Caught by the Hound of Heaven
March 10, 2010
By Father James Fenstermaker, C.S.C. '77
I experienced my initial interest in the priesthood in a most unusual setting: at a sports camp I attended a few weeks before my junior year of high school.
The sports camp was primarily meant to prepare the cross-country team at Holy Cross High School in Queens, N.Y., for the fall season. Run by the three Holy Cross Brothers who were our coaches, it was held at the Brothers' spiritual life center in upstate New York. A diocesan priest at a parish near the high school joined us as chaplain for the sports camp, and awakened in me an excitement for religion and worship that I previously had not experienced.
I discovered my call to religious life through the wonderful witness of the Holy Cross Brothers at my high school, and my call to priesthood through a young diocesan priest who showed me the joy of the priestly ministry of word and sacrament.
I attended Stonehill College after high school graduation. After three years in the Holy Cross formation program at Stonehill, I completed my senior year and graduated with a major in psychology and a minor in religious studies. For the next two years I taught religious studies at Cardinal Spellman High School in Brockton while doing graduate studies in theology at Boston College.
During my years of teaching, the call to religious life and priesthood returned and grew ever stronger, to the point where I could no longer escape the "Hound of Heaven." I re-entered the Congregation of Holy Cross, and after completing my novitiate year in upstate New York, I attended the University of Notre Dame where I earned my master of divinity degree. I professed final vows in the Congregation of Holy Cross at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame in the fall of 1983. I was ordained to the priesthood the following June at Holy Cross Parish in South Easton, where I returned 24 years later as a pastor.
When I served as vocation director for the Holy Cross priests and Brothers several years ago, one of the most common questions asked when I visited high schools was, "Are you happy being a priest?"
My answer was invariably, "Yes, I am very happy being a priest, and always have been." I would add "I would not have become a priest if I didn't think it would make me happy. I didn't become a priest to make God happy-God doesn't need me to make him happy-but to make myself happy."
Although I enjoyed being single and teaching high school, and believed I could be happy being married and having a family, I came to believe that I would be happiest being a priest and a religious.
Many laypeople will speak of the sacrifices that one makes in becoming a priest, and while there is truth to that statement, it is also true of all who make the decision to marry and have a family. I often see my life as a rather easy and almost carefree one compared to the challenges and sacrifices made by husbands and wives on behalf of their spouses and by parents for the sake of their children.
And while I gave up the possibility of marriage and children, I have had the privilege as a priest of entering into the lives of many families and individuals in a way that few others ever have the opportunity to do. The love and support of so many people, as well as my own religious family of Holy Cross Sisters, Brothers, and priests, has more than sustained and satisfied me in my 25 years as a priest.
I have found the life of a priest to be one of great freedom. While my religious vow of obedience, like a diocesan priest's promise of obedience to his bishop, puts me at the disposal of the Church to serve as needed, my religious life in Holy Cross has afforded me the opportunity to serve in various locations to diverse segments of God's people: Mexican-Americans in South Bend, Indiana; middle class whites in Saco, Maine; African-Americans and Latinos in Brooklyn, N.Y.; college students at Stonehill; and now the wonderful people of Easton at Holy Cross Parish.
""If I'm never tied to anything, I'll never be free" is my favorite line from the musical "Pippin." In tying myself to religious life and priesthood, I have found great freedom to live my life to its fullest, in union with Jesus Christ and in service of God's people.
I can't think of a better way to spend one's life.
Twenty-five years of priesthood have passed quickly, a testament to the richness of the Catholic priesthood and the great satisfaction one can find in this life and ministry.
Father Fenstermaker, C.S.C. '77, ordained a priest of the Congregation of the Holy Cross in 1984, is pastor of Holy Cross Parish in South Easton.
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