Hopes, tradition and celibacy all came up for discussion as three young priests took part in a question and answer session as part of St. Leo the Great Parish's Speaker Series.
"Let's Talk About ... Hope for the Future: The Voice of Young Priests" welcomed Father Paul Cygan, Father Peter Santandreu and Rev. Mr. Denning Achidi, a transitional deacon, to the Amherst parish to discuss the Catholic Church from the viewpoint of the recently and soon-to-be ordained.
Msgr. Robert E. Zapfel, pastor of St. Leo's, welcomed the crowd with the words of St. Paul: "We know that affliction makes for endurance, endurance for tested virtue, tested virtue for hope."
Father Cygan, parochial vicar of St. Gregory the Great Parish in Williamsville, opened the panel discussion with a description of St. John Bosco's dream. The patron of youth in Italy had a vision of the Church as a ship in a stormy sea, with the pope at the time as captain. What kept the ship from capsizing was the fact that it was anchored to the Eucharist and Blessed Mother, Virgin Mary.
"These are the two pillars that brought me to the priesthood," he said.
Looking at today's choppy seas rocking our ship, we need to make sure our vision is upon the sacraments, upon the Eucharist, and upon the Blessed Virgin Mary, he explained. "My vision for hope in the Church always has to start from there. Are we spending time with prayer? Are we spending time going in an adoration chapel, making sure we are devoted to the sacraments, the Eucharist, the Blessed Virgin Mary? That's where I see our hope."
Father Cygan added that, one year in, the priesthood has been the best part of his life, and that he learns something every day. "I really sense the support of the people of God, the Church as we're moving together in this ship of ours," he said.
Father Santandreu, parochial vicar of St. Amelia Parish in Tonawanda, said the future is grounded in what we believe now.
"If we truly have that faith in the Holy Spirit all things are possible. All things can happen the way they are supposed to be," he said.
As a missionary in Argentina with a group called Heart's Home, he found young people who wanted to serve the Lord in community.
"It is that unity that I think we are all striving for as Christians in this world. That unity is what we're going to see more and more of as our Church continues to change. That is the big thing that I see now, just that element of change. It's not going to be like it was," he said.
He feels it's a personal challenge to be that beacon of light we are all called to be. "A real true saint will attract other people to the Church by his or her holiness," he said. "It can come from anywhere. It does not need to be this young person who is the future. We can be those people. I think we need to journey into that a little more. We are all called to be a little bit better."
We achieve that by asking, "Is God really the most important thing about me? Where am I taking my faith?" He admitted that it is a challenge.
Deacon Achidi, who is expected to be ordained next spring, was raised Presbyterian, but has wanted to become a priest since age 12, when he was received into the Catholic Church. He spoke of hope.
"Hope, as a theological virtue, is God's gift," he said. "We are challenged to see hope where we see little or no practical reasons for it. Our cooperation with the gift of hope leads to perfect happiness."
The audience was a little shy with questions, so Msgr. Zapfel kicked things off by asking Father Cygan what brings him the greatest joy.
"First and foremost, the greatest joy is just being able to lift up the Eucharist during the consecration," Father Cygan said. "I make sure I hold up the Eucharist for a while so that I can pray, so that the people in the church can pray."
Father Santandreu was asked what surprised him the most about the clerical life.
"I suppose it's how nice everybody is. People love their priests," he replied.
Msgr. Zapfel asked the men if they are properly prepared for celibate life, which led to a discussion of the necessity for priests to be wholly devoted to the Church instead of having a wife. Interestingly, bishops from the Amazon have asked the Vatican to allow priests to marry as a way to deal with a clerical shortage.
Father Cygan looked to his seminary education for an answer. "The Church has in its tradition and its teaching has brought forth such a beautiful theology in celibacy and the meaning of that priest deacons in their celibate life are supposed to be signs of the kingdom to come," he said. "So, there's that theological understanding, sure. That's the goal to strive for. Is it lived up to perfectly? Certainly not, because very priest is human. However, I think within my own life, I'm trying to live up to that call, and it's something that I am acutely aware of in the seminary has been taught so well."
After the talk, Msgr. Zapfel gave his opinion of the night, the third in a series of talks the Amherst parish has been holding over the past year.
"The questions were about the state of the Church and the answers were very personal. I was happy about that," he said. "They talked about their personal selves, their feelings, their commitment to the Lord and to the Church. What came through was their deep love for both."