23 years ago today I celebrated my first Mass at my home parish (Blessed Sacrament), the day after I was ordained a priest (May 14th) by Cardinal Keeler.
I was blessed that my family was able to attend both the Ordination and the First Mass especially since it involved a 600+ mile drive (round trip) from Erie to Harrisburg. My three brothers, Joseph, Michael and Mark were there and my Mom and Dad as well as many aunts and uncles and cousins galore.
Less than ten years later, my brother Michael died at the age of 26 from Muscular Dystrophy; my brother Joe (age 33) was killed by an underage drunk driver; six months after that, my Dad died (age 70) from Leukemia. I also had the funerals of six uncles and four aunts since I was ordained. Six assignments (five transfers) occurred in that time spanning parish life, hospital chaplaincy and tribunal work. During that same period Almighty God blessed me through my mentor Father Bob Levis a relationship with Mother Angelica and EWTN. Web of Faith, Council of Faith, Crash Course in Catholicism, Crash Course in Pope John Paul II, Crash Course in the Saints have all been a tremendous privilege and joy to be a part of it.
Father Ken Brighenti and I have been close friends since 1983 when we met at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, CT. He was deacon at my ordination to priesthood since he would be ordained a priest two weeks later for the Diocese of Metuchen. During the past 23 years he and I have collaborated on seven books from Catholicism for Dummies to the Catholic Mass for Dummies et al. He also came to the funerals of my brothers and my father, something which I will always appreciate and never be able to thank adequately. Bishop Kevin Rhoades was able to secure us tickets for a papal audience with Holiness Pope Benedict XVI a few years ago which allowed us to present him with a special hard-bound copy of JP2 for Dummies.
I am also grateful for good friends like Father Dennis Dalessandro, one of my closest friends in the Diocese of Harrisburg; Thomas McKenna of Catholic Action; Drs. Keith and Tina Burkhart; Dr. Liz Frauenhoffer; Michael Drake of TFP; Dave & Amy Zak and many others, too numerous to name.
Of all these experiences, however, the most profound and edifying experience has been celebrating the sacraments as a Roman Catholic priest. Offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass daily and hearing confessions every weekend is the real absolute source and summit of joy in my priesthood and in my entire life. Doing TV and radio shows, preaching retreats and writing books are for me an enjoyable hobby just as some of my colleagues enjoy going golfing, fishing, hunting, sports, etc. While parish life can be challenging at times (particularly when parishioners let you know how fallible, peccable and imperfect you are as a human being) there are the other occasions like baptisms, weddings, first Communions, first Confessions, and so on, which encourage you to persevere.
Standing at the altar, holding the host and chalice and saying those exact words of Jesus from the Last Supper: THIS IS MY BODY ... THIS IS MY BLOOD, that is what makes all the trials and tribulations of twelve years of seminary worth while. Being an alter-Christus to act in Persona Christi is the ultimate joy and pleasure of Holy Orders. Even though the pain of losing two brothers never fully leaves you, the fraternity of the Priesthood (especially via the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy) and Diaconate has given me many more brothers who love and support me as well. Every now and then a person will send an email or tell me in person how grateful they are for my priesthood and I tell them "no more grateful than I, however." Despite politics, bureaucracy, skullduggery, intrigue, betrayal, and some real diabolical animosity, there have also been profound moments and times of joy, happiness, contentment, satisfaction, pride, friendship and fraternal love which make all the crosses bearable and endurable by the Grace of God. My brother priests (those loyal to the Pope and Magisterium) and my brothers and sisters in Christ: thank you for your continuing prayers and support. The intercession of Our Lady, Mother of Priests and Queen of the Clergy and the leadership and example of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have been a true anchor in my ordained life and I am most grateful just as I am to my beloved family and friends. May God bless you and Mary keep you.