|Father Gervan Menezes, chaplain and teacher at Father Ryan High School, is also chaplain for the Catholic Youth Office. He was one of nine men ordained in July 2014 who recently completed their first year as priests. Photo by Theresa Laurence
In July 2014, nine men were ordained priests for the Diocese of Nashville, the largest-ever group to be ordained in a single Mass in the diocese’s 178-year history. The recent boon in vocations has been a blessing for the Church in Middle Tennessee, and it has also meant that more newly ordained priests than ever before are adjusting to their new roles in parishes, schools, and other ministries.
Three priests who were members of the ordination class of 2014 recently spoke with the Tennessee Register about their reflections on the first year of priesthood.
Surrendering to God’s will
Father Dan Reehil, associate pastor at St. Edward Church in Nashville, said one of the biggest challenges of shifting from seminarian to parish priest is that “the seminary is very calibrated. The routine doesn’t change and the details of the day are very stringent.” However, in parish life, “really the whole day is very unstructured. You don’t know what will happen.”
A morning Mass with St. Edward School children could be on the docket, and after that, Father Reehil might have time to sit at his desk and catch up on e-mail, or he might get an emergency call from the hospital, a dying parishioner requesting his final sacraments.
|Father Dan Reehil, associate pastor of St. Edward Parish, tells a story to St. Edward School children during an recent altar server training session. Photo by Theresa Laurence
“You have less control over the outcome of your day” as a parish priest, Father Reehil said. “But you know it’s God’s will and you work through it.”
Father Reehil, who is from New York, formerly worked on Wall Street and wasn’t ordained a priest until he was nearly 50, says life has taught him that things don’t always go the way you plan. “You have to surrender and be open to change.”
Father Reehil was assigned to St. Edward last year, along with a new pastor, his longtime friend, Father Mark Nolte. They came to the parish when Father Joe Pat Breen retired after serving there for more than 30 years. It was a big culture shift for the parish, and the priests were unsure how the transition would go. “The most surprising thing is how much the parishioners embraced us,” Father Reehil said.
“I can’t believe how many people have invited me into their homes,” he said. “You manage somebody’s money, make them $1 million, they don’t invite you over,” he said, reflecting on the difference between life in the cutthroat business world and life as a parish priest.
For his second year of priesthood, Father Reehil said he plans to better manage his commitments outside the parish. A board member of the Catholic Community Foundation, the Nashville Catholic Business League, and a chaplain to the parish Knights of Columbus and the diocese’s Retrouvaille marriage program, “it’s very easy to be too busy,” he said. “Biting off more than you can chew – that’s a newly ordained pitfall.”
As he continues to adjust to life as a parish priest, Father Reehil said that he is always amazed how he is invited into the intimate moments of people’s lives.
“They look to you for guidance and they don’t even know you,” he said. “I’m there to be present with them in place of Jesus; it’s pretty amazing.”
Sharing the essential truth
For Father Michael Fye, associate pastor of St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows Church in Nashville, and associate chaplain at University Catholic, that notion of people automatically engaging with him because he is a priest is still somewhat astonishing.
“People from different backgrounds asking me questions they never would have asked me if I wasn’t a priest, complex things, I’m still getting used to that role,” said Father Fye. “I have a regular sense of inadequacy … but I’ve learned to really depend on God and put things in his hands.”
|Father Michael Fye, above, associate pastor of St. Mary Church and associate chaplain at University Catholic, exchanges a sign of peace with Bishop David Choby at his priestly ordination on July 26, 2014. Tennessee Register file photo by Rick Musacchio
At St. Mary, located in the middle of downtown Nashville across the street from the bus station, Father Fye has the opportunity to encounter a broad cross-section of people, many non- Catholics and non Christians, who stop by the church and pepper him with questions.
Sometimes, he said, he has to look past his own busy-ness and impatience and “try to see them from God’s point of view.”
When he is able to take the time to talk with them, “I try to share the most essential feature of the Gospel, that God loves them,” he said.
Father Fye, the only man ordained last year who was born and raised in the Diocese of Nashville, has spent most of his first year as a priest finishing up graduate work in Rome. He just returned from a trip back there to complete his “Lectio Corom,” or license to teach moral theology according to the laws of the Catholic Church. He has no immediate plans to teach in an academic setting, but “moral theology is helpful every day,” he said.
Father Fye received his assignment to serve at St. Mary and University Catholic this past June, and “it’s been a learning experience,” he said. The structure of campus ministry “is very different than your typical parish, so I have to learn how to engage differently.”
Overall, Father Fye’s first year of priesthood has gone well, he said, and the transition has been easier thanks to his continued role as a student.
Being able to celebrate Mass and hear confessions are the obvious standout differences between life as a seminarian and life as an ordained priest-student. “The most rewarding thing is the courage and humility people display when they come to confession,” he said. “It’s very inspiring to me.”
Serving as Jesus did
“The first year everything is new,” said Father Gervan Menezes. “You learn in the seminary how to do things and you come here and start to do it,” he said, speaking from his Father Ryan High School office, where he teaches theology to juniors.
Father Menezes, who is originally from Brazil, first came to Middle Tennessee as an exchange student, then returned years later, met with Bishop David Choby, and decided to complete his seminary studies with a commitment to serve the Diocese of Nashville. Last July’s ordination class, which included men from four different countries and four different American cities (in addition to one native son of the diocese), may have come from far and wide, “but we belong to Nashville now,” Father Menezes said.
More specifically, Father Menezes belongs to the youth of the diocese, serving as a teacher and chaplain at Father Ryan and chaplain for the Catholic Youth Office. “It’s really cool being with the teenagers. You learn something every single day.”
Affectionately known as “Father G” to his students, Father Menezes has an easy rapport with young people, even though he never envisioned himself as a teacher.
“It was a big surprise,” when he received his first assignment, he said. “In seminary I never prepared to be a teacher.”
He taught years ago in Brazil, “but it was quite different,” he said.
Father Menezes is in residence at the Cathedral of the Incarnation, but is not very involved with the parish there due to his teaching and youth ministry commitments. He lives with several more experienced priests in the cathedral rectory, who can be a good sounding board.
He and the other eight men from his ordination class also try to get together on a semi-regular basis. “We meet at somebody’s parish to pray, talk about the challenges. All of us are passing through the same thing. It helps us to connect with one another,” Father Menezes said.
One of the most important lessons from his first year of priesthood is that “the ministry is not about me. It’s about Jesus and those I’m serving,” Father Menezes said. “People don’t want to see me. They want to see Jesus through me.”