ORLANDO | “Wow! Blessed! Grace!” Those are the adjectives Father Tom Pringle, parochial vicar of Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Indialantic uses to describe his first year as a priest. Ordained with Father Adam Marchese, parochial vicar at St. Margaret Mary Parish, Winter Park, the two men concelebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving July 23. They share the highs and lows of their first year of priesthood during a pandemic.
In the spring of 2020, when Fathers Pringle and Marchese were to be ordained, COVID-19 rampaged the world. These seminarians were dubbed “the COVID class”. Scheduled for late May, ordination moved to July 25, just as churches were re-opening. Father Pringle recalls, “trying to navigate the waters was not the normal thing.” Keeping up with the restrictions of masks and social distancing changed the landscape, making the path forward nebulous. “The hardest part was preaching and not being able to see people’s facial expressions. I didn’t know if people were laughing, smiling, not paying attention. It was a whole different reality – encountering people in the midst of the pandemic,” he said. A priest’s normally hectic pace simmered, then boomeranged as parishes re-opened, ministries resumed, and the onslaught of the pandemic’s lingering effects began to surface. Many adults and more youth than expected, came forth with mental health issues. He tried, “to bring Jesus to them in those struggles.”
Despite the added difficulties of an already challenging vocation, both priests were overwhelmed by the wave of affection and welcome they received. Father Marchese called it “surprising”. “In this COVID world we live in, no one could have predicted this year,” he said. Before COVID priests would tell him, “Everything you have in your mind about the priesthood, it’s a thousand times better than that.” He noted, “The way the laity, the people of God receive the priests, look to the priest for that spiritual support in ways I never understood. This being the year of St. Joseph – I am very much seeing how the people of God are desiring that father figure.” He says he can feel it as soon as he walks into a room. “What surprised me is the extent to which that exists.” Father Pringle acknowledges this heightened joy could be because, “People were disconnected from the priests and the Sacraments. Getting back to Mass and adding the joy of a newly ordained priest, I think amplified the people’s thanks and gratitude for having us as their shepherds.”
“Being able to encounter the people… as Pope Francis would say, ‘to smell like the sheep’, to be among the people brings joy to my heart,” Father Marchese said. “When I step aside and let Christ do the work, that’s when things happen.” Among the highs of the year were, “Being able to see that sacramental grace at work.” He notes journeying with couples preparing for marriage is “always interesting”. “At first there is a sense of jumping through all of these hoops. By the end they say, ‘I don’t know how couples can survive marriage without the formation we just went through.’”
In the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, he has seen Christ transform lives. As families are saying goodbye to loved ones, he puts oil on the forehead of their loved one and prays. “On a deeper, sacramental level so much more has happened. The change, the peace on (family members’) faces; tears of gratitude, joy and sorrow. They are about to lose a loved one which is not an easy thing, but the tears now are different. You can see a smile through the tears. That’s sacramental grace at work. I couldn’t do that by myself.”
Father Pringle agrees. “I, myself am in need of mercy. I, myself am a flawed instrument. I am broken and still in need of God’s mercy and love. The grace of the Sacrament of Holy Orders is that the Lord uses insufficient instruments to bring about healing and His presence in the world. Even when I as a priest don’t feel worthy of the gift, the Lord is still allowing the gift to be made present; is still allowing the Sacraments to be affected… Being able to recognize that it’s not about me; it’s about the Lord and He’s going to work through me because He can.”
Father Pringle says he is in awe at “the immensity of the gift of the priesthood.” “Every time I celebrate Mass I still think, Lord, who am I to be able to do this?” he said. About the confessional he says, “it challenges the heck out of me… to be a better Christian, a better priest, a better father. Hearing the faith of the people, I often think this could be my confession… that’s the greatest blessing.” He is grateful “to see the chains break in people’s lives. You can see it in their eyes. A huge burden has been lifted and something happens – something changes. It brings such a levity to their spirit that they are totally different when they leave.” He notes, “It has made me fall ever more deeply in love with the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It’s challenged me to be more intentional about when I go to confession.”
Both men say they witnessed miracles time and again— a young woman healed of migraines during the celebration of Mass; a fiancée healed of a tumor after receiving the Anointing of the Sick. And when the stories are not as uplifting and the weight of their flock’s burdens and their own humanity ladens them, they find sustenance through their families, a parishioner’s confidence and prayers, and brother priests with whom they meet monthly.
Finding balance is the greatest struggle for both priests. “I wish there were 20 of me,” says Father Marchese only half-jokingly. “Seeing how great the needs are and only being able to do so much.” He compares it to being a parent to more than 3,500 kids (the amount of families at St. Margaret Mary) “and wanting to be attentive to every single one of them, but you literally don’t have the time in the day.”
Father Pringle explains, “Balancing ministry with prayer life with personal time with self-care and even prioritizing which ministry events to attend and which not to do” are difficult for a self-described “people-pleaser”. Add to that “walking with people through deep hurts and traumatic experience, the uncertainties of life.” Recognizing his own limitations and allowing God’s grace to be “sufficient” gives him strength.
God is in it all. “I have never been more fulfilled in my life,” Father Pringle said. “For me that speaks to recognizing this is what the Lord intended for me from the day I was born… Walking through priesthood in all of its forms has all pointed me to that reality.” Father Marchese affirmed the experience in his Thanksgiving Mass homily. “The more I pour myself out for the body… more love comes right back. It multiplies. It amplifies.” He added, “I love being a priest.”
By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic, July 28, 2021