Eight happy men completed one leg of their vocational journey and prepared to start the next as they were ordained to the priesthood during a difficult time for the Diocese of Buffalo and the Catholic Church worldwide. With varied life experiences and homelands, these men share a goal to meet people where they are at and bring them closer to God's love.
The June 1 Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral saw the largest group of men ordinated in Buffalo in 24 years. This may be surprising as the Church faces a sex abuse crisis, which Bishop Richard J. Malone acknowledged in his opening remarks.
"I rejoiced as I came up the aisle and saw radiant smiles on the faces of everybody as we celebrate today the ordination eight fine young men to serve as priests of the new covenant here in the Diocese of Buffalo, in particular, during a difficult time in life of the Church here and globally. What a flash of brilliant and hopeful light this day is as we see that the work of the Church - her mission, her ministry - continues in wonderful ways as ordain these eight brothers of ours. It truly is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it."
The eight men ordained come from all points of the diocese and the world. Patryk Sobczyk comes from Poland, Moses Ikuelogbon is from Nigeria, and Mario Racho is from the Philippines. Locally, other men came from Batavia, Lancaster, Lockport, Tonawanda and Westfield.
"Yesterday I couldn't eat anything. I was very nervous," said Father Sobczyk shortly before the Mass began. "But, today I think I am more excited than nervous. Tomorrow will also be a very big day; the first Mass. Finally, I am very happy. I finished my way to the priesthood and I start a new way, a new journey through the priesthood."
Father Robert Owczarzak felt "a little nervousness, a little unworthiness, but overall good to be here."
The ceremony, which lasted until 1 p.m., went off without a hitch, with Bishop Edward U. Kmiec, Bishop Edward M. Grosz, and dozens of other priests concelebrating. Alan D. Lukas directed the Buffalo Diocesan Festive Chorus.
In his homily, the bishop focused on St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians which refers to priests as "earthen vessels."
"Very breakable jugs, yet holding within us gold, holding within us treasure of inestimable value," he said.
Bishop Fulton Sheen, who hosted a popular television series in the 1950s, titled his autobiography "Treasure in Clay."
"It means a lot of things doesn't it? Grace, faith. And he meant in particular what John Paul II later called the gift and mystery of priesthood, 'the treasure.' At the same time he had an honest, humble ownership of the clay that he knew himself to be, with the sin, the unworthiness, the wounded human condition, the weakness that is part of us all. He was very honest about that in his autobiography. The same man who was committed to a daily Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament could also admit his vanity and his fondness for creature comforts. He was able too, to embrace some real suffering in his life and ministry."
Bishop Sheen said, "To be a priest is to be called to be the happiest of men, and yet to be daily committed to the greatest of wars; the one waged within."
"My translation of Bishop Sheen's wisdom is simply this: if we will know the joy of the Gospel and be effective heralds of that joy, like Isaiah, for the people we serve only if through a vibrant and deep spiritual life. We live in awe and in wonder, in amazement of the precious gift entrusted to us, not for ourselves, but for the salvation of our people, and ourselves in that context."
Addressing the ordini, Bishop Malone encouraged the new priest to interact with their fellow priests. "Don't isolate and don't let others isolate; reach out, connect with your brothers and with the people you serve and with whom you serve. Never forget we are, as diocese and as Church worldwide, called now to a deep and far-reaching renewal, purification. We do that in partnership with the lay faithful and not apart from that partnership, as I have committed to do with the Movement to Restore trust.
"It is a painful time for our Church, but a time also for hope, because as Church, it's fundamentally God's community and God's project, and though we may feel tarnished, and for good reason, we're filled with bright promise," the bishop concluded.
The eight men were then asked if they could discharge the office of priesthood, exercise the ministry of the Word wisely, celebrate faithfully the mysteries of Christ, and implore with us God's mercy and pray without ceasing. They all replied with a noble "Yes."
Then each was asked individually to promise respect and obedience of the bishop and his successors.
Addressing the congregation, Bishop Malone asked that they all pray for the men, asking God to pour out abundantly the gifts of heaven on His new servants.
He then asked God to grant the new priests the "dignity of the priesthood."
While laying his hands on the head of each man, the bishop asked that "the Lord Jesus Christ, who the Father had anointed with the Holy Spirit and power, guard and preserve you that you may sanctify the Christian people and offer sacrifice to God."
Bishop Malone then told the new priests to "receive the oblation of the holy people to be offered to God, understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord's cross."
After reading off the list of their parish assignments, the bishop told the men, and the congregation, "All of us have to be very, very attentive to victims in our midst, survivors of abuse not only by clergy or other church ministers, but by anybody. This is a heightened time of awareness and commitment on the part of the diocese and all of us to reach out to all of those who have been wounded, and we shall do that."
After receiving blessing from their fellow priests, then men received congratulations from their families and friends.
"I feel very holy having been anointed by the bishop of Buffalo for the sacred ministry of the priesthood," said Father Donald Watkins, who will serve as parochial vicar at St. Joseph Cathedral, where he expects to celebrate more than a few weddings this year.
"Mostly the cathedral is, in a way, wedding central," he said. "There is somewhere around 78 weddings that are going to take place between now and the end of the year. Father Charles Slisz, who is the rector of the cathedral, said he is going to share the load with me."
Father Justin Steeg, who will serve at Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna, felt "surprisingly calm. I thought I'd be nervous, but I really think it was a grace of God to feel that peace."
The new priests celebrated their first Masses later that afternoon or the following Sunday morning. They now have about two weeks off before starting their new assignments. Father Robert A. Contarin will serve at St. Rose of Lima & St. Mark, Buffalo. Father Ikuelogbon will serve at St. Gregory the Great, Williamsville. Father Aaron F. Kulczyk will call St. Gabriel, Elma home. Father Owczarczak will be at St. Bernadette, Orchard Park. Father Racho will serve at St. Mary, Lancaster. Father Sobczyk will head north to Holy Family, Albion.