’s concerned about having so many sacramental obligations that he can’t develop meaningful ties within parish communities.
One obvious solution is an increase in priestly vocations — an urgent need being emphasized during National Vocations Awareness Week Jan. 9-14. Tunnicliff is doing his part by assisting Father Palumbos in developing a vocations-awareness team at Church of the Assumption.
“I’d like to think that more vocations are out there; we just have to figure out how to get them,” he said. “I think there’s some message that’s not getting out. Is priesthood a good thing right now? Yes, I think it is.”
Tunnicliff added that the requirement of celibacy makes priesthood and religious life countercultural options in modern society.
Carol Dady, diocesan coordinator of priesthood vocations awareness and discernment, said she’s very impressed with Tunnicliff’s efforts at promoting vocations.
“I wish we could share Jeff’s passion and energy on this topic with every parish. It’s important that education and promotion be done on the parish level, because that’s where the vocations will come from,” Dady commented.
A Southern Tier parish, Schuyler Catholic Community (St. Mary of the Lake, Watkins Glen, and St. Benedict’s, Odessa), inspired Tunnicliff toward a religious vocation in the late 1990s, when he went back to church for the first time in 15 years. Tunnicliff said he received invaluable support from the late Father David Bonin, pastor, as well as Sister Catherine P. Theiss, CSJ, the pastoral associate.
Tunnicliff’s return to the church occurred while Father Bonin, a diabetic, was losing his eyesight. Tunnicliff often assisted him on the altar during Mass, and got a rather unique view of the priesthood as a result: “Being up there, I tended to be mindful of what’s going on. It was affirming after being away from the church for so long.”
Tunnicliff was inspired by the perseverance of Father Bonin, who died in March of 2002. “This says something about his priesthood, to see that he kept going,” he said. “I often think that if he hadn’t been at St. Mary of the Lake, the call (to Tunnicliff’s own vocation) would have been very different.”
Tunnicliff entered Becket Hall, the diocesan pre-theology program, in 2000. After he wraps up his pastoral year this coming August, he will return to Washington, D.C., for two more years of seminary studies at Catholic University of America’s Theological College. He is due to be ordained a transitional deacon in 2006, one year before his ordination as a diocesan priest.
Tunnicliff stressed that a path to vocation can take many forms. Above all, he said, young men and women should strive for a life of helping others whether it’s through marriage, priesthood or full-time employment. This ideal is reflected in the Prayer of St. Francis, which Tunnicliff displays on the home page of his Web site.
“In society, we’ve lost a sense of vocation. It’s more, what job can I get to make enough (money) to get to where I want in life? I tend to think of it as, how can I contribute to the greater good?” he said.
Dady shares Tunnicliff’s perspective. “While we place a special emphasis on the vocation to ordained priesthood, the message we are promoting is that we all have a vocation. God has a unique plan for each of us and has given us the gifts we need to accomplish the indispensable task that will bring us happiness and serve God’s kingdom. I don’t know how often we think of our life’s work in that way.”
Thus far, Tunnicliff is happy and confident that he will accomplish this ideal through the priesthood.
“I continue to go in the right direction,” he said. “Coming back into the church — and how much better it is to have God active in my life — I want to share that with people.”