Surprises aplenty over 45 years

By Father Joseph Breighner

“Is this Father Joe?” a woman’s voice asked over the phone. “Yes”, I replied. “Oh good. I’m looking for a big, strong man to take out my garbage.”

I actually received that phone call at the Shrine of the Little Flower in Baltimore back in the summer of 1971, a few short months after I was ordained a priest. My family, of course, quickly reminded me that, as a kid, I always wanted to be a garbage man. As a child, I thought they got to keep all the neat junk – old tires and bikes and mysterious stuff. It was the stuff of a child’s fantasy. Little did I know that God had arranged for me to fulfill both dreams.

This May it will be 45 years since my ordination to the priesthood. I was privileged to be among an amazing group of men. Surely a Hall of Fame would be honored to include such wonderful priests as Father Joe Bochenek, Father Larry Frazier, Father Mike Roach and Monsignor Tom Phillips. These are my ordination classmates still living.

A Heavenly Hall of Fame houses my deceased classmates: Father Chris Carney, Father John Delclos, Father Herb Derwart, Father Joe Kaiser, Father Don McMaster, Father Blair Raum and Monsignor Ed Miller. Bill Kristofco was also ordained with us, but was later laicized and got married. Today, he and Maureen are the proud parents of four children, and grandparents to 10. Judging by those numbers, if priests could marry, we would not be having an evangelization problem.

To the young men who may be thinking about the priesthood, just know that God has surprises for you. As the saying goes: We propose but God disposes! I spent 12 years in the seminary preparing to be a parish priest, but spent virtually my entire priesthood in specialized ministries.

I could never have dreamed of doing a national radio show for 35 years, aired locally on WPOC. It was also carried on Armed Forces Network. I thank Father John Geaney and Paulist Communications for that opportunity.

I recently talked to a nurse from Germany who had been present in Berlin when President Reagan gave his famous challenge to the Soviets: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” This lady married an American soldier. She said very simply: “You helped a lot of people in the military.”

Years earlier Tom Sofio of Paulist Communications said: “Joe, you’re probably preventing WWIII! The Soviets can hear your broadcast and they’re saying: ‘These Americans are pretty nice people. Let’s not blow them up today.’ ” In addition to the radio, of course, was this column in the Catholic Review. I actually was asked to write one column before I was ordained, so I can say that I’ve written for the Review for more than 45 years.

I share this because I planned none of this. This is not about ego. It’s about God. All we can do is present ourselves as Samuel did in the Old Testament: “Here I am Lord.”

A vocation is not about us telling God what we’re going to do for him. A vocation is being open to what God wants to work through us. A group of fishermen 2,000 years ago thought they would always be fishermen. God had some other thoughts.

Because of these public ministries I was invited to give retreats, parish missions, days of recollection and individual talks of various kinds. I loved all the personal contact with people, but didn’t always take very good care of myself. Strokes in my eyes almost ended my ministry, and blood clots nearly ended my life. As Shakespeare wrote: “He loved not wisely but too well.”

All I would ask of you the reader is to pray for all of us. As Alfred, Lord Tennyson said: “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”

Pray especially for those discerning their vocation in life. God has surprises for those who follow him. 

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The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.