Fr. Joshua Roldan, 29, at left, and Fr. Jim Zettel, 33, are two of eight priests in the Archdiocese of Toronto concluding their first year in the priesthood Photo at left by Emmanuel Pires, photo at right courtesy of Fr. Jim Zettel

Reflections on a year in the priesthood

  • October 5, 2014

TORONTO - A year ago Fr. Jim Zettel was ordained to the priesthood. His next goal is to become a saint or at least live a life worthy of one.

“I straight up want to be a saint and I want teenagers and young people to also be saints,” said Zettel. “Hopefully (I) am confident that I can be one of those vehicles . . . that help them become real saints and to change the world for the good, to bring Christ and His Catholic Church to every corner of the Earth.”

Zettel is one of eight priests working in the Archdiocese of Toronto who are concluding the roller coaster that is the first year in the life of a priest.

Soon after turning 32, he was ordained on June 29, 2013 to the Salesians of Don Bosco in New Rochelle, New York. His first assignment brought the Hamilton, Ont. native to St. Benedict’s Parish in Toronto to work as the Youth Ministry Effectiveness Co-ordinator.

Part of his job is to connect Salesian youth across the country, from Quebec to British Columbia. The Salesians focus on the poor and young people, work that Zettel has been doing since 2011. But he is no longer just Jim or Brother Jim. He is now “Father.”

“Every time I am called Father, even now, even after a year or so of being ordained, it sometimes just hits me between the eyes,” said Zettel.

There’s “an additional richness that comes with being a brother, friend and father,” he adds. “It’s a whole change of mentality, of really being father to young people and to bring them the mercy of Christ in the sacraments and to their ongoing spiritual walk.”

That walk has taken him to unexpected places, such as the corridors of the former Maple Leaf Gardens.

In the building where fans once congregated to cheer Toronto hockey stars, students have cornered Zettel for confession. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the regular duties of priesthood he loves most. The Gardens site was host in July 2014 to the inaugural Steubenville Toronto Conference, where God was the star and the fans were some 2,500 faithful young people.

“It’s pretty wild,” said Zettel, contemplating the “cheering and energy” in a building once famous for hockey but converted during the Steubenville Conference into an arena for faith. Priests were scattered throughout corridors and bleachers and across the arena floor to administer the Sacrament of Reconciliation, encouraging young people to start fresh. “Strange, but beautiful.”

Zettel also refers to his first Chrism Mass as beautiful. If he weren’t a priest, he would not have had the privilege of attending this Mass on Holy Thursday at St. Michael’s Cathedral, where Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, celebrates Mass for the priests of the archdiocese and blesses the chrism oil used in parishes through the year.

The “whole idea is the bishop gathers around his clergy as Christ gathered around his 12 apostles at the Last Supper. It’s the Mass that celebrates the priesthood as such,” said Zettel. “It was really humbling.”

In May, Zettel had the honour of being the celebrant at his younger sister’s wedding. Two years ago, still a deacon, he was the celebrant at his brother’s wedding, a union that this year produced Zettel’s first nephew.

But the life of a priest comes with challenges, one of the biggest being the challenge to “always be on . . . to always be available for the needs of people,” said Zettel. “My own comfort or sleep or even just regular hours need to take a back seat to the life of the Master. It’s a challenge, but it’s a beautiful challenge too.”

Still, what Zettel loves about the “big picture” of being a priest is “acting in the person of Christ.”

“Many people come and open their whole heart to me just because I’m a priest,” he said. “Men and women may not know me from anywhere else in the world, know that I’m a priest and that alone is enough to open up all their woundedness for healing.”

Yet he has a fear of failure.

“I personally have that fear of recognizing the great standard to which I am called, the fear of not being able to meet the expectations of so many good people that put so much of their trust in myself as a priest. I know I’m going to fail in so many ways. That fear of failure, that fear of saying the wrong thing, that fear of not dealing with a situation or difficulty in the way the person needs to hear,” said Zettel. And so he draws on his Salesian community of brothers and priests with whom he lives for guidance.

Unlike Zettel, Fr. Joshua Roldan does not belong to a religious order but instead serves as a diocesan priest. At age 29, he is the youngest priest in the archdiocese, a state he calls intimidating at times as he meets older priests he has admired for so long. Yet, he feels a sense of belonging.

“That’s the best thing about it. Many priests in the archdiocese, even if they are older, have welcomed me as part of their brotherhood. And that’s a great feeling to have,” he said. “I look to them as my models as what it is to be a holy priest.”

His youthful appearance does surprise parishioners. Roldan thinks they’re shocked that someone so young-looking can devote his life to God, but their surprise passes when they see his genuine devotion and they are thankful that someone, no matter his age, can make that step in life.

Roldan, who once aspired to becoming a teacher, was the sole priest ordained on May 11, 2013, at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto. He serves as associate pastor of St. Francis Xavier parish in Mississauga, Ont.

He credits the parish pastor, Msgr. Edgardo Pan, with guiding him on celebrating Mass faithfully, hearing confessions and serving the people of God.

“Just learn to be faithful to the Lord,” said Roldan paraphrasing his mentor, “and that’s what I’ve been doing my first year.”

He calls this past year humbling.

“I get to be a part of people’s lives, whether that be at the most joyous times, when you’re doing a baptism for a child or marrying (a couple) . . . you get to be a part of that. At the same time, you can be a part of their sorrows, preparing someone for death, helping someone grieve,” said Roldan. “One day in a priesthood can end up being someone’s whole life. One minute you’re hearing about the birth of a child. Next minute you’re hearing about a death. It’s really humbling that people turn to you and look to you for guidance and look to you as a foundation of prayer, to turn to the Lord for them on their behalf.”

For Roldan, the challenge is to focus on faithfulness as opposed to success.

“I just need to remember to remain faithful to the promises that I made to serve Him and his people,” he said

He cites Msgr. Ken Robitaille’s advice on priesthood: “Love God and love your people, and then that will be more than enough to serve Jesus Christ.”

Another challenge, is trying not to get too caught up in the busyness of priestly life.

“The diocesan priest has to be the Jack of all trades, master of none . . . Sometimes you got to be the plumber, sometimes you got to be the electrician, sometimes you got to be funeral director, sometimes you have to be the priest doing the baptism,” he said. “Sometimes we get caught up in our duties a lot and we forget that we too need to pray, we too need sacraments, we too need to go to confession, to Adoration, and as long as we do that faithfully, I think we’ll be good priests, good and holy priests.” 

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