Learning to Be a Priest: On-the-Job Training and Assignments Offer Valuable Lessons

Looking at the practical side of newly ordained diocesan priests’ supernatural vocation.

Father Barry Saylor, who was ordained June 30, 2018, by Bishop William Callahan for the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, relies on prayer as he learns more and more about being a priest.
Father Barry Saylor, who was ordained June 30, 2018, by Bishop William Callahan for the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, relies on prayer as he learns more and more about being a priest. (photo: Michael Lieurance/Diocese of La Crosse)

Summer is a time for rest, vacation, chores around the house and — for newly ordained diocesan priests throughout the United States — traditionally a time to settle in to their first assignments as ordained ministers of Christ.

The various challenges and rewards of their previous life as seminarians have given way for these new priests to the struggles and achievements in persona Christi engaged in parish life.

But these rookie clergy don’t go into their new assignments unprepared. Seminary studies, especially their practicums and study of canon law, have sufficiently helped prepare them for their work; their pastors and other veteran priests welcoming them into the brotherhood provide guidance and wisdom; and their own trial-and-error experiences also serve to mentor them in their work. Such lessons on how to hone the craft and deepen their understanding of their priesthood never end — and even veteran priests learn through the various levels of pastoral work in a parish.

Because the Church recognizes that the priesthood is a constant sacramental calling by and to Christ, it provides, through the same canon law these priests studied in seminary, an important touchstone for understanding not only the legal rights and duties of the priesthood but in a certain sense the very reason for the priesthood.


Why and Wherefore

No matter the assignment and no matter the priest, according to Benedict Nguyen, a canon lawyer and theological adviser to the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas, the work of the Church that the ordained priesthood accomplishes is carefully delineated by canon law to help priests understand their proper work — and proper calling to that work — especially in relation to those they serve.

“The amazing thing about Catholic canon law as it appears in the 1983 Code of Canon Law is that, in addition to legislating and giving rights and duties, it also oftentimes exhorts and teaches,” he said. “This can be seen in a large number of places in the code, but dramatically so in the beautiful canons on the duties of a pastor (Canons 528-532). There the code lays out the duties of a pastor, in terms of his teaching, sanctifying and governing duties — that is, his duties as prophet, priest and king (see Canons 528 and 530-532), since it is Jesus Christ’s priesthood that he shares.”

Canon law also makes clear, Nguyen noted, that a priest lives for others in the Church.  

For instance, he said, “Canon 529 teaches that the duties and rights of a priest exist because he is in relation, that is, in communion with the various people that he serves, with the presbyterate of the diocese (his brother priests), and especially with the diocesan bishop. In other words, the code here is not just saying, ‘Do this and do that’ — it is brilliantly bringing to mind why a pastor is exercising his ministry.”


Parochial Vicar

Nguyen noted that priests can be assigned to parishes in three distinct yet related ways: as parochial vicar, parochial administrator or pastor. A newly ordained priest is often assigned as a parochial vicar, Nguyen told the Register, although many dioceses refer to this role as assistant pastor or associate pastor.

In any case, the priest who fulfills this role reports to the pastor as to a mentor, but also shares as a collaborator in the pastor’s care for the parish.

“One of the main differences according to canon law between a pastor and parochial vicar,” Nguyen said, “is that, unlike a pastor, the office of a parochial vicar does not carry with it a stability of office. That is, he can be removed by the bishop for any just cause (Canon 552), such as his ministry being needed in another place.”

For the past year, Father Barry Saylor has served as a parochial vicar at St. John Parish in Marshfield and Christ the King Parish in Spencer, Wisconsin. He was ordained June 30, 2018, by Bishop William Callahan for the Diocese of La Crosse.

According to Father Saylor, his role as parochial vicar has helped better prepare him for his priestly work. In fact, he quickly learned that being a parochial vicar often means being versatile and quick on one’s feet, a lesson that practically met him at the rectory door when he first reported for duty after ordination.

“My first day, I still remember, when I moved here, which was a Thursday — I was told that Friday I would have confessions at 6:30am and Mass at 7am,” he said. “Since that first day, my comfort zone has expanded many times.”

Before becoming a priest, Father Saylor already had some good basic training on how to tackle assignments: He spent nine years in the U.S. Army’s counterintelligence operations, enlisting for a four-year stint from 1986 to 1990 and again from 2000 to 2005. After attending officer training school, he retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel.

What the military has instilled in him, he said, is exactly the sort of thing that his work as parochial vicar is also teaching him. “One of the things the Army taught me well is that change is good, and you learn something from everyone you come into contact with,” he said. “The way to look at it is not to see change as a negative, but as an opportunity to see what kind of priest you want to be and what kind of priest you don’t want to be.”

In his capacity as parochial vicar, Father Saylor has also relied on the mentoring wisdom of Father Samuel Martin, his pastor until Father Martin recently took on a new assignment in the diocese.

“If I could be half the priest Father Martin is, I think I’ll be a great priest,” he said. “One of the things Father Martin taught me the most is that as a priest you don’t make a decision on the spot, but you always take it to prayer. Everyone who knows Father Martin knows that when he’s made a decision, it’s a decision he’s prayed on — and that’s one of the hardest things for me to do, because I tend to want to make a decision, get it behind me and move on. But through seeing how things developed for him in a given situation, its shown me how important prayer is in any decision I make.”


Parochial Administrator

If the work of parochial vicar is well suited to grooming newly ordained priests in their priesthood with the help of experience and mentors, the role of parochial administrator can often provide a priest with a whole new set of experiences.

“A pastor is envisioned to be assigned as the stable, primary shepherd to care for the flock of the parish,” Nguyen said. “A parochial administrator, however, is understood to be a priest who has a temporary governance over the parish until a pastor can be stably appointed. In other words, he is envisioned to be a sort of temporary or interim administrator.”

Because of this distinction, Nguyen said, canon law gives a parochial administrator “the same rights and duties as a pastor” but “does not permit the parochial administrator to do anything which can ‘prejudice the rights of the pastor or can harm parochial goods.’ Basically, this means that a parochial administrator should only keep things going and not make any decisions or undertake any initiatives that would bind the pastor who is to be appointed.”

Father Jonathan Perrotta was ordained a priest June 11, 2011, by Bishop Earl Boyea for the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan. He was first assigned to Holy Family Parish in Grand Blanc as parochial vicar for three years and then parochial administrator for the final year of this assignment; he then served for the first time as a pastor at St. Mary and St. Joseph Parish in Durand and Gaines for three years before being named pastor of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Flushing and Good Shepherd Parish in Montrose.

In his work as parochial administrator at Holy Family, Father Perrotta told the Register, “I did not have all the rights of a pastor, but I had the authority to run the parish day to day, including staffing and financial decisions.”

As parochial administrator, Father Perrotta said that he was able to hone his leadership skills, especially in preparing and leading parish liturgies, including Mass, baptisms and funerals, and also in his preparation and delivery of homilies.

“I also grew in my priesthood,” he said, “in my comfort at stepping into situations where people look to you to take a leadership role in some way, often only partially prepared, and in getting to know the people of God in my parish and the diocese.”


Place Prayers Frist

But Father Perrotta said that he has been careful not to get so lost in the work of his pastoral assignments that he forgets the most important task of any priest: growing ever closer to Christ. He offers new priests the same advice that he has integrated into his own priesthood.

“Never forget that you in your priesthood are a blessing to the Church and world,” Father Perrotta said, “and Jesus has invited you into an intimate friendship with himself.”

That friendship includes the quotidian work of pastoring, Father Perrotta added, but it begins with prayer.

“Place your daily prayer life first,” he said, adding, “Fight for this time, and when you fail, receive Jesus’ mercy. Don’t let the rest of your responsibilities and interests crowd out your time with God. Don’t let what is a supernatural calling, and ultimately only fruitful if it’s in Jesus, become something else.”             

Register correspondent Joseph O’Brien writes from Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin.