Scriptural Sharpshooter

In Father Joseph Ponessa’s words, the Pontifical Biblical Institute is “the Pope’s own Bible school.” In more technical terms, it is a Vatican-sponsored graduate school for elite biblical scholars. Students must speak nine languages, including Aramaic, and defend doctoral dissertations under the double scrutiny of scholarly value and faithfulness to the magisterium.

It might seem unusual that a parish priest from rural Montana would want to enroll in such a vigorous academic program, especially when denied leave by his bishop to be a full-time student. Yet Father Ponessa began chipping away at the requirements 21 years ago, spending his vacation time in Rome and paying the tuition out of his own pocket. He calls his drive a “discernment within a discernment.”

“First I discerned I wanted to be a priest. Then I decided I wanted to be in Montana,” he says. “Then, within those commitments, I committed myself to learning the word of God.”

“I had an arrangement or understanding with him,” continues Father Ponessa. “I would proceed to the most difficult biblical program in the world. If he didn’t want me to do it, he should make it impossible. I tried not to do anything to jeopardize the project on my part.” He defended his dissertation in 2001, but still is tweaking it before publication.

When asked about choosing to be a diocesan priest instead of indulging his scholarly nature in a religious order, he explains: “My instincts are monastic, but my loyalties are local. I wound up being a fish out of water at home, which is a strange way to be. But if anyone tells me I shouldn’t be in Montana, I tell them God put me here and he doesn’t make mistakes.”

Bible Buff

Like many, the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, which covers more than 90,000 square miles, is dealing with a priest shortage. For the past 12 years, Father Ponessa has pastored three parishes.

He has used his international connections to try to alleviate the problem, inviting fellow students to come to his diocese to assist. The arrangements have been mutually beneficial.

“I was looking for a parish to go and work for a few months to find finances for my studies in Rome,” says Father Jose Valliparambil of India. He ended up returning to Montana and now is parochial administrator of St. Gabriel’s Church in Chinook.

Another of Father Ponessa’s “recruits” now is well connected in the Polish Bishops’ Conference. Traveling to Poland this spring, Father Ponessa will rely on him to hopefully help negotiate a contract with a religious order to bring additional priests to Montana.

“If he can succeed, it would really help,” says Father Valliparambil. “Practically most of the priests in this diocese are aging and looking for retirement in the near future.”

Meanwhile Father Ponessa is trying to add a little Polish to his repertoire, and is using a tried and true method to help. In the past, he translated Star Wars into Latin as an exercise; this time he is watching Polish movies with subtitles also in Polish. “I can see how they are spelling the stuff they are saying,” he says. “I learn a lot that way.”

As for Father Ponessa’s parishioners, they are proud to have a Scriptural expert in their midst. “Whenever he gives a seminar on anything out of the Bible, it is extraordinary because of his depth and knowledge about sources,” says Gene Fitzpatrick, long-time friend and parishioner.

Fitzpatrick accompanied Father Ponessa to Rome when he defended his dissertation. One line of questioning tested his knowledge of Aramaic. “The expert made a mistake and Father Ponessa corrected him,” Fitzpatrick recalls.

Another examiner warned that doctoral candidates often experience a letdown when they complete the program, but Fitzpatrick was unconcerned. “Father Ponessa doesn’t get down in the dumps,” he says. “If anything, he works too hard and is a great project person.”

Perhaps this is demonstrated by the whirlwind tour he led Fitzpatrick and others on after their time in Rome was complete. “Our itinerary was a murderous thing,” says Fitzpatrick, who brought two suitcases and a backpack. “All Father Ponessa carries is what a person going to play basketball would carry.”

Back in the United States, one of Father Ponessa’s more recent projects has been co-authoring the Come and See Bible-study series with Laurie Manhardt.

“He has the affinity to make Bible study what I envisioned, something any busy lay person could do,” she says.   

Yet, while he is able to condense his commentaries into 2,500-word essays, Father Ponessa also sometimes launches into another language during editing sessions.

“He says, ‘I just wanted to hear this passage in Aramaic, to listen to it in the language in which Jesus spoke,’” says Manhardt. “It is a richness that is spontaneous.”

She adds that, while the priest is indeed a biblical scholar, he is first and foremost a priest and pastor with a “shepherd’s heart.” She once chastised him for not meeting a deadline. He responded: “Yes, I know, but it’s First Friday and I knew the people at the mission parish wouldn’t have anyone to hear their confessions and couldn’t receive the Eucharist unless I went there. So I went.” His priorities were in order, Manhardt says.

The pair has completed four books: Gospel of John; The Synoptics: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Genesis; and Prophets and Apostles. A fifth, David and the Psalms, should be available this summer.

Father Ponessa uses the resources in his parishes for Bible-study groups, including one at a nearby jail. “[Prisoners] have a lot of time on their hands to look things up in the Catechism and to read the Bible,” he explains. “They enjoy the exercises which can be taxing for people on the outside, but on the inside they’ve got time on their hands.”

One week, Manhardt says, Father Ponessa’s high school CCD class was reviewing the same Bible study lesson as he had just completed with the prisoners. He told them: “Look, you can study the Bible here and now, or you can ignore God’s word, get into trouble, go to jail and study it there. Take your pick.”

The response was exactly what you’d expect.


Monta Monaco Hernon writes from La Grange Park, Illinois.