June 23, 2006

A priest’s life: Father Whittington’s first year in ministry has many blessings, challenges

By Sean Gallagher

When Deacon Scott Nobbe is ordained to the priesthood at 10 a.m. on June 24 at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis, he’ll enter a new phase in his life.

Although he has years of seminary formation under his belt, significant changes happen in a man’s life when he becomes a priest—changes for which he simply can’t prepare. He must experience the life of the priesthood in order to fully adjust to it.

Father Shaun Whittington was in Deacon Nobbe’s position one year ago. (Read his pre-ordination profile | Ordination story)

During his first 12 months of ministry, Father Whittington experienced many blessings and faced various challenges. Here is a snapshot of his first year.

Expecting the unexpected

Prior to his ordination, on June 4, 2005, Father Whittington was appointed associate pastor of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis.

He moved into his office on July 5, while the pastor, Msgr. Paul Koetter, was on vacation.

“I’m going to put Father [Stephen] Giannini’s number on speed dial,” Father Whittington said half jokingly, referring to the pastor of nearby St. Luke Parish. “And if I get myself in trouble, he’ll be there.”

But while sitting in his office after unpacking several boxes of books, Father Whittington acknowledged the unknown territory he was entering.

“The Christian life is a life that is lived,” he said. “It’s in getting into it and moving around and being Catholic or being a priest that you learn how to do it. Obviously, you have to learn a lot before you get started … but nothing can compare to actually doing it.”

Nothing in his seminary formation prepared Father Whittington for what would happen just two weeks later.

Father Justin Martin, a friend of Father Whittington—nearly his same age, and his immediate predecessor at St. Monica—died unexpectedly on July 17, 2005.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” Father Whittington said. “It was like a week previous, exactly a week before ... that he had finished his Masses in French Lick and Paoli, and had come up here to move his final belongings down on Monday morning. A week later, he dies. It was quite a shock.”

At the time of his death, Father Martin was administrator of Our Lady of the Springs Parish in French Lick and Christ the King Parish in Paoli.

Just two months later, Father Whittington was hit by another tragedy. Two of his closest friends in the seminary were killed in an automobile accident.

Father Whittington quickly headed to the seminary, the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill. He returned a few days later, but the impact of the tragedy stayed with him.

Shortly afterward, he was ministering at a Christ Renews His Parish retreat at St. Monica when a woman started telling him how young priests were important to her.

“I just lost it, right there in front of her,” he said. “She said, ‘Father, what’s wrong?’ And I told her. And she started crying. And the next 15 or 20 minutes, we were both just crying.”

Msgr. Koetter, who has had six young priests assist him at St. Monica, said that the first months after ordination have an “emotional intensity” for the newly ordained. The deaths that Father Whittington had to cope with only compounded them.

“One of the challenges that the priesthood always presents is the fact that in the course of a normal day you will deal with people with many different levels of emotional need and concern,” Msgr. Koetter said. “So as you try to relate to them in that up-and-down world of joy and sorrow, when you’re also dealing with your own struggle, it just makes it very difficult. I think Father Shaun did a good job of kind of working with that.”

Balancing schedules

When his seminary friends died, Father Whittington was starting to feel the crunch of the many ministries he was involved in at St. Monica Parish.

Just days before he learned about the tragedy at Mundelein, Father Whittington reflected on ministering in a parish of nearly 3,000 households. Dozens of ministries are active at any one time, while unexpected pastoral crises require attention, too.

“I am consuming all of my energy to just keep my head above water,” he said.

Msgr. Koetter had seen this before and said it was the occupational hazard of a newly ordained priest assigned to a large parish.

“I think that everyone that has come through has been surprised at the level of activity and the level of expectation,” he said. “I think they knew that coming in objectively, but when you’re in the middle of experiencing it, I think it’s a very different experience.”

As a result, Msgr. Koetter recommended that Father Whittington take a vacation, which he did during the last week of October. During that time, he worked out a more manageable daily schedule for himself.

Balancing personalities

Establishing equilibrium in one’s daily schedule can be hard for a newly ordained priest serving in a large, active parish.

So is balancing all the different personalities of people that the new priest interacts with daily.

For Father Whittington, there were blessings involved, such as appreciating the cultural diversity of St. Monica’s members, which include Hispanics, blacks and whites.

There were times, however, when Father Whittington had to make decisions that were bound to satisfy some in the parish and disappoint others.

What he discovered—to his surprise—was that once the decision was made, those that disagreed with him ultimately respected him for making it.

The greatest lesson about dealing with people that Father Whittington learned in his first year as a priest centered on his relationship with the people he ministers with at the parish.

“A priest must always bear in mind that he is also the priest for his staff,” he said. “He must also minister with his staff. I learned it by accidentally ignoring the staff.”

Msgr. Koetter said that it’s difficult for a newly ordained priest to fit into a pastoral team that was in place before his arrival.

“It’s always a challenge for the associate to find his own relationship within the staff in general,” Msgr. Koetter said. “Where does he fit within this group, especially given the fact, in this day and age, that, my gosh, they’re staying one or two years?”

With Father Whittington, it was only one.

Moving on

This spring, Father Whittington learned that he was being reassigned from St. Monica Parish to the southern part of the archdiocese, where he will serve as an instructor at Father Michael Shawe Memorial Jr./Sr. High School in Madison and reside at St. Lawrence Parish in Lawrenceburg. He starts his new assignment on July 5.

“I have mixed feelings about moving on,” he said. “I’ve invested a lot at St. Monica’s. A lot of important things have happened to me while I was there.

“And there’s [a] part of me that feels like I’m just walking out of the door … and leaving so much undone.”

Msgr. Koetter commented on the effect that short assignments have on newly ordained priests.

“It means, in a very real way, that the first years of priesthood are still very transitory,” he said. “As I say sometimes, you can’t kick your shoes too far under the bed because the odds are that you’re not going to be there [very long].”

“It is a challenge, especially for someone who likes stability,” Father Whittington said. “And I like stability a lot. I don’t like to move.”

Despite the challenges of his first year as a priest and the hurdles he is facing at the start of his second year, Father Whittington is able to reflect on the many blessings that came his way after he was ordained on June 4, 2005.

“What I knew intellectually getting into this was that the Church’s teachings are good, true and beautiful,” he said. “I knew all that stuff. But what I learned this past year, ministering full time in a parish in my first year as a priest, is that all of this stuff really does work.

“I have seen the life of grace unfold in people’s lives,” Father Whittington said. “It’s still stuff that just knocks me to my knees in amazement of the goodness of God and the power of the sacraments.”

(For articles about Father Whittington’s ordination, log on to www.CriterionOnline.com.)


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