Ordained on July 8, 2017, Fr. Jim Smith, C.PP.S., offers thoughts on the first six months of his new ministry.
What has been your biggest challenge since ordination?
The biggest challenge for me since ordination has been related to the transition from folks asking something like, “Well, what does a deacon do?” to “Oh,
Father, can you do . . .” The challenge in the exponential increase in requests or invitations or ministerial demands has been how to build effective boundaries so that I don’t burn myself out or take 24 consecutive days of working without some time off.
Another challenge has been the ridiculous learning curve around Sunday mass, where I went from being a deacon kind-of-in-the-background-helping-out-sort-of to the captain of the ship for all nautical/liturgical direction. Being in a five-parish cluster with five different ways of doing things and trying to remember details like, for example, differences in communion distribution and the number of ministers.
What has been your greatest joy?
This year has been a lot of experiences with saying to myself, “I’ve never done this before, so I’m not sure I know how to do this.” And then I do it, and I get the chance to do it a second time and rely back on that ever-so-brief experience. The joy around that is both being able to do something like a funeral or confessions for the first time and not be a blubbering idiot and getting to do something I studied for years for and also prepared for and anticipated doing through those years in formation. The greatest joy has probably been around studies and practicum around presiding at Mass and then getting to do it myself.
What has been the biggest surprise?
Honestly, the biggest surprise has been just how much I do not know. Showing up on a Sunday morning to a sacristy and being asked a question of how to do something or what something is—the description of education being the process of learning exactly how much you do not know is quite accurate, and studies for the priesthood involved a lot of education. The surprise around this is the automatic reaction of, “Oh, the priest knows,” and this baby priest ordained a few months definitely doesn’t know.
Tell us about a favorite day/event/moment.
In the flurry of firsts around ordination, I had the chance to preside at Mass at a church that was home for me throughout my years of studies in Chicago. Professors, friends from CTU and Saint Joseph’s College, students from my religious education classes there, and parents I had the privilege of teaching with were at the Mass. Hugs and tears abounded greatly. I even had the chance to briefly thank Senator Dick Durbin for his very kind words speaking up for young people protected under DACA.
Two things stand out the most for me. First, in the nerve- racking preparations for Mass, I was in the makeshift sacristy trying to figure out what to wear. A beautiful, green, hand-made stole with Celtic knots was a gift from members of the parish. Talking briefly with the sacristan and then the priest who had the Mass before me, it was suggested by him for me to wear the plain white chasuble with the stole over to show it off. So, for my first Mass back in Chicago, I was given liturgical fashion advice by Msgr. Ken Velo.
Second, in the wave of cleaning up after Mass and trying to head over quickly to the small reception, the sacristan complimented me on my presiding and preaching, including that my preaching came off as “someone”-esque, who regularly presides at Masses at the parish. I had that “someone” as a professor at Catholic Theological Union. It was possibly the greatest compliment I will ever receive in my life.
This summer during Vacation Bible School at one of our parishes, I had the opportunity to return for the first time, as I helped out with VBS there last summer. This year, though, I was Fr. Jim and not Deacon James like last year. In the middle of the tried-and-true duck, duck, goose with the pre-schoolers, I was corrected by a five-year-old who said that my name wasn’t “Fr. Jim” but “Deacon James.” He absolutely and unequivocally refused to let me be a priest—I was forever a deacon to him at VBS. My showing him the bulletin with the change on the front cover did not win the argument.
It was probably the one instance of someone refusing to acknowledge I had been ordained a priest that was deeply meaningful because I had been accepted and embraced by him as a deacon in the parish.
I was Deacon James just like Fr. Tom was always and everywhere Fr. Tom and Br. Nick was Br. Nick. Regardless of calling me Deacon or Father, he still tackled me at duck, duck, goose.
What have you learned so far?
A wonderful priest in our Community who is sometimes thick-headed was right when he said that people you encounter in your ministry are and will be very forgiving of you, except for one thing—they won’t forgive you for being mean to them. I have learned just how generous people are, not just in the Christmas season with gifts, food and Christmas cards (even those with way too much glitter), but how generous people are in their time, enthusiasm and energy around Mass and pastoral visits. Even just the slightest opening of myself and joking a little at the end of a Mass (for instance, asking if the Mass was valid since we didn’t have any announcements), the generosity of people to go along with me, or rather, for people to allow me to hitch a ride with them, speaks volumes of the generosity of people in the midst of my learning what priesthood and ministry in these parishes and this cluster means.