While welcoming a group of bishops from the Philippines earlier this spring, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged that Filipino dioceses had effective programs in place to help newly ordained priests to become acclimated into ministry.
“It is also helpful for them to be assigned mentors from among those older priests who have proven themselves to be faithful servants of the Lord,” the pontiff said. “These men can guide their younger confreres along the path toward a mature and well balanced way of priestly living.”
While priest mentor programs do not exist in the majority of American dioceses, they have been implemented in many places with positive results.
Archdiocese of Omaha
In 1998, Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, Neb., launched a priest mentor program in his archdiocese, which is still growing strong more than a dozen years later. He gave responsibility for creating and overseeing the program to Father Daniel Kampschneider, who today serves as pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Omaha.
“A priest mentor is not a spiritual director, but a friend and a guide who helps care for a young priest and helps him transition from seminary life into ministry,” Father Kampschneider told Our Sunday Visitor.
The mentor is selected by the archbishop at the suggestion of the program director, and must be a man ordained at least 10 years, be a pastor, enjoy the priesthood and want to be a part of the program. The program lasts three years, with the pair initially meeting every other month and tapering off as time goes on.
Father Kampschneider served as director of the program for its first seven years, and has served as mentor to two priests during the last six years. In his experience, young priests are commonly concerned with such issues as their relationship with their pastors and parish staffs, finding time for prayer amid the “busyness” of parish life, questions about what time they’re allowed to take off and the theology of the Church and ministry — for example, what are laypeople allowed to do in the parish?
Father Michael Swanton, who is pastor of two parishes in the archdiocese and oversees a parish school, said Father Kampschneider was a helpful mentor to him after his ordination in 2005.
“Father Dan was very accommodating and friendly. It was helpful to have an experienced priest who was not my pastor to come to with my problems and concerns,” Father Swanton said. “It was good to get things off my chest, even if they were problems that could not be solved.”
Father Kampschneider said he first recognized the need for a priest mentor program when he learned of the problems of young priests while serving on the faculty of the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
In his own life, he benefitted tremendously from the informal mentoring his first pastor offered him after his own ordination 32 years ago. “I was lucky,” he said. “I was fortunate to have been assigned to the ideal pastor. Your first assignment as a priest is critical. That’s where you learn good or bad habits.”
Archbishop Curtiss retired in 2009, but the priest mentor program has continued under the new ordinary, Archbishop George Lucas.
Diocese of Cleveland
The Diocese of Cleveland has had a priest mentor program similar to Omaha’s for more than two decades. Six months before ordination, seminarians are asked to submit three names of desired priest mentors to the bishop, who, since 2006, has been Bishop Richard Lennon.
The bishop appoints the mentor, usually the first choice of the new priest. The pair meets face to face monthly for the first year and less frequently afterward. The priest mentor must be ordained for at least seven years, and cannot be the new priest’s pastor.
“It has been well received by both our older priests and the newly ordained,” said Father Tom Dragga, rector of Cleveland’s Borromeo College Seminary and director of field education for its graduate program at St. Mary Seminary. “Our new priests have an experienced priest to talk to about such concerns as living in a rectory, managing their time, expectations of pastors, expectations of parishioners and struggles they may be having in their own families.”
The program is important, said Father Joseph Hilinski, director for continuing education and formation of ministers, because the vocation situation in the Church has changed over the past few decades.
“When I was ordained in 1974, you’d have three or four priests living in one rectory. Today, it’s often just the pastor and an associate,” he told OSV. “And, the pastor may not be the one the associate wants to come to for help.”
Father Hilinski noted that his 1974 priesthood ordination class had 26 new priests; today, Cleveland ordains three to six priests annually. With fewer priests around, it can be difficult for a busy, younger priest to seek counsel from a brother priest.
Expectations for new priests are higher today, Father Hilinski said.
“A newly ordained priest is typically assigned to a large parish with lots of activities going on in which he is expected to be involved,” he said. “With all that activity, it is easy to get lost and burned out.”
Diocese of Oakland
The Diocese of Oakland, Calif., has had a priest mentor program for three years. It serves not just the newly ordained, but new pastors and priests who come from foreign countries to serve the diocese. The newly ordained are required to meet with their mentors monthly for two years; new pastors and international priests for one year. Both the mentor and new priest sign agreements to participate in the program. Mentors participate in a training program in nearby Menlo Park to prepare them for their role.
“It’s been an excellent program for us,” said Father George Alengadan, director of ongoing formation for priests who oversees the program. “Our young priests see it is for their own good, and our older priests want to help.”
Although the program pre-dates Oakland’s Bishop Salvatore Cordileone by a year, he has been supportive of it, Father Alengadan told OSV, adding that “[the bishop] said he’d wished there had been a program like it in his previous diocese.”
“For us, it is a preventative measure,” Father Alengadan said. “We want our newly ordained to get the support they need so they can be successful and happy priests.”
Jim Graves writes from California.
Advice for Young Priests (sidebar)
While there are many challenges a young priest might have, Father Daniel Kampschneider of the Archdiocese of Omaha, Neb., said some general advice he offers to those he mentors includes:
Make prayer time your first priority: You’re going to be “swamped” with work, but don’t neglect taking time for prayer.
Keep asking questions: Learn from the people in your parish. Spend your first year finding out why things are done at a parish before trying to change them. Someone spent time building up that parish and making it the way it is before you came, so you need to respect that. If you do decide to change things, do it slowly, and give people time to adjust.
Ask other priests for help: Senior priests have many years of wisdom and experience, and are eager to share it.