OAKLAND, Calif. — When Father Ian Mendoza, 28, was ordained a priest in 2010 for the Diocese of Oakland, Calif., he became the youngest priest in the diocese.
Over the last year, he has begun the challenging process of transitioning from the structured life of the seminary into the often unpredictable life of a young parish priest. There are also cultural challenges he has to overcome: He was born and reared in the Philippines and came to the United States less than a decade ago.
While still in seminary, he met and befriended a 71-year-old priest, Father Richard Mangini, pastor of St. Bonaventure in Concord. Father Mangini was a respected priest in the Oakland Diocese who had served as a pastor to many of its parishes. He took an interest in the future priest and wanted to help him succeed.
The diocese has a priest mentor program in which an ordinand selects an experienced priest to be his friend and adviser, so Father Mendoza chose Father Mangini.
“He’s been a tremendous help to me,” Father Mendoza remarked. “He helps me to develop my gifts and talents in ministry to be the best priest I can be.”
The pair meets regularly, giving Father Mendoza the opportunity to ask questions, seek advice, share frustrations and otherwise mature as a priest. And despite the difference in their ages, Father Mangini treats him as a peer and brother priest, which Father Mendoza especially appreciates. He also has a special gift for answering difficult questions and helping him feel comfortable in sharing his problems. “He has been a father to me, as well as a friend,” Father Mendoza commented.
While welcoming a group of Filipino bishops to the Vatican on March 3, Pope Benedict XVI encouraged bishops to adopt priest mentor programs for newly ordained priests. He said, “It is [helpful] for them to be assigned mentors from among those older priests who have proven themselves to be faithful servants of the Lord.”
He continued, “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.
The Diocese of Oakland launched its priest mentor program three years ago. It serves not just newly ordained priests like Father Mendoza, but also 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. Our young priests see it is for their own good, and our older priests want to help,” said Father George Alengadan, the diocese’s director of Ongoing Formation for Priests, who oversees the program. “For us, it is a preventative measure. We want our newly ordained to get the support they need so they can be successful and happy priests.”
Although the program predates Oakland’s Bishop Salvatore Cordileone by a year, Bishop Cordileone has been supportive of it, Father Alengadan noted: “He said he’d wished there had been a program like it in his previous diocese.”
The Diocese of Cleveland has had a priest mentor program similar to Oakland’s for more than two decades. Six months before ordination, seminarians are asked to submit three names of desired priest mentors to the bishop.
He appoints the mentor, usually the first choice of the new priest. The pair meets monthly for the first year and less frequently afterward. The mentor must be ordained for at least seven years and cannot be the new priest’s pastor.
Father Tom Johns, pastor of St. John Vianney in Mentor, Ohio, has mentored four new Cleveland priests and has conducted training programs for new mentors. He remarked, “It’s a wonderful way to introduce a new priest to the local community.”
Since priests are typically busy, he likes to invite his mentees to drive along to priest meetings or priest funerals with him. Not only does it give him the chance to introduce the young man to the community, it also gives him the opportunity to chat with him privately in the car while en route.
Young priests, he said, often query him about how to handle marriage and annulment cases and need help getting to know what resources are available in the community, such as psychologists, counselors and even attorneys.
Father Johns also benefits from being part of the program. He explained, “I’m in my late 50s, at that period in my life when I get satisfaction out of helping out a younger guy.”
Father Steven Brunovsky, pastor of St. Hilary in Fairlawn, Ohio, was part of the mentor program when he was first ordained 19 years ago, and he now has the opportunity to serve as mentor to Father Chris Trenta, ordained in 2009.
“Mine is an encouraging role, a clarifying role, and one in which I give Father Chris advice on making the adjustment to the priesthood,” Father Brunovsky remarked. He likes being part of the program, he said, because “I’m helping in the training of the younger priests who will one day take our place.”
“It has been well received by both our older priests and the newly ordained,” acknowledged Father Tom Dragga, rector of Cleveland’s Borromeo College Seminary and director of field education for its graduate program at St. Mary’s Seminary. “Our new priests have an experienced priest to talk to about their concerns.”
Typical concerns of the newly ordained include problems with living in a rectory, managing their time, expectations of pastors, expectations of parishioners, and struggles they may have with their own families.
The program is important, believes Cleveland’s director for continuing education and formation of ministers, Father Joseph Hilinski, because the vocation situation in the Church has changed over the past few decades.
He said, “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, and the pastor may not be the one the associate wants to come to for help.”
Father Hilinski noted that his 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.
Young Priest Issues
In 1998, Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, Neb., launched a priest mentor program in his archdiocese, and it’s still going 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 in Omaha.
Father Kampschneider noted, “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.”
The mentor is selected by the archbishop at the suggestion of the program director. He 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 (e.g. what laypeople are allowed to do in the parish).
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 benefited tremendously from the informal mentoring his first pastor offered him after his own ordination 32 years ago.
He said, “I was lucky. 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.”
Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California