In this Year for Priests, six pastors revealed the joys and challenges of living out their vocations, whether they include driving thousands of miles a month to minister to rural parishioners or spreading the Gospel to those with disabilities.

Father Tim Pfander | Docese of Birmingham 

Father Tim Pfander thinks it’s important for the people in his three parishes to understand their faith, because, he said, “they have to explain it to just about everyone they see. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about Catholicism. Are you saved? Why do you worship Mary? What about the pope?” 

Catholics are only one half of 1 percent of the population in the four counties that he serves in the Diocese of Birmingham, Ala. 

“That’s a challenge for our people, to know our faith and to be able to speak about it,” he said. “And I know the questions that non-Catholics have, because I had them.” 

Father Pfander, 52, a convert, was ordained in 2004 after a career in management. His parishes are spread over 2,600 square miles, and he logs more than 2,000 miles a month visiting the sick and homebound, and celebrating Masses. 

There are two Saturday vigils — one in English and one in Spanish — at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Haleyville, Winston County. There’s a 9 a.m. Sunday Mass for 30 families at Holy Family Church in Fayette, Fayette County, and 60 families attend 11:15 a.m. Mass at Holy Spirit Church in Winfield, Marion County. Catholics in Lamar County, where there is no church, attend Holy Family or Holy Spirit. 

The parishes also run four Christian Centers of Concern, whose volunteers of all denominations assist the needy. 

“I love being a priest, and I enjoy ministering to the people,” Father Pfander said. “Sometimes, though, the distance is a challenge.”

Father Thomas J. Burke  | Braddock, PA.

Thomas J. Burke was working in marketing and communications when a priest asked him, “Did you ever think about becoming a priest?” 

Yes, he had, but not very seriously. “So I thought about it for a year,” he said. 

He was ordained in the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 2001, served in a suburban church and St. Paul Cathedral, and was vocations director for the diocese. In May 2008, he became pastor of Good Shepherd Church in Braddock, where the mills shut down years ago and left the town economically depressed. 

Good Shepherd runs the only school in Braddock and has so many community outreaches that it’s been called “a beacon of hope.” 

“The people have a lot of faith and love their parish,” Father Burke, 39, said. “They really put their hearts out.” 

Recently renovated for the 25th anniversary of its formation from the merger of seven ethnic parishes, the church has a chamber choir, children’s bell choir, outreaches to the elderly and poor and a food bank. A small church bus picks up people for daily and weekend Masses. The 124 kindergarten to eighth-grade students are 40 percent African-American and non-Catholic. 

“I love having the school here,” he said. “It has a good effect on the students’ morals and values and gives them a good educational foundation. The school brings life to the parish.”  

The people, he said, are hard-working and willing to do everything possible to keep their church and school vital parts of the community. 

“Good Shepherd is a diamond in the rough,” said Father Burke, whom parishioners and staff call a humble and exciting inspiration.

Father Xavier Elambassery | Latrobe, PA.

Father Xavier Elambassery opens the gates on the altar to celebrate the liturgy with his back turned to the congregation. His parishioners begin Lent on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, and many keep a strict fast every day. 

“That is the beauty of the Church, that there are different kinds of prayers, different vestments and music and different expressions of faith and worship,” he said. “It’s like when you go in a garden and see the different flowers that make a garden beautiful.” 

Father Xavier, 73, is an Indian-born priest and pastor of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church in Latrobe, Pa., and the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in New Alexandria. They are part of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of St. Josaphat in Parma, Ohio. 

Baptized and raised in the Syro-Malabar rite, he came to Pittsburgh 24 years ago to earn a master’s degree in psychology at Duquesne University and a doctorate in psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. Bishop Robert Moskal, of Parma, asked him to join his diocese. “The Ukrainian rite is very close to my Eastern rite,” he said. “So, it was very close to me.” 

There are 200 families in the Latrobe congregation. New Alexandria has 10 families determined to keep their church alive. “The churches are small and there is a great sense of community and belonging,” he said. “It is the apostolic tradition of the Church.” 

Several years ago, Father Xavier brought the two cultures together with an Indian and Ukrainian festival. In a secular outreach, he offers individual and weekly group therapy, and classes in stress reduction.

Father James Boyle | Tacoma, Wash. 

Father James Boyle was “overwhelmed” in 1972 when he was assigned to celebrate Mass at a state institution for the mentally disabled near Tacoma, Wash. 

“I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do for them,” he said. 

Two years later he attended a retreat with Jean Varnier, founder of L’Arche communities for people with disabilities. 

“For the first time, I had a glimpse of not what I was going to do for persons with disabilities, but what their gift to the Church and to the people could be,” he said. “It changed my life.” 

In 1976, Father Boyle received permission to leave parish work in the Archdiocese of Seattle to serve as chaplain at two state institutions. In 1977, the first L’Arche home opened in Tacoma, and he moved in with two Jesuit priests and two handicapped men. 

“My ministry changed from what I was going to do for them, to learning from them,” he said.  

What he learned was that individuals have a relationship with God not through their strength, but through their vulnerability and fragility. 

“That reflects on the whole relationship with God. That’s the way God is with us,” Father Boyle said. “Jesus came to us, drawing us into a relationship where we can be unashamed of disabilities, unashamed of deformities, unashamed of incapacities and unashamed of being rejected. That’s the power of persons with disabilities, to call us into relationships with a truth, openness and vulnerability that I never thought possible. I went in as a priest, but I came out a person who finally learned how to love from a place of poverty.” 

Father Boyle, 75, lives near Tacoma and is still involved with L’Arche communities and ministries in state institutions.

Father Thomas G. Provinsal | Nelson Island, Alaska 

Jesuit Father Thomas G. Provinsal taught catechism in Alaska in 1968 when he was studying for the priesthood, and when he was ordained in 1975 he asked to return. 

He is one of 20 priests in the mission Diocese of Fairbanks, and the only priest on Nelson Island (750 square miles) in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. 

The ministry is challenged by isolation (priests get together every six weeks) and weather that affects travel by boat, plane and snow machine. The villages are so widespread that dedicated extraordinary ministers of holy Communion and deacons, some old and frail, fill important roles in the Church’s presence. 

“They bridge the moments between the celebration of Mass and the absence of a priest,” Father Provinsal, 65, told Our Sunday Visitor.  

The Yup’ik people hunt, fish, trap and gather food for winter, much as their ancestors did. Once a man told him, “My family has fished this part of the river for 10,000 years.” 

The priests who serve the villages respect those many deep traditions and, Father Provinsal said, know that they “remain part of the inflow.”  

“Varieties of culture must be honored as treasures not to be lost to our own way of proceeding,” he said.  

The blessings are abundant.  

“Their reverence for their elders is most apparent and is something they encourage in their children at all times, and I am deeply impressed with their self-reliance,” Father Provinsal said. “The Yup’ik people have taught me respect for others in everyday life. St. Thomas Aquinas reportedly said on his death bed, ‘I would burn every thing I ever wrote for the faith of one old grandmother.’ I have met her many times in these little villages by the Bering Sea.”

Father James P. Shea | Bismarck, N.D. 

Father James P. Shea had everything he wanted in his assignment in the Diocese of Bismarck, N.D. 

“I loved my parishioners,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “I buried the dead, married the young, baptized babies and preached the Gospel. It was a beautiful thing, and I would have never left that life on my own volition.” 

FatherShea also was a teacher and chaplain at a Catholic high school, and that passion for education put him on the list of candidates for president of the University of Mary in Bismarck. 

He told his bishop that he didn’t want it, but the Benedictine Sisters of the Annunciation, who run the university, were persistent. 

In July 2009, Father Shea, now 34, became the youngest university president in the United States. 

“There’s a need for priestly witness in every sector of the Church,” he said. “The call of Jesus asks the priest to be a man for others, to lay down one’s life and allow himself to be led and to do what’s being asked.” 

The witness of the Precious Blood Fathers in high school led Father Shea to his vocation.  

“They were happy and very good men, and I wanted to be like them,” he said. 

Father Shea’s priestly role now is different, but as an administrator, he can ensure that the university offers Catholic education in a way that tends to the whole person in the traditions of living a life of virtue and good character. It’s a different way, he said, of spreading the Gospel. 

“I believe in the deep power of Catholic education to transform lives,” Father Shea said. “I want the students to have a special encounter with the Lord during their time with us.” 

In recognition of that power, the University of Mary has recently instituted a new program to offer free room and board to students who graduated from Catholic high schools.

Vocations Growth in Bismarck (sidebar) 

By 2013, two out of three priests in the Diocese of Bismarck, N.D., will have been ordained less than 15 years, and vocations director Father Thomas J. Richter, 42, will be in the “top third of the old guys,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. 

“It isn’t that everybody is young because the old priests are dying,” he said. “It’s because the number of priests is increasing, not decreasing. We now have 40 priests and 24 seminarians, so that’s 60 percent as many seminarians as priests.” 

At a time when many dioceses are struggling for vocations, the Diocese of Bismarck, which takes in the western half of the state (60,000 Catholics) is preparing for a growing population of young priests. For instance, rectories will need to accommodate more parochial vicars and associate pastors. 

“Something beautiful is happening, and first and foremost, the credit goes to the Spirit of God,” Father Richter said. 

“There’s also credit due to Bishop Paul Zipfel, to the diocese and to the traditional family values here — the beautiful marriages with moms and dads who pass on the faith to the children. There’s a great love of the sacraments and family prayers, and we have cultivated a real awareness to pray for vocations,” he said. Additionally, “there’s a whole army of people praying, and people in nursing homes are offering up their sufferings for vocations. It’s what Jesus asked us to pray for: for the Lord of the harvest to send laborers to gather in the harvest.” 

Also, he added, the presence of priests as teachers and chaplains in the diocese’s three Catholic high schools attracts young men to the vocations. 

“The 18-year-olds see these priests who have clarity and confidence and they say, ‘Wow! I want to be part of that,’” Father Richter said. 

It’s a confidence not in self, but in the Lord, he said, and it comes from the clarity that the men have about what Jesus Christ desires for them. The seminarians also attend a summer program in Nebraska that “wakens the heart of a man so that he can become aware of the loving presence of God, in an ever deeper and clearer way.”