Fifty years is a lifetime for most people. Fifty years in the same profession is almost incomprehensible in the modern age. Priesthood, however, is not a career. It is a vocation, and one that a priest takes seriously. As a lifelong commitment, it is akin to marriage, and like a newlywed, a recently ordained priest might not always have the full wisdom he needs for a lifetime of service. Younger priests would do well to benefit from the advice of an older, seasoned priest.
The white hair on both Father Bill Sullivan’s face and head attests to the more than 50 years of priestly experience under his Roman collar. He doesn’t walk as well as he used to, but his mind remains sharp and his love of service as keen as ever. Even in his retirement years, he stays active by assisting at parishes within the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Five different parishes, one school and a hospital all benefitted from his ministry over the years, and numerous priests garnered much wisdom from serving under him as seminarians. He has vested new priests at their ordinations and given the homily at another’s first Mass and always felt honored to do so.
When beginning priestly ministry, Father Sullivan said, “I think it’s important for priests to be stationed with someone who is a good example to you.” Though this isn’t something a priest can control, he was personally blessed by the example of older, more experienced priests and has tried to emulate that. “I’ve been fortunate to have a number of seminarians with me and obviously I want to influence them somehow,” he remarked. Many of those he has influenced have gone on to more significant postitions within the diocese.
Yet he has still more wisdom to share with younger generations of priests – and to those in the pews. “There’s a joke among priests that what we do when we get to a parish was none of what was taught to us in the seminary,” he says, his blue eyes twinkling. However, he knows from experience that a priest quickly learns the things he wasn’t taught as a seminarian or even a parochial vicar.
He shared some of those tidbits he’s learned over half a century.
11 Lessons A Catholic Priest Of 50 Years Wants To Share With New Priests
- “First of all, if prayer is not there, you’ll crumble.” He gave an example of a man who was ordained with him, but who left the priesthood when his prayer life shriveled. Though praying the breviary seven times a day may seem difficult during a long day, Father Sullivan always placed prayer at the center of his life. Sometimes, he admits, work becomes prayer, though a busy day is never an excuse to skip prayer.
- Priests must maintain a healthy spiritual life. “The central part of the day is always Mass. You have to prepare your mind. This is not just another thing. This is the core of our Catholic faith.”
- “You must have a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. And the older I am, the more I realize that because you can sail through life with her.”
- The Sacrament of Penance is crucial not only for priests, but for the laity as well. “Certainly for a priest, you’re a part of a person’s life for hatch, match and dispatch, but the sacrament of reconciliation is so important. So important.” He lamented the lack of penitents and short reconciliation hours at some of the parishes where he has filled in for vacationing priests and encourages more devotion to the sacrament.
- “Don’t be a loner.” Father Sullivan spoke of how some priests struggle to connect with their brother priests and how that fraternity should be a greater priority among them. Whether it be age or personal interests, a priest needs to find another priest or group of priests with commonalities to support each other.
- “Get exercise … That’s critical.” It is difficult to care for others if one doesn’t care for themselves.
- A priest should consider the opinions of the people of the parish, particularly when he is new to the parish. “People will be very supportive of you if you’re open to their ideas, too. It’s our church, it’s not my church … don’t make a decision until you listen, because you might be surprised that there’s something better.” This also holds true when it comes to filling positions in the parish and school.
- Get to know your people when becoming pastor. Don’t make changes “until you see the lay of the land.”
- Take care of the parish, including the grounds. Even planting flowers and repairing sidewalks shows a level of care that people appreciate. “You feel warm just walking by.”
- Welcome the children and help build their faith from a young age. For his part, Father Sullivan could not imagine being at a parish without a school, as children bring such life to a priest and a parish. “I think it’s important, whether there’s a religious education program or a school, that the priest be as active as possible.”
- The children of the parish are certainly not the only ones who need spiritual support from their priest. “It’s so important for young people to be blessed with faith-filled parents. You can tell that pretty quickly. It’s important in the life of the family.” Seeing their parents’ devotion to God and the Catholic faith fosters children’s vocations as well, including those to the priesthood and religious life. Father Sullivan witnessed this in his own life, watching his mother spend daily prayer time with the Blessed Mother and his father attend daily Mass.
While living the life of a priest is not an easy vocation, it is very much a blessed one. Father Sullivan stated that: “I will say that wherever I’ve been, I’ve been blessed with very faith-filled people. They give you strength to accept what God wants you to do.”