Here are some of the features from the June 2014 issue of Long Island Catholic Magazine. To subscribe click here.
Answering God’s call to serve
by Rick Hinshaw
“What God wants, not what I want” — that sentiment, expressed in different ways by each of the four new priests of our diocese in separate conversations with The Long Island Catholic prior to their June 14 ordination, was crucial to each of them in discerning a call to priesthood.
FATHER JOSEPH SCOLARO
For Father Joseph Scolaro, that realization began to take form when a good friend invited him to a retreat at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington.
“Growing up these days, you don’t get too much encouragement to be a priest,” said Father Joseph, 26, who grew up in Bayville — baptized at St. Gertrude’s Church there, and a parishioner at St. Dominic in Oyster Bay, where he went to elementary school. As a child, he said, “my grandmother talked about me being a priest, but I never gave it too much thought. I was interested in science,” and thought he would pursue something in that field. Attending Chaminade High School in Mineola, he said, “I started thinking more about my faith.” He was a sophomore when he went on the retreat, and “that’s when I really started thinking about it. I started thinking about not what I wanted to do but what God wants me to do.”
Still, he “wasn’t set on it, by any means.” But in the ensuing years, “the more I got to know some priests, and saw how much they enjoyed being priests — you don’t read about that in today’s media — the more I realized, not only does God want me to do this, I want to do it, too.” He cited Msgr. Thomas Coogan, then-diocesan director of vocations, and Msgr. James McDonald, former rector of Immaculate Conception Seminary, as among the priests who helped encourage him.
He “went off to Notre Dame after Chaminade,” majoring in biology; but “by my sophomore year, I decided I was going to pursue the priesthood,” and so he added studies in philosophy to his concentration. The environment of a college campus, he said, “really challenged” his vocation. “My friends were very encouraging, but at the same time I didn’t feel that I always fit in.” It made him face the hard question, he said: “Do you still value this even if it seems no one around you does?” Confronting that question actually strengthened his commitment, he said, and “in many ways Notre Dame helped. There are a lot of good Catholic things going on there” and “a lot of students come from good Catholic families.” In addition, “the rector of my dorm kind of guided me in my discernment.” So his campus experience “challenged but also strengthened my faith,” he said, and after graduating in the spring of 2010, he entered Immaculate Conception Seminary that fall.
“That first year in the seminary was an incredible experience,” Father Joseph recalled. “I had been thinking about the priesthood for awhile, and then, ‘Here I am!’” There are challenges to seminary life, he said, “but there was such joy that I was moving toward the priesthood, learning what it means to be a priest.”
Over his years of formation — the first two in Huntington, then two years at St. Joseph Seminary in Dunwoodie — he experienced parish life each summer in a different location: St. Gertrude, Bayville, then St. Rocco and St. Patrick in Glen Cove, then SS. Cyril and Methodius, Deer Park. This past year he served as a deacon at St. Aidan in Williston Park, reuniting with Msgr. McDonald, St. Aidan’s pastor.
“I enjoyed being in parishes,” he said. “I’m in some ways a bit of an introvert, but it was never a problem to get to know parishioners, form relationships. People are so anxious to welcome you into their lives.” Parish service also enabled him to experience “the practical side, the end goal” of priestly formation, accompanying priests in their daily ministries, seeing how they take part in parishioners’ lives, becoming involved in parish school and religious education programs, and in vital services like hospital ministry.
As he begins his priesthood, Father Joseph said, he is looking forward “above all to the holy sacrifice of the Mass. It is hard to believe God will be using me to make the Body and Blood of Christ present on the altar, and to bring that gift to the people, bring God to the people.
“Also confession,” he added. “You can bring people back to God by forgiving sins, break the chains that keep people from God. It is humbling, but powerful. We are the humble instruments God will use to bring people to Himself.”
Father Joseph knows he is also being called into a life of great sacrifice, not least of which is foregoing the opportunity for marriage and children. From the time of that retreat during high school, he said, when he first starting asking, “‘Could this be for me?’ I had to face those questions. But again, thinking about what God wants made me realize that doing what God wants is what’s going to make us happy. The more I thought about it, I saw that the priesthood is a beautiful life, it gives joy in itself, bringing sacraments to others.” His “most important influence,” he said, has been the priests he has gotten to know while in the seminary, “joyful priests who love the Gospel, who live out that self-sacrifice. They inspired me to take on this role.”
He has also had the strong support of his family — his parents and an older sister.
“At first they were surprised,” he said. “It’s not something common, and there are so many factors involved. You really give up everything the world values — career, family.” And with negative attitudes toward priests prevalent in the secular world today, he said, “I think that worried my parents. But when they see how happy it is making me, they are very supportive” and “just as happy as I am” as his ordination day approached.
“I imagine it will always be a challenge,” Father Joseph concluded, “but the beauty of this commitment is that my life will always be about the salvation of souls, and the glory of God.”
FATHER JAMES SHELTON
Father James Shelton, 31, remembers, when he was an altar boy at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Woodhaven, being asked to serve a funeral Mass when he was in seventh grade. “I was very moved” by that Mass, he said, and it “planted a seed” that would later blossom into a call to the priesthood.
It didn’t happen quickly, though. As he attended Archbishop Molloy High School, his sights were on “going to college, making a lot of money, getting married, having a family.” He seemed on track as he went to St. John’s University, earning a degree in computer science. “I figured I was going to get a high-paying job, it was going to be great,” he recalled. Then he got a job in the field and “hated it! Sitting in a cubicle, at a computer all day, I didn’t see myself doing that for the rest of my life.”
He had worked in restaurants as a waiter during college and “loved it, being with people all the time,” so he decided to try restaurant management. That went well, he enjoyed it, but the strain of 60-hour work weeks was wearing, and he “prayed, asking God what He wanted me to do.” The seminary became a possibility, he applied and was accepted — and then came another restaurant management offer, with better pay. “One Tuesday morning, it was in November of 2007, I was praying, saying which way should I go? God said restaurant jobs will always be there, try the seminary.”
James entered Cathedral Residence of the Immaculate Conception in Douglaston in January 2008. “The first thing I did there was participate in the March for Life that month,” he recalled. He spent three semesters at Cathedral, completing his studies in philosophy, then in September 2010 moved on to Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington. During his time there he had the opportunity to experience a range of ministries, beginning with some apostolic work over his first two summers at Good Shepherd Hospice in Port Jefferson. “I loved ministering to the elderly and terminally ill,” he said.
He spent a pastoral year at St. Barnabas in Bellmore, under the leadership of pastor Father Joseph Coschignano, where he got involved in various education ministries, including the school, religious education program and RCIA. “I fell in love with the people, the ministry,” he said. “It gave me the fuel to get through the last two years of study” at Joseph Seminary in Dunwoodie. A pastoral study year with Msgr. Steve Camp at St. Christopher, Baldwin “reinforced the feeling that I really wanted to do this.” And over the past year as a deacon, he spent weekends preaching at SS. Cyril and Methodius in Deer Park, and receiving guidance from pastor Msgr. Robert Clerkin.
Father James also pointed to two priests from St. Edward the Confessor in Syosset — where the Shelton family had moved between his sophomore and junior years in high school — as important influences: pastor Father Thomas Fusco, “a good role model,” and Franciscan Father Roland Faley, a widely traveled instructor and Catholic author — who had served on the faculty at Immaculate Conception Seminary from 1994-1999 — who was in residence at St. Edward’s in the summer of 2008. When Father Faley passed away last January at age 83, “it was a huge loss to me,” Father James said. “He was my mentor. When I was questioning what I wanted to do, he assured me, ‘This is what you should be doing.’”
Father James has also taken inspiration from the life of St. Isaac Jogues, the French Jesuit missionary martyred upstate in what is now Auriesville, N.Y., as he worked to bring the Gospel to Native Americans. After being brutally tortured, then rescued and returned to France, Father James noted, St. Isaac “came back, to try again” and ultimately face death. “That inspired me to keep going out, keep trying, no matter what, God will give you strength.”
Father James also takes strength from his family.
“My mother and father always took me to church, every single Sunday. They taught me to pray and have a faith life. They sacrificed so I could go to Catholic school. They’ve always supported me, nurtured me in my Catholic faith.” His older sister is a good example in the faith, he said, as are a younger sister and younger brother. “We’re just a faith family,” he said.
Anticipating his first assignment, Father James told TLIC he is “willing to get involved in whatever the parish wants me to get involved in.
“I have loved every single aspect of ministry that I’ve done,” he said — “hospice, children in school, bringing Christ’s presence to all who are sick or homebound, preaching, being present in the parish, teaching RCIA — every ministry in the priesthood. I’m looking forward to sharing the faith with the people, being there with the people, providing for them whatever will bring them closer to the Lord.”
FATHER CHRISTOPHER MIRABAL
Father Christopher Mirabal’s journey to the priesthood on Long Island began and was nurtured in New York City. He was born in Manhattan in July 1988, and grew up, with his mother and older brother, in Inwood on the Upper West Side.
“We were a traditional, very strong Catholic family,” he recounted. “My mom is very Catholic, always prayed the rosary, always attended Mass. She sparked an interest in me in two things: education and religious life.” So he “followed her example,” as well as that of his father and grandfather, and became a catechist while he was in public high school.
“It’s in our bloodlines,” he said, that commitment to “passing on the Catholic faith. So that was really my first pastoral experience, teaching classes of innocent kids, like I was.” He also taught adults, as his classes included junior and senior high school students as well as two adult RCIA candidates.
While his biggest inspiration for the priesthood was his family, Father Christopher credits “Divine Providence,” as well as a conversation with then-diocesan vocations director Father Brian Barr, with guiding him toward the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
“In summers, my family would go out to Sunken Meadow when I was a kid,” he recalled. “I never would have imagined living and serving here.” But he did not want to stay in the city, and in 2009 he got to know Father Barr, who invited him to consider Long Island. He began studies at the Cathedral Residence in Douglaston in the fall of 2009, and “from there got to know more about the Diocese of Rockville Centre” — in particular, it’s need for Spanish-speaking priests. As a Dominican American — both his parents were born in the Dominican Republic — he concluded that “this is why God brought me here. There is a greater need for Hispanic priests here than in New York City.”
He spent a year at Cathedral completing his undergraduate formal seminary training, with a once-a-week pastoral assignment at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Valley Stream — while also commuting into Manhattan College. Two years followed at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, where he credits then-faculty member Msgr. Joseph DeGrocco and spiritual director Father Charles Cacchiavalli with “really easing my way into the diocese. I’m very grateful to them.”
His third year was “all about transition,” as the Rockville Centre seminarians moved to St. Joseph Seminary in Dunwoodie to complete their studies along with seminarians from the Brooklyn Diocese and, ironically, Christopher’s home Archdiocese of New York. He and two other seminarians served as catechists teaching children at St. Mary Parish, Manhasset, and he spent his pastoral summer at Our Lady of Loretto in Hempstead. With its large Hispanic population, he said, “that was a very defining moment” that told him, “you’re needed here.
“If I had any doubt God wanted me here, I found it out definitively,” he said.
“I became a member of that community,
I joined a family of parishioners.”
He also served a pastoral summer at St. Anne’s in Brentwood, and his diaconate weekends at St. Hugh of Lincoln in Huntington Station, also parishes with significant Spanish-speaking populations.
“The need for formation, especially in Spanish communities, is very high,” Father Christopher observed. “Most Hispanics do not have the resources to take courses or go to workshops to learn more about their faith.”
At the same time, he is very conscious of the need to be a priest for all the people, not exclusively for Hispanic Catholics.
“Bishop Murphy has made it clear he doesn’t want me to be ‘Father Chris, the Spanish priest,’” he said. “He wants me to serve all communities equally, to bring us together into one big faith, one Church.
“I am always examining myself every day, to see how I am doing serving both communities,” Father Chris said. “We are a universal Church, and my role is to be a bridge-builder. That is a very delicate process.”
He got an idea just how difficult it can be when, after participating in an immigration rally while at St. Anne’s in Brentwood, he read some of the comments posted online in response to News 12’s coverage of the event. “Some of them were very racist against immigrants,” he said. “It was very sad. It showed me the need, and also how hard it is going to be to bring communities together.” However, “from the work I’ve seen so far in parishes,” he said, “I think it is possible, if we show a Christ-like presence.”
As he begins his priesthood, Father Christopher said he is especially looking forward to celebrating Mass, administering the sacraments and helping people to “rediscover the treasure” of the Eucharist.
“Father Peter Cameron, editor of Magnificat, says every homily should be Eucharistic,” he said. “That is something I’m looking forward to a lot.”
“Also say that Father Chris asks for a lot of prayers,” he urged TLIC — “for mercy, patience, all the cardinal virtues. And that I am very grateful to all who have opened their hearts, even their homes, to me here on Long Island.”
FATHER DAVID ATANASIO
While an active faith life was integral to Father David Atanasio’s formative years — “we went to 6:30 a.m. Mass as a family every Sunday” at Our Lady of Lourdes in West Islip, he recalled — a call to the priesthood was not on his radar. The oldest of eight children growing up in Bay Shore, he “always wanted a wife and a very large family.”
David went right to work after graduating from Brentwood High School. At age 21, “I was delivering bread” and rather content when he went to a 6:30 a.m. New Year’s Day Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Lindenhurst. With very few people in attendance, the celebrant, Father Richard Kammerer, singled him out at the end of Mass and asked him to stay. Father Kammerer took him to breakfast and asked if he would be interested in doing youth ministry. “So I started working with the Lifeteen program in 2001, and I fell in love with it,” he said. “I’d like to believe that was the beginning of my ministry.”
He continued in that role for several years, but “still did not feel a call to the priesthood” until he attended a young adult retreat at Kellenberg Memorial High School organized by Tom Smith, then coordinator of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the diocese.
He had gone on the retreat, he recalled, “for the sole purpose of finding a good Catholic girl to marry.” Instead, “that’s when I met the priest who would change my life.” Msgr. Thomas Casserta of the Brooklyn Diocese, who was spiritual director at Cathedral in Douglaston at the time, “was giving a talk on the Theology of the Body. The way he was speaking really pierced my heart.” David went to confession to Msgr. Casserta, “and this priest was the first person to ask me, ‘Have you ever thought about being a priest?’”
“I fought it for like a year-and-a-half,” Father David recalled. “I was kind of seeing this girl. She knew I was discerning, and finally I said I just have to give the seminary a shot — with the full expectation that I would leave within a few weeks.”
Instead, he embarked on eight years of formation, beginning with four years of college studies at Cathedral, as his calling became more and more clear. “I remembered asking my father how he knew my mom was the right one for him,” he said, “and he told me, ‘You just know.’ That’s exactly the feeling I had when deciding on the priesthood. I looked at the Cross and said to myself, ‘You just know.’”
Still, there were challenges, chief among them the immediate sacrifices he would have to make. “To be back in the classroom at 25, after having gone to work right out of high school, was an adjustment,” he said. “I had two sports cars, I had been looking forward to moving out of (the family) home. To have to give those things up to enter seminary, that was difficult. Also to be under a structure,” he added, “people telling you what to do. It’s a way of life you have to live by if you’re going to do this. That was difficult after kind of doing what I wanted to do after high school.” Now, “looking back,” he said, “it was the best thing. I needed to be formed, and those years of formation help you live the life of the priesthood.”
The sacrifices entailed in seminary life also prepare — and test — men for the priesthood, Father David observed. “It’s one of the ways you can tell if you truly have the vocation.” For him, giving up the idea of marriage and the large family he had always envisioned is “in one way a sacrifice,” he realized, but also “a tremendous blessing — the idea of helping people, especially when people trust you so much, when they see the collar they invite you into their lives, they look to you for help.”
David spent two years at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington following Cathedral, and completed his formation over the past two years at St. Joseph Seminary in Dunwoodie.
“This past year was a big year for me,” he recounted. “I needed to have a good rectory experience and good parish experience,” and he received both while serving several days a week at Our Lady of Victory in Floral Park, and seven summer weeks at St. Patrick in Smithtown. “The way those two parishes opened up their arms to me, they both feel like home. They both helped me take further steps, move forward.” He was involved with the school at Our Lady of Victory, and served at Sunday Masses whenever he could. For his summer assignment, he had requested a parish that was connected with a hospital, and St. Patrick filled that need.
“Hospital ministry at St. Catherine of Siena” in Smithtown “was an amazing experience,” he said. “I got to see the power of the collar in people’s lives, especially when they are suffering. Some people I encountered hadn’t been to church in decades,” yet they were “so willing to share their experiences. I would have been able to hear their confessions if I had been a priest.”
Also vital to his formation, Father David said, was his rectory experience in the two parishes. “I was so blessed being with priests who love being priests, who are deeply in love with Jesus Christ, and who were willing to share that with me, and teach me.”
Father David also expressed special gratitude for the guidance of Father Charles Caccavale, professor of moral theology at the seminary. “Over the last four years he’s just been crucial in keeping me centered, and keeping the rest of the guys centered,” he said. “We called him the glue. He’s a deeply holy man. We owe him a lot.”
The support of his family has also been crucial. “If even one” of his five brothers and two sisters “had been against my becoming a priest,” he said, “it would have been very difficult, because we are all the best of friends, we really love each other. But they’ve been very supportive.”
As he begins his priesthood, Father David, 32, said he is thinking of the title of a book by Bishop Fulton Sheen, A Priest Is Not His Own.
“It talks about the priest being priest AND victim on the altar, just as Jesus was,” he explained. It is “a special gift,” Father David said, for a priest “to offer up his sacrifice and struggle for the people of God, so that they can come in deeper contact with Jesus Christ.”
New priests assigned to parishes
Following their ordination at St. Agnes Cathedral on June 14, the four new priests of the diocese have begun their first assignments as associate pastors of the following parishes:
Father David Atanasio, St. Patrick, Bay Shore
Father Christopher Mirabal, St. Anne, Brentwood
Father Joseph Scolaro, St. Joseph, Garden City
Father James Shelton, Good Shepherd, Holbrook
In addition, two newly ordained priests from Uganda, who were sponsored by the Diocese of Rockville Centre to do their seminary formation at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington and St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, will begin two years of service in our diocese on September 1: Father Collins Adwatum at St. Rosalie in Hampton Bays, and Father Daniel Opokuh Mensah at St. James, Setauket.
faith and new works
by Bishop William Murphy
So you are going to college!
The year I completed Boston Latin School, my aunt and her husband who lived some distance from us had her second child, a boy. I really did not know my other cousin, who was three while I was a lordly seventeen. Nor did I know anyone else there except my grandmother and my aunt and uncle. So I did not know what to say when this question was popped at me by a complete stranger. I think I mumbled that I was going to Harvard and did my best to escape to the sandwich line.
Since then as a priest and bishop, I have spent enough time with high-schoolers here and in Rome, where I was chaplain at the Marymount School, to know that arriving in college can be an awesome and an overwhelming experience that most handle well but a few find truly daunting.
With that in mind, let me play “grandfather” for a bit and offer some thoughts to all you who have graduated from high school this year and are heading off to college.
First of all, St. John Paul II was right when he told us, Do not be afraid! He meant that for us all, but I think it particularly apt for college freshmen. If you are nervous, guess what? So is most everyone else! It is new for you but also for all your classmates. Colleges today all have introductory programs. Take part and ask questions. The chance is 10 out of 10 that if you have a question, there are at least 10 percent or more of the class who have the same question. So ask it. In the five years I taught at a women’s college, I never heard an honest question that was not worth an honest answer.
Second, be yourself. I don’t mean your silly self. I don’t mean your super serious self. And I certainly do not mean any “I already have all the answers” self. Ask your parents before you go what they think are your most positive characteristics and what they think makes you the person they so love. They probably have a better insight into who you are than anyone else, and they certainly have your best interest at heart.
Third, play to your strengths. You have already accomplished much in your high school years. Don’t hesitate to pursue further those very interests and activities that gave you the most satisfaction in high school. It could be sports or drama or music or art or any of all those things you have had in today’s high school that we never had in that ancient time when I was your age.
Fourth, don’t limit yourself to your strengths. Test yourself by being open to new challenges, so long as they are wholesome and good. I remember as a freshman being cajoled into a few of the “attractions” of Harvard Square. One of my best friends from home who was a junior helped me see that not everything that is new or different is to be tried.
Fifth, keep up contacts with your old friends and of course your family and all those who love you and whom you love. They want the best for you but that best does not include walking out of their lives or your turning away from them. At the same time, life means an ever greater circle of opportunities, many of which will gain you new friends and open up new possibilities for your life.
Sixth, keep a balance in your life. One of my brothers spent a whole semester in an endless tournament of Bridge (I bet you never heard of it!) and it showed in his marks that semester. You are there to learn. You are there to grow. You are there to pick up whatever tools — academic, social, sporting, creativity etc. — that will help you become the person you hope to be. So keep a balance, even as you use your time to explore options for the future.
Seventh, take time to relax and enjoy yourself. Good company makes good friends. Study and relaxation go together. A mix of old and new, easy and challenging should give you a sense of satisfaction that is expressed by being joyful, finding joy and sharing joy.
And don’t ever forget that wherever you go, God goes with you. He does not abandon you. Don’t you abandon Him. Sunday Mass is the way we show our respect for God. What better way to keep your life full, free and joyful than by celebrating the Eucharist every Sunday! If you are at a Catholic college get involved in the worship and the intellectual and the social service opportunities that strengthen your faith and give you the tools to witness your Christian life to others. If you are at a secular college or one of another faith, get involved with the Newman Club or its equivalent. We had a terrific Catholic Club at Harvard. I joined it as soon as I got there. Mass was available in Harvard Square every day. We had a fascinating chaplain who was convinced I could never possibly have a vocation to be a priest. Now this priest asks you to grow greater still, keep the faith, pray for your family and for me and make us all proud of you with all God has called you to be.