For the purpose of this, I tried to think of things that I wouldn’t typically find elsewhere. I could write a whole article about how important it is to celebrate the Mass with reverence, so that older casual Catholics can see your sincere devotion as a witness to the love of Christ. I am assuming that you have had decent spiritual direction to help you keep Christ as your focus, and what that entails. So my focus wavers between Spiritual, and practical.
I also desired to be as complete as possible, realizing that listed pieces of advice may be less critical. Since I wanted to dig up as many things as I could that nobody told me, I hope my readers will find some surprises.
- Love the Church: During my first few years of campus ministry at an all boys school, the image of the Church as the Bride of Christ wasn’t very helpful. However, what can I say about love? To some extent, as a young priest, you should be very concerned with befriending others, showing them the charity of Christ, to your best ability. You will have lay Catholic leaders in your parish who have been doing their best to follow Christ since before you were born. They will be happy to welcome you, but you are also a shepherd, and you must show them hospitality. If being with adolescents has taught me anything, unless you can prove to them that you care, they will not care about anything you say. Love the Church, before you speak to them.
- The honeymoon: I was told that the people of God would be so happy to have a new priest, that they tolerate countless small human mistakes. However, in my case in a school, as for a teacher, adolescents magnify their new teacher’s imperfections. Sometimes parishioners do thoughtful things, often boys mean well but the best of them aren’t too thoughtful. When I say masses at parishes, the people can’t get enough of me, and seemed to think that they own me. It was often a ridiculous contrast. Priests and other leaders might refer to the honeymoon, but that isn’t why you became a priest. As someone who didn’t necessarily experience it, despite what people tell you, the honeymoon might be disappointing.
- Get into a classroom: It is unlikely that you will be assigned as a teacher as a new priest. Being in a classroom enhances your ability to notice how quickly people lose interest in you when you are talking. Being in a classroom, helps you give more structured engaging presentations, and eventually to the point homilies. If there is a parish school, approach the 7th & 8th grade teachers, and offer to engage their students 2 or 3 times in the Fall Semester. I have seen way too many priests that turn their congregation into a classroom. They should quit doing that, and instead go into a classroom.
- Change Nothing, Change Everything! 15 years ago there was a stereotype of the “Young Conservative Seminarian” wanting to “rescue” the Church from V II. Hence, I received generic advice: “Please do not steamroll through a Church community.” Steamrolling meant being insensitive about making changes. Erring on the side of caution to the status quo. On the contrary, my experience on a high school campus lead me to believe that they expected me to make quick and decisive changes. The church-going faithful are interested in a fresh take on things, certainly more than I was told, even if they will take some time to get behind those changes.
- Say No, Say Yes. The tendency of a young man to put himself at the service of the Church, desires to do more rather than less. I was often warned to not over commit. Ironically, some people received the impression that I was not a generous person. Sometimes you have to find ways to say no, leaving open a possible yes in the future. Sometimes, people will accept a yes (Father, I get it, you’re busy), and others who need more of an explanation. If you are cautious, take the risk and immerse yourself, if you are a workoholic, learn to set boundaries.
- Your Boss and Colleagues are not your Spiritual Director or Formation Staff. I found that my formation directors wanted me to be acutely self-aware, candid about weaknesses and shortcomings, and emotionally vulnerable. Your Superiors, Boss, and often colleagues have no interest in your own human and spiritual growth. If you made a rookie mistake in a ministry scenario, and meet your Formator to discuss openly, you are doing well. If you make a rookie mistake as a priest, your boss (Pastor) is interested in a positive report. If your mistake is noticeable, he probably needs a report on your plan of action to overcome that in the future. This is a very necessary professional boundary that you need.
- Pick your battles: When entering a new professional community, one has to pick their battles. Anyplace you work, in and outside of the church, will be fraught with disagreements. Picking your battles is a caution of making too many enemies. Be prudent when you must stand your ground, however, as a newcomer you will need to be ready to concede on many things. When you can work with others, people will be more interested in hearing you out when you do not want to compromise on something. Be sure to not allow yourself to be taken advantage of, and avoid making a case to get out of responsibilities.
- Reach out to the local Catholic High School: If there is a Catholic High School within 10 to 15 miles of your parish, call them up, let them know you are just ordained, and would like to be scheduled for one Mass during the year. You will find a campus minister, who repeatedly receives declines from local priests. If you want to do extra, meet the campus minister in advance for a quick tour of the school. Boys schools seem to have no difficulty with Mass, however, many girls schools, and sometimes co-ed schools, cancel Masses because of a lack of priests.
- Stay connected to Priests: Priests talk a lot about their day off to each other. It is rare that they actually go and do fun things with other priests on their days off. During your first assignment, a family of parishioners will probably adopt you and become a very healthy support system. However, if you quickly play favorites, you will alienate members of the community. In your first year, it would be more prudent to keep connected to other priests, and nearby family or longtime friends.
- Your Pastor / Boss might also be nervous around you. He might be 30-40 years older than you. You might be the only 20-30 something that he talks to on a regular basis. He won’t want to be your best buddy, he may have had difficult working relations with other associates in the past. Yes, your role is to defer to him. He may imagine you to be judging him. Tell him some jokes and funny stories. Let him ramble about things that he thinks are important. You will learn a thing or two if you let him ramble. Humility is key. How many years did Jesus spend with Joseph, or with rabbis without causing a stir?
- Volunteering for middle aged adults vs. young adults: I find that older generations of Catholics relied on a few people to do all the things. Young Adults are over extended, and over committed. If you expect the same reliability you will set yourself up for disappointment. I believe, for young adults, instead of expecting a few of them to do all the things, expect a lot of adults to do a few of the things each. Young Adults want involvement, but if they are expected to give every morning of their weekend (their free time), especially holidays, they will be resentful.
- Awkward adults: Although people will be incredibly happy that you gave yourself to the Church, there will be Church-going Catholics and unchurched peers alike who will feel awkward around you. You will meet these people through friends. You will meet these people at the Parish School or at Funerals. You are a living contradiction to everything they know about life. I have been told repeatedly by middle aged Catholic women that I am too young to be a priest. Although comfortable with a white haired old priest, they have a hard time accepting a young man who gives up marriage or sex. They can never conceive how anybody would be happy if they weren’t married. Celibate Chastity, living like the angels, according to Jesus, won’t make sense to some.
Twelve rounds up too exhaustive of a list. I imagine that some of these will be relevant to others. I wanted to be very complete. In your first month, many of these might not make much sense. So, I do recommend, that if you are a new priest, to return to this within your first year. If you know a priest within the first 18-24 months of his ministry, this may also be worthwhile sharing.