July 14, 2017

‘An experience of blessings’: Humanity, humility and even humor mark lives of six men in their first year as priests

Fathers Anthony Hollowell, left, James Brockmeier, Kyle Rodden, Douglas Hunter, Matthew Tucci and Nicholas Ajpacaja Tzoc kneel together during the Mass when they were ordained into the priesthood in the archdiocese on June 25, 2016. Their first year as priests have led to memorable moments in their ministry. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Fathers Anthony Hollowell, left, James Brockmeier, Kyle Rodden, Douglas Hunter, Matthew Tucci and Nicholas Ajpacaja Tzoc kneel together during the Mass when they were ordained into the priesthood in the archdiocese on June 25, 2016. Their first year as priests have led to memorable moments in their ministry. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The emergency phone call came late at night, during his first weekend of his first year as a parish priest in the archdiocese.

For the briefest of moments, an already exhausted and overwhelmed Father Matthew Tucci debated whether to pick up the ringing phone.

“I was tired,” recalls Father Tucci, associate pastor of St. Christopher Parish in Indianapolis. “But then I realized it was probably an emergency call. ‘Here we go,’ I thought.”

The call was from a family requesting the anointing of the sick for their father. It would be the first time that Father Tucci would administer that sacrament as a priest.

“I was frantic after the call,” says Father Tucci, who is also the chaplain coordinator of Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis. “I grabbed all of my things, scrambled into my car and took off down to a nursing home on the south side. I missed the nursing home and drove to two different ones.”

Finding the right nursing home on the third try, Father Tucci soon became immersed in a scene in which God’s grace touched the family—a grace that the new priest also experienced.

“I arrived embarrassed, but then realized that the people who called me didn’t care. They were just happy to see that their father could meet Christ on his cross that night. I witnessed an outpouring of grace not only on the man being anointed, but his sons, too. They felt Christ’s love and touch as well through the anointing of their father. It was beautiful to see. That was my most impactful experience.”

Father Tucci is one of six men who were ordained to the priesthood in the archdiocese on June 25, 2016. As they marked the completion of their first year as priests, they were asked by The Criterion to share their defining moments and impressions from that pivotal year.

The stories they tell are touched with humanity, humility and even humor—three qualities that were evident in a defining moment during Father Kyle Rodden’s first year as a priest.

‘Whoops!’

“My first week at the parish included many firsts for me,” says Father Rodden, associate pastor of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis. “For the first time in Spanish, I heard confessions, celebrated Mass, celebrated baptisms, celebrated a wedding Mass and celebrated a quinceañera Mass [a traditional celebration of life and thanksgiving to God on the 15th birthday of a Hispanic young woman]—and that was all within a couple of days.

“I would not consider myself ‘fluent’ in Spanish, [but] by the time I was celebrating the wedding, I was beginning to feel comfortable with the rhythm of ministry in a language not my own.”

That’s when the moment of humanity, humility and humor occurred.

“The Mass was proceeding smoothly until—after the prayer of the faithful, and as the music began for the presentation of the gifts—I realized I had yet to assist the couple with the marriage rite. Whoops! I apologized for my mistake, invited the couple to stand, asked them the appropriate questions, invited them to exchange their vows, and they were married.

“I have learned, especially since that moment—and I am reminded all the time—of how much I depend on the mercy of the people of God for priestly ministry.”

For Father James Brockmeier, his first year as a priest has been marked by many pastoral moments that have called him “to shape my heart to be more like Christ’s,” including a memorable moment with a child during a funeral.

The consoling presence of Christ

“There was a little boy who was very anxious and sad,” recalls Father Brockmeier, who served his first year as a priest as associate pastor of SS. Francis and Clare of Assisi Parish in Greenwood and chaplain coordinator of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, and is now associate pastor of St. Bartholomew Parish in Columbus.

“He was afraid of everything about the church, he was sad that his grandfather had died, and he was going back and forth between tears and tantrums. Before the Mass, he was hiding behind his parents as I spoke with them. And when they introduced him to me, I seemed to be the walking embodiment of everything he was not happy with that day.”

What happened later stunned the young priest.

“As I processed out of the funeral and arrived in the narthex, the little boy—who was still clinging to his father—all of a sudden calmed down, ran over to me and surprised me with a hug. From that moment, he was calm. I had a palpable sense that the consoling presence of Christ’s priesthood was working through me in that moment.”

Father Anthony Hollowell also felt Christ’s consoling presence during a defining moment when he confessed his sins to his friend and classmate, Father Tucci.

Journeys of the heart and soul

“The dynamic of sin that I began to feel most strongly after being ordained were sins of omissions, the times when I missed a moment of grace that God wanted to bring into someone’s life,” says Father Hollowell, who continued to pursue graduate studies in Rome during his first year as a priest, and is now associate pastor of Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood.

“Those sins of omission are particularly painful, because they are the times when I fail to live out my primary identity, which is to be a father to God’s children.

“I was able to go to confession with Father Matt one day when these sins of omission were abundant. He was so insightful, so piercing and so merciful that my soul was deeply touched by God in that moment. It reminded me of the clay of which I am made and the mercy of God which is the cornerstone of my own vocation.”

Father Douglas Hunter’s defining experience didn’t come in one specific situation. Instead, it was partly revealed in the 18,000 miles he added to his car’s odometer as he pursued his first-year duties as associate pastor of St. Pius X Parish and chaplain coordinator of Bishop Chatard High School, both in Indianapolis.

His travels led him on constant trips to the high school, the grade school, the parish and hospitals where he made numerous visits. He also traveled with St. Pius’ eighth-grade class to Washington, made frequent trips to visit at Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis, and joined the youth group of the North Deanery for a trip to King’s Island amusement park in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“It has been a wonderful experience,” says Father Hunter, now associate pastor of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg. “I’ve learned a lot, but there’s so much more to learn. What I’ve mostly learned is the importance of being present to the people in the parish in the good times and the bad.”

‘An experience of blessings’

Father Nicolas Ajpacaja Tzoc shares two stories that show the range of experiences that have marked his memorable first year as a priest in the archdiocese.

“I got a call from the police chaplain at 11 in the morning one Sunday,” says Father Tzoc, who served his first year as a priest as associate pastor of St. Simon the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis.

“A Hispanic family needed help because they had just lost their son in an accident the night before. I spent four hours with the family. I was able to translate for them and minister to them in that difficult time. We prayed together, and in the midst of their crisis, something took place to give them hope and comfort. It was an experience of blessing.”

So was the joy-filled moment that came when he baptized a baby.

“The baby was crying and screaming as his mom was holding him,” says Father Tzoc, who is now associate pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis. “She gave him to me. I held him for five minutes, and he was smiling and at peace for the whole time. That was a very powerful experience.”

He uses that same description to describe his first year as a priest.

“It’s been an experience of joy, of blessings. I’ve witnessed how people live their faith, and I’ve seen how they face their different challenges in life. I’m enlightened by their faith, and how it’s the source of their life. To encounter that gives me a lot of life.” †


Related: Priests’ first-year experiences provide guide to a life of faith

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