By Fr. Jim Fenstermaker, C.S.C.
As a Holy Cross religious who has devoted much of my priesthood to parish ministry, I am looking forward to writing this monthly blog for the next year. I can think of no ministry as comprehensive and varied as parish ministry, nor a life more exciting and fulfilling than that of a parish priest.
I met the Congregation of Holy Cross Priests and Brothers at Holy Cross High School in New York City and participated for three years in the undergraduate formation program at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. After a couple of years teaching religion at a nearby Catholic high school, I re-entered the Congregation and continued my formation, eventually completing my MDiv studies at the University of Notre Dame.
In my first and third parishes, St. Stephen Parish in South Bend and Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Brooklyn, New York, I immersed myself in ministry to the Spanish-speaking and African-American communities, with a brief placement in between ministering at Most Holy Trinity Parish in Saco, Maine. All three parishes, each quite different from the others, afforded me wonderful experiences of pastoral ministry that helped shape me into the parish priest I am today.
After nine years in Brooklyn as parochial vicar and then pastor, I was asked by the then-Eastern Province of Priests and Brothers to serve as the director of vocations. I enjoyed the opportunity to speak to young people about a Church vocation and, in particular, about the Congregation of Holy Cross. During those six years I lived with underclass students at Stonehill, serving as a resident priest and chaplain to the students in the residence hall. I was then named director of campus ministry at Stonehill, a role in which I continued to live with the students. After four years of this enjoyable ministry to the students of Stonehill, the province asked me to become pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Easton, five minutes from Stonehill, where I had the pleasure of pastoring for nine years. I am now in my sixth year as pastor of Holy Cross Parish in South Bend, Indiana, where we have a parish school that has doubled in size in the past several years due to an innovative dual-language immersion track as well as a traditional track in English.
I once remarked to a parish team member that I have never been bored as a priest. When vocation director, there were many young men interested in the Congregation of Holy Cross with whom I was in contact, keeping me busy. Between my campus ministry work and living in a residence hall at Stonehill College, my life was sometimes a bit too hectic, but at the same time exciting and enjoyable. I must say, however, that parish ministry has been the most fulfilling and enjoyable ministry I have experienced as a priest.
In my parish work, I interact with people from birth to death and every moment in between. I share in the joy of young couples preparing for the sacrament of Christian marriage, baptizing their firstborn in the Christian faith, or participating with their child in his or her first communion. I enjoy the opportunities to interact with the students and faculty in our school, with parish children in their religious education classes, with our teenagers in their Confirmation preparation, and the young adults living in Christian community in our parish center as members of Quo Vadis. I likewise have many opportunities to be present to the adults of the parish in the programs and activities in which so many of them participate.
It is a privilege to be with individuals and families in times of difficulty: counseling a parishioner, married couple, or family; visiting those ill in the hospital or the elderly in a nursing home; celebrating the Sacrament of the Sick with someone anticipating surgery or nearing death; meeting with a family to plan the Mass of Christian Burial for a loved one.
Of course, among the most rewarding and moving aspects of the life of a priest is celebrating the Eucharist. Doing so for a parish community as a pastor or parochial vicar enhances the sense of fulfillment that this sacramental ministry brings to a priest.
Along with the exciting and diverse ministry of the parish priest is an equally important reason why I have never found myself bored: if I find myself with some unexpected free time, perhaps during the summer when the parish schedule slows down a bit, I can devote that time to theological and spiritual reading and to extra prayer. One who knows how to pray is never without something to do with unexpected free time.
Pope Francis has called the parish “the normal environment where we learned to hear the Gospel, to know the Lord Jesus, to serve with gratuitousness, to pray in community, to share projects and initiatives, to feel part of God’s holy people.” We are fortunate to have many vibrant parishes in the United States Province of Holy Cross, with a number of our young priests interested in parish ministry. Our parishes are known as places where the family spirit of Holy Cross creates an environment where people come to know the Lord and live out the Gospel.