First Year: Newly ordained adjust to life as priests

The day-to-day lives of Catholic priests are often unpredictable, with new challenges and assignments that arise without warning. Parishioners need guidance or counseling, a Scripture study class needs a teacher, a baby needs baptizing.
This was true of the first year of service for four of the priests ordained for the Diocese of Charleston on July 27, 2007.

In interviews with The Miscellany, they described working with youth groups and senior citizens, studying abroad, writing articles for parish bulletins and leading classes.

One common thread carried through as they reflected on their first year. All said they feel gratitude and humility at the opportunity to celebrate Mass, to spread the Gospel and to serve Catholic communities around the diocese.

Father Bryan Babick, 30, said the first months of his priesthood meant hitting the books. In residence this summer at St. John the Beloved in Summerville, he recently returned from studying at the Pontifical University of St. Anselm in Rome, where he earned a licentiate in sacred liturgy.

“St. Anselm is a Benedictine school that is a subsection of the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy founded by Pope John XXIII,” he said. “We studied the sacraments, the different liturgical rites and how they developed. It was a tremendously enriching experience.”

Father Babick said one of the most memorable aspects of studying in Rome was the chance to visit the city’s many holy sites and attend Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. He said some of his classmates actually concelebrated  Mass with Pope Benedict XVI. Father Babick celebrated Mass at other historic churches in Rome.

In Summerville, he helps out however he can. He celebrates the liturgy, hears confessions and does other work around the parish.

“Celebrating the Mass each day for me is the most life-changing and moving experience, and just connecting with people as a Catholic priest is very moving … I’ve been receiving support from everybody I’ve come into contact with, whether on an airplane or in Rome or here in Summerville,” he said. “People are so supportive and encouraging, and that’s been incredibly confirming for me as a new priest.”

Father Timothy Gahan, 63, learned to adapt to change during his first year, as he moved from a large parish in the state capital to one in a bustling tourist community.

His first assignment was at St. Joseph in Columbia, where he worked with Father Richard Harris, pastor and diocesan administrator for vocations. While at St. Joseph, Father Gahan did everything from teaching Scripture study to working with the students at St. Joseph School.

In January he was assigned to St. Andrew Church in Myrtle Beach, where he served as administrator pro tem until Msgr. Joseph Roth was appointed administrator later in the year.

He said it was challenging to learn the ropes at parishes of similar size that serve very different congregations. Both parishes have many long-time residents and young families, but St. Andrew also caters to retirees, “snowbirds” who spend a few months a year on the Grand Strand, and thousands of Catholic tourists who visit Myrtle Beach every year.

“At St. Andrew, we get the beach traffic — from families to bike week, we get it all,” he said. “That’s the principal difference between the two parishes. They’re alike in most respects, especially in that they’re both wonderful faith communities.”

Challenges are not new to Father Gahan. He is a widower and father of two grown children, as well as a retired colonel from the U.S. Marine Corps.

At St. Andrew, he helped organize and celebrate Holy Week and the parish’s traditionally huge Easter Masses, which are held at The Palace Theater and draw more than 2,000 people. He recruited a friend and fellow priest from New York to help him celebrate Masses that week. The Easter Vigil was the biggest challenge, he said.

“There’s so much going on during that Mass, it’s not the sort of thing you do all the time, and I’d never done it before,” Father Gahan said. “But the faithful were here and they were very good to me and they helped out, so it all went well.”

Father Gahan said he’s been lucky to work with pastors who encouraged him to learn about all aspects of parish ministry.

“Both Father Harris and Msgr. Roth are like-minded about new priests — they believe they should get involved and learn about virtually everything that goes on in a parish, from the school to the different organizations and clubs,” he said. “They’ve both been very helpful, encouraged me and answered my questions … It’s just been a marvelous, amazing year, more than I ever could describe.”

Two of the other new priests spent the past year spreading the Gospel across generational lines. Father Jeffrey Kirby, 33, learned to minister to both high school students and families during his work at St. Mary Help of Christians in Aiken.

“The priesthood has been much more than I ever expected,” he said. “The first year in any vocation is spent kind of figuring things out, and I’ve received nothing but confirmation of my own vocation. I’ve learned lessons in pastoral ministry that I hope will only make me a better priest.”

He spent his first three months after ordination serving at St. Andrew Church in Clemson and its two missions: St. Paul the Apostle in Seneca and St. Francis in Walhalla.

He was scheduled to return to Rome for further study, but asked to remain in the diocese to learn more about working in a parish.

In October 2007, he was assigned to the Aiken church as a parochial vicar. There, he joined the parish’s active youth program, including its vibrant Life Teen community. He became so popular that young people from St. Mary’s showed up at a diocesan youth conference in March wearing T-shirts with the slogan “Kirby’s Crew” in his honor.

“That’s a grace of being a young priest — it’s a great chance to reach out and kind of connect with young people and show them how the faith is helpful and relevant,” Father Kirby said. “I’ve only been out of high school for 15 years, but I can’t even imagine the differences, the stress high schoolers are under today. There are good and bad opportunities for young people out there, and I want to show them how the Catholic faith can be helpful to them in their struggles for identity.”

Father Kirby was one of the keynote speakers at the youth conference.

“Speaking at the youth conference caused some anxiety, but it was great to be able to talk [about] someone I love, God, with young people who also want to love him,” he said.

At St. Mary’s, Father Kirby also works with the parish’s popular “intergenerational ministry” program, where adults, young children and teens all study the same aspect of Catholic faith in age-appropriate groups, and then go home to discuss the topic as a family.

In addition to celebrating Masses, Father Kirby makes hospital visits, celebrates Mass at area nursing homes, and teaches seventh-grade religion at St. Mary Help of Christians School.

“The priesthood is a lot of work,  which I love,” he said. “Every once in a while a friend or someone will say ‘you look tired,’ and I consider it a blessing to be able to be tired from doing something you love.”

Father Andrew Trapp, 27, said working with young people at St. Gregory the Great in Bluffton has been one of the most fulfilling parts of his vocation. He has served there as parochial vicar since shortly after his ordination. He works with Msgr. Martin T. Laughlin, administrator for the Diocese of Charleston, who is also pastor at the church.

The steadily growing parish currently lists membership of more than 2,400 households.

Father Trapp helps teach religion classes at St. Gregory the Great School, which has about 181 students in pre-K through sixth grades. He also visits classes and celebrates Mass for the students.

“One of the things holding me back from becoming a priest was the thought of giving up being a husband and a dad, so it’s very fulfilling to be able to work with kids now that I’m a priest,” he said. “That’s been the most fun aspect of this year.”

One of his main projects is collaborating with the church’s youth ministers to build an active youth group.

“We have several hundred high school age youth here at the parish, and we’re trying to get them organized and involved,” Father Trapp said. “I’ve really enjoyed working with the youth.”

Father Trapp said he finds the greatest spiritual fulfillment in the sacramental life of the parish.

“It’s been such a joy to celebrate Mass every day, and to celebrate the other sacraments, especially hearing confessions and ministering to the sick,” he said. “That has been a very humbling and joyful experience.”

Some of the young people he comes in contact with have decided the new priest has a celebrity look-alike.

“Both the high school kids and the little kids often tell me I remind them of Peter Parker in Spiderman,” he said. “I’ve told them without hesitation that if I had a choice of being a priest or being Spiderman, I would choose being a priest. It’s been amazing.”