Every seminarian has a unique story about their call to priesthood. Every religious sister or member of an order has a particular tale about what inspired her or his vocation.
I, too, have had certain experiences, certain moments of prayer, and certain affirmations that have confirmed me in this journey toward the altar. But if I had to reflect on the beginnings of that vocation story, and the solid foundation on which it is built, I would have to include my family.
Both my immediate and extended family have had a very profound experience on my vocation story. But there is another family that also serves to ground a vocation - the family of the parish community. Through these two communities, these gatherings of people united in love, God's call to the individual is amplified. Both my own family and the parish families in which I have served have helped me to hear God's call, listen continuously, and respond with a courageous "yes."
My own vocation story begins with my nuclear family. Growing up in South Buffalo at St. Teresa Parish on Seneca Street, my mom and dad, sister, two brothers and I were well grounded in the Catholic faith. My brothers and I were altar servers; my sister a lector, and my dad an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.
We attended religious education every week without fail and were solidly grounded in the life of St. Teresa's. My brothers and I all attended Bishop Timon-St. Jude High School, and my sister went to Mount Mercy Academy. All of these elements helped to ground my family not only in a strong Catholic culture, but also in a framework of building our lives around God.
The Church calls the family and the home the "domestic church" because parents are called on to be the primary teachers of the Catholic faith to their children. This was absolutely the case with my mother and father. I first learned how to pray from them. My dad gave me a Knights of Columbus rosary and my mom taught me how to have a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
My siblings and I learned about the Church year at home, where we lit the candles of the Advent wreathe every night at dinner. We got our throats blessed on the feast of St. Blaise and collected palms to place behind pictures and crucifixes on Palm Sunday. It was within my family I learned about how faith in Jesus Christ strengthened us in difficult times such as when my grandparents died.
My family was the first to recognize a possible vocation to the priesthood in me. They were the ones to encourage me to think, pray, and reflect on the possibility of saying "yes" to God by serving Him and serving His people in ordained ministry. It is within this domestic church that I continue to witness virtues in my family members that encourage me to go forward.
Even though I am no longer a child, I continue to learn how to say "yes" to the priesthood from the members of my family. All my siblings are married and all of them have lovingly accepted children from God. From them, I have seen faithfulness, love and commitment in the promises they made to their spouses on their wedding day.
I will have to make promises someday, in the presence of the bishop. Although the promises I will make are not the same they made, I will also promise to be faithful, loving and committed to serving as a priest for the rest of my life.
Just like my siblings, my mom and dad have demonstrated these virtues in their own lives, but also a sense of duty in providing a home for our family for many years. My parents worked very hard for many years, and continue to do so, reminding me of the sacrifices one has to make for those they love.
As a parish priest, I, too, will be called to make sacrifices in order to serve my parishioners. I will be called to remember my duty and to give of myself for them and their families. In many ways, my parents, siblings and in-laws have provided me with the best models of diocesan priesthood, especially by modeling faithfulness, love, commitment, duty and sacrifice.
I have been blessed many times over to have a member of my own family as an example of priesthood. My uncle, Msgr. William J. Gallagher, has served the Diocese of Buffalo for many years. He has built up and supported the parish families of St. Mary of the Angels in Olean, St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown Buffalo, and St. John Vianney in Orchard Park, just to name a few. My uncle is a priest who has burned with an intense love of the people committed to his care, and continues to do so even in retirement.
He has experienced challenges over the years, but his family and parish families have given him strength and support to continually say "yes" to the priesthood. He has often remarked how, given the chance to do things differently, he would choose the priesthood again and again.
The parishes I have had the honor to serve in, and the pastors I have learned from have shown me what it means to be part of the parish family. In Dunkirk, Father Dennis Riter and Father Walter Werbicki have worked to make different groups of parishioner's part of the family of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish. The lay people there have demonstrated again and again that all people are welcomed into that family, no matter where they come from or what language they speak.
In North Tonawanda at Our Lady of Czestochowa, Father Gary Szczepankiewicz showed me how important it is to recognize the gifts and talents of the lay faithful, and to build a collaborative family of love centered on Jesus Christ. In Niagara Falls, Father Jacek Mazur demonstrated how to be a spiritual father to the families of St. Mary of the Cataract and Divine Mercy parishes. His ministry, supported by countless laymen and women, is about loving all those in the parish community, especially the difficult and challenging ones.
Just like my parents, siblings and in-laws, the people of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Our Lady of Czestochowa, St. Mary of the Cataract and Divine Mercy parishes have also demonstrated to me how to be a priest. They have welcomed me into their homes and allowed me the chance to share their joys, struggles, moments of happiness and moments of doubt.
These faithful men and women have encouraged me on my journey toward priesthood. They have affirmed me, challenged me, and bolstered me to always remember what the priesthood is: to love the Lord my God with all my heart, and to love my brothers and sisters as myself. I know I have only made it this far through the seminary and along this road because of their prayers and petitions on my behalf. They are indeed a family that has walked with me and supported me through the ups and downs of priestly formation.
There are so many different factors that go into a person's vocation story. For myself, there are many aspects that have helped me to hear the voice of God in my own life. But one of the most important factors has been and continues to be my family. My immediate family, my parents, siblings, in-laws, aunts, uncles and cousins, and the parish families that I have been apart of, have provided a way for me to hear God's call and respond with courage.
The family has amplified that call, if you will. For them and for their continual witness, I will be forever grateful. I thank God for the gift of my vocation to the priesthood and I thank Him even more for the gift of my family and all those families who have allowed me in. May vocations to the priesthood, the religious life, the diaconate, and lay ecclesial ministry always be grounded in the family.
Our Lady, queen of families, pray for us.