Fr. Joseph EsperHeroic Priests
When I was a seminarian, the future-Archbishop Allen Vigneron served as a deacon at my home parish of St. Clement in Romeo—and now, events having come full circle, I serve as pastor of his home parish of Immaculate Conception in Ira Township.
I grew up on a farm, and like most boys, naturally thought of following in my father’s footsteps. When I mentioned I might want to become a farmer, my parents both said, “No, no, not that; choose something in which you won’t have to work hard and will let you make a lot of money.” (Doesn’t God have a delightful sense of humor?)
I attended our parish school, and first thought about the priesthood in 2nd grade, then again in 7th grade, and once again in 11th grade; being still attracted to it, and influenced by the examples of the pastors of my home parish, I applied to Sacred Heart Seminary and entered immediately after high school. My four years at Sacred Heart in Detroit, and three and-a-half years at St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, were enjoyable and rewarding; I was ordained to the diaconate on February 28, 1981, and to the priesthood on May 1, 1982. Since then I’ve served as an associate pastor at four parishes, and as pastor at three parishes.
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen always spoke of the importance for a priest of making a daily holy hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and this has long been my practice; I’m firmly convinced that at some point over the past thirty-four years I might have suffered from burnout, depression, or some other serious problem without this daily time with the Lord. The hour in church early each morning allows me to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the Rosary, other prayers, and read a short meditation on the Scripture readings of the day. With the Archbishop’s permission, I also have a Eucharistic chapel in the rectory, and usually manage to say the Divine Mercy Chaplet there each day, along with other prayers.
I’ve been fortunate in always being assigned to parishes with schools; I love teaching and spending time with the students, and also offering adult education courses each summer. I’m fortunate that parish life has allowed me enough time for writing (twelve books and about thirty magazine articles), along with appearances on EWTN and Catholic radio, and speaking engagements at various conferences across the country several times a year.
When I hear the term “heroic priest,” I think of the priest who goes off as a missionary to a far-distant land; the foreign priest who comes here to the United States without knowing anyone, and having only a minimal knowledge of our language and culture; the senior priest who continues to help out where needed, instead of taking a full and well-deserved retirement; the pastor of multiple parishes who never quite has enough time or energy to meet everyone’s needs; the priest who struggles to do his best in a difficult assignment, despite controversy, opposition, or a lack of support; the pastor who ministers each day despite poor health, personal doubts, a crisis of faith, or other serious problems; and the priest who continues to trust in God despite, as a result of false accusations, being removed from ministry and perhaps even imprisoned. (In addition, we have seminarians studying in Detroit from foreign lands having no freedom of religion; they know that when they are ordained and return home, they’ll be ministering in an underground Church, and facing the real prospect of serious religious persecution.)
These men are all “heroes.” Because I’ve had a relatively safe and easy priesthood, I don’t equate myself with them; instead, I hope I’m worthy of the title of a “faithful” priest. I give thanks to God for all He has done for me and through me, and I pray that all those called to the wonderful and amazing vocation of the priesthood will hear and respond with generous hearts.
Fr. Joseph Esper is the pastor of Immaculate Conception in Anchorville.