February 26, 2010

Influence of John Paul II helped nurture priest’s vocation

Residents of the Beech Grove Meadows Nursing Home in Beech Grove pray while Father Stanley Pondo celebrates Mass on Feb. 10. Father Pondo is the pastor of Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Beech Grove. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Residents of the Beech Grove Meadows Nursing Home in Beech Grove pray while Father Stanley Pondo celebrates Mass on Feb. 10. Father Pondo is the pastor of Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Beech Grove. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

(Editor’s note: In conjunction with the Year for Priests, The Criterion is publishing a monthly feature titled “Faithful Fathers.” We plan to profile a priest from each deanery during the next four months.)

By Sean Gallagher

BEECH GROVE—Father Stanley Pondo is the pastor of Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Beech Grove in the Indianapolis South Deanery.

He was ordained in 1998 and is 50.

Father Pondo was born and grew up in East Chicago, Ind., in the Gary Diocese, where he was a member of St. Stanislaus Parish.

Polish roots—Three of Father Pondo’s grandparents were Polish immigrants. Growing up in a strongly Polish parish, where Mass is still celebrated daily in Polish, Father Pondo came to appreciate his ethnic roots.

When he was a freshman at DePauw University in Greencastle in the fall of 1978, he was pleased when his mother called to tell him that a Polish pope had been elected.

“I was in my room studying and I got a phone call,” he said. “It was from my mom. She was just all excited. ‘We’ve got a Polish pope!’ There was a lot of excitement back home. I was very excited about it, too.”

As the years passed, Father Pondo’s appreciation for Pope John Paul II extended beyond the fact that he was from Poland.

“John Paul is one of the reasons why I ended up finally responding to the call to the priesthood,” he said. “I had such an admiration for his intellect, and the value I saw in him as a teacher and leader and as someone who lived out the Gospel in his life.”

Slowly responding to the call—Father Pondo said he felt the call to the priesthood in his early childhood.

“If I think back as far as I can fairly reliably think, I remember telling my Aunt Stella—even before I was in kindergarten—that I was going to be a priest,” he said. “It was always part of my thinking about myself as a possibility. I had a lot of respect for priests.”

Father Pondo spent one semester at a high school seminary founded by the Society of the Divine Word.

But the idea of committing to a life of celibacy was hard for him to accept at the time and throughout his college years.

“I think it was more an aspect of the time,” Father Pondo said. “Not being married was certainly not the norm at that particular time.”

God’s persistence—Father Pondo said that he “tried to elbow God out of the way for 19 years.”

“I was pretty studiously trying to avoid listening to his voice for a long time,” he said. “Eventually, it starts to soak in, I think. There is a persistence with the call.”

That persistence manifested itself in strange moments. On the day of his college graduation, Father Pondo was congratulating a young woman whom he had once dated. She was a vocalist who was then engaged to be married.

“I kind of said to her half seriously, ‘Well, maybe when I get married, you can sing at the wedding,’ ” he said. “And she looked me square in the eyes and said, ‘Stan, I don’t think it will be your wedding. I think it will be at your ordination.’ ”

Other unexpected invitations to consider the priesthood happened during the eight years that Father Pondo worked as an attorney. They eventually helped him to be open to a possible priestly vocation.

“When they happened, I had always thought that they were these isolated, weird things,” Father Pondo said. “But now I kind of see them as part of a pattern.”

The gift of obedience—When Father Pondo entered the seminary in 1993, he thought that he “had left law for good.”

“In fact, when I first went to the seminary, I was pretty resistant to the idea of doing canon law,” he said.

But by the end of his seminary days, he was committed to accepting whatever Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein assigned him to do.

In 2002, Father Pondo made plans to study canon law in Rome after the archbishop asked him to do this.

That summer, he became frustrated while studying Italian near Venice.

It was in that difficult time, however, that Father Pondo came to realize that, for him, obedience had only been “a favor” he did for God.

“I began to think that if I was there studying canon law, it was because it was what God wanted me to be doing,” he said. “And if that’s what he wanted me to do, this was the best thing for me to be doing.”

Days of sadness—Because he was obedient, Father Pondo was blessed three years later with the opportunity to be in St. Peter’s Square when Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005.

He had been the pope who had shared his ethnicity but, more importantly, had inspired him to respond to his priestly call.

During the pope’s funeral, he was seated about 75 feet from his casket.

“In some ways, it was like losing a parent,” Father Pondo said. “For almost all of my adult life, I had had one pope—and one very, very good pope. He had been a great leader, a great teacher. He affected my life on a very personal level.”

Days of joy—Later that April, Father Pondo and some priest friends were watching coverage of the papal election in their home at the Casa Santa Maria, about a half hour’s walk from the Vatican.

When they realized that a new pope had been elected, but before the announcement was made, they quickly made their way to St. Peter’s Square.

“As we got close and got to a cross street, you’d look and see that there were rivers [of people] converging,” Father Pondo said. “The closer you got [to the Vatican], the more [people] there were.”

He also was there in the square for the installation Mass of Pope Benedict XVI.

“We were right in front of a bunch of German high school kids,” Father Pondo said. “They were just as excited about it as I [was] when John Paul was elected.”

When he feels most a priest—First, celebrating Mass.

“I don’t think you can be a priest and not experience your priesthood most fully there,” Father Pondo said.

He also highly values his priestly role as a teacher in preaching, assisting in faith formation programs and even leading parish book clubs where he has served.

But hearing confessions has become a treasured moment for Father Pondo, although he dreaded it the first time he heard confessions during his first assignment at St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg.

“I was more scared about hearing confessions than I have ever been about going in and having to confess stuff, no matter what it was that I had to confess,” he said.

But Father Pondo said that the sacrament of reconciliation has become a priestly task where he intensely sees the effect his priestly ministry has on others.

“To see the relief of the person when they can finally put [a] burden down and walk away from it—it’s one of those moments in the life of a priest where you see grace,” he said. “It’s become one of the most meaningful parts of the priesthood [for me].”

Advice for those considering the priesthood—“Give the vocation a chance,” Father Pondo said. “… If God is calling a man to the priesthood, that’s the thing that’s going to make him really happy.

“God gives each of us a purpose in life, and not just a general purpose. There’s a specific way that we’re called to know, love and serve him. It’s in finding that specific way that we really find ourselves.”

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