|"As long as I’m telling others the truth about Christ, which is independent of my own opinion, then I don’t have to worry. I focus on communicating the truth I’ve received through the Church."|
Part 2 in a series on priestly insights and experiences, published
on Thursdays in the Year for Priests.
August 27, 2009. A
Roman collar is bound to get attention anywhere. But when
that Roman collar shows up in a TV studio, then
the questions will fly.
On Easter Sunday in 2006, a five-part
TV miniseries called “God or the Girl” made its debut
on the A&E channel, featuring the real stories of four
young men who were discerning their vocation to the priesthood.
Capitalizing on the buzz of interest generated by the mini-series,
CNN talk show host Larry King decided to interview the
four young men, and then follow it up with a
live panel discussion on the topic of priestly celibacy.
guests were invited to share their opinions on priestly celibacy:
a former priest who had left the priesthood, started his
own church, and gotten married; an evangelical minister and pastor
who was totally against celibacy; another priest who was celibate
but doctrinally not totally convinced about it; and Fr John
Bartunek. Larry King weighed in on the anti-celibacy side.
some brief introductions, the conversation began, with people calling in
from across the nation to ask questions or share their
“I just don´t understand how priests can understand families
if they don´t have a family life. When they say
you cannot divorce, they´re not put in that situation where
they could understand what they´re supposedly preaching,” said a caller
from Las Vegas.
Larry King followed it up: “Father Bartunek, how
could a member of the Catholic Church go into confession
or discuss with a priest a major problem involving him
and his wife and their children, when the priest has
absolutely no experience?”
Fr John answered: “Well, it happens all the
time, and in my own experience, I can say it´s
very fruitful. The priest has a lot of experience. The
priest meets with couples as they´re preparing for marriage, counsels
couples in difficulties during marriage. He sees hundreds of couples
and families and follows them through their life. He has
a lot more experience than many married couples with only
their own marriage. So a priest really becomes like a
doctor of souls. It´s like saying a doctor has to
suffer cancer in order to treat cancer; there´s kind of
a contradiction there.”
“A priest is a man of God
for others, and his experience of dealing with so many
families and so many couples enriches him. The other thing
is, Larry, the Church never says that only priests can
help counsel couples. The priest is a spiritual father, a
spiritual counselor, but the Church encourages lay men and women
to also take on different roles of ministry and help
other married couples.”
The discussion continued on other aspects of celibacy.
Along the way, Fr John explained that his own decision
for the priesthood was a free choice to serve Christ
and the Church wholeheartedly, freely, without divisions, and that celibacy
enabled him to do so.
Two listeners thousands of miles
apart heard these words and reacted, each in their own
Inside the 800-pound gorilla
One of those listeners was a TV
producer working in Los Angeles at Warner Bros. Studios; in
fact, he was one of the main producers who was
responsible for some of their biggest daytime show hits. The
next day, this producer called and offered to fly Fr
John out to Los Angeles, saying he had a proposal
for a TV show he wanted Fr John to do,
and that he would like to discuss it with him
in person. Since Warner Bros. is, as Fr John described
it, “the 800-pound gorilla of daytime television,” this was quite
When Fr John arrived, the producer explained his idea:
it was to be a daytime show with a psychologist
and a priest giving live counseling to couples whose marriages
were on the rocks. As part of the pitch, the
producer brought Fr John around to all of the different
studio offices to meet the various people who would be
involved in creating the show.
“It was the most secular
office culture you could possibly imagine,” said Fr John. But
it was also a curious culture, especially at the sight
of a Roman collar worn by a real priest, not
just an actor. And so, once again, the questions started
pouring in. The studio employees wanted to know why he
had decided to become a priest, what it was like…
and so on.
“I spent the whole day telling my
vocation story to all these very secular, non-religious TV producers
and writers,” he said. “They were really shocked and had
all of these questions about the priesthood. The whole time,
I was just smiling to myself and thinking, ‘Wow, this
is a funny way for God to get them to
hear the Gospel!’”
In the end, the idea of giving
pastoral counseling to troubled marriages on live TV seemed too
irreverent for Fr John to be able to commit to
the show. But the visit to Los Angeles had not
been wasted; at least some of those working inside the
“800-pound gorilla” had received a small seed of Catholic spirituality
The other listener revealed himself later on
Every year, the Legion hosts a summer candidacy
program in Cheshire for young men who are discerning the
priesthood. That year, Fr John traveled to Cheshire to give
a talk on his experiences being on the set of
the film “The Passion of the Christ.” After his talk,
he was approached by a candidate from Alaska who told
him that he had first heard about the Legion of
Christ when he saw Fr John on Larry King Live.
When he heard Fr John talking about his desire to
serve the Church, and about how celibacy is indeed possible,
something clicked; the young man had a sense that this
was the style of priesthood he had been looking for.
So, after the show, he looked up the congregation, sent
for more information, and traveled to the candidacy to discern
A few fleeting minutes on a national talk
show had reached a secular crowd in Los Angeles and
a possible priestly vocation in Alaska. God was at work,
touching souls who were worlds apart.
What matters most
For Fr John,
colorful moments like these, as surprising and encouraging as they
may be, are not what he is most grateful for
as a priest. The most important factor for him is
the complete moral certainty that he is where God wants
him to be, serving in the way God wants him
“That for me is the biggest gift that I
have ever received in my priestly vocation, because I spent
my youth searching for the right thing for me to
be doing, searching for my place in the universe. That
was what I was striving for. Everyone puts up so
many possible goals for their life: go to a great
university, get a great job… and you kind of pursue
them for a while and then they wear out.”
his call to the priesthood was like finding the secure
anchor of God’s will.
“He accepted the offer of my
life that I made in the response to the vocation.
Even in the midst of storms, that’s the anchor of
my life,” he said.
Blessed and multiplied
But finding one’s place
does not necessarily mean resting in it. For Fr John,
life in the priesthood carries its special challenges. One of
them, for him, is simply the lack of time to
carry out all of the ideas, projects, and initiatives that
could be helpful to the souls. Like the apostles who
offered their few loaves and fishes to Christ, he offers
it up at Mass every morning, asking God to make
up for what he is humanly unable to accomplish.
|Fr Bartunek directing a small group breakout session.|
I think about all that could be done for Christ’s
Kingdom and the little that I do or that any
of us can do, I feel like that host: so
fragile, so flimsy, so small. But during the Mass, I
offer that frustration, because the host becomes that vehicle for
Christ’s grace and salvation, even though it’s so small and
fragile. Whatever little I could do, if I give it
to God, he can do whatever he wants to do
One of those projects that God has blessed and
multiplied has been Fr John’s bestselling book of meditations, “The Better Part: A Christ-centered Resource for Personal Prayer,” published
by Circle Press. Some of these meditations are also posted
for free online access at the blogspot, www.RCspiritualdirection.com.
given you what you need
In spite of what looks like
a successful trajectory as a writer and speaker, he admits
that he also struggles with a specific fear when he
is asked to communicate the Gospel through preaching or writing.
“Whenever I’m being asked to communicate the Gospel, I feel
nervous and anxious because it’s a very important message, so
you want to communicate it well. You don’t feel up
to the task, because everything could be misunderstood, or you
could say the wrong thing or confuse someone or not
meet them where they’re at. It’s this constant thing,” he
The solution? To focus on sharing the Christ he has
received through the Church.
“As long as I’m telling others the
truth about Christ, which is independent of my own opinion,
then I don’t have to worry. I focus on communicating
the truth I’ve received through the Church, like in the
Gospel: ‘What you have received without cost, give without cost.’”
of what a priest “receives without cost” is also the
wisdom acquired through his own life experiences. For Fr Bartunek,
the sacrament of confession has been a powerful experience of
God providing for his people, using even the priest’s personal
struggles as material to enlighten and console the penitent.
time I heard confessions was on a Holy Week mission
in Mexico in 2004, just a few months after being
ordained. I was kind of nervous, since it was my
first time. And on missions you hear confessions for 12
hours a day, 5 days in a row,” he said.
But once he started, he witnessed how God was
able to provide for his people even through an inexperienced
priest who has never been married or had children, and
who supposedly should know nothing about the struggles and sorrows
people carry inside.
“The people who came to confession that
first day were poor people in Mexico living a very
different reality from me. But the amazing thing was that
with all the struggles they brought to the sacrament, I
was able to relate to all of them, because at
some time in my own life, either during my years
of formation for the priesthood or before, I had experienced
some kind of similar struggle,” he said.
The words came naturally—or
rather supernaturally. It was as if Christ the Priest were
using Fr John’s own life story and past struggles to
minister to his people.
“It was remarkable to see God’s providence.
Even though the circumstances of their life were so different,
the struggles they were going through were all things I
had gone through. The whole time, I was smiling to
myself, thinking, ‘Lord, now I understand why you have permitted
me to have all these struggles!’”
“That’s what happens in confession,”
he said. “You realize that in hidden ways, God has
given you what you need. He has comforted you so
that you can comfort others.”
As for the priest’s essential mission,
perhaps Pope Benedict XVI’s words express it best: “The faithful
expect only one thing from priests: that they be specialists
in promoting the encounter between man and God."
Bartunek, LC, STL, received his BA in History from Stanford
University in 1990, graduating cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.
He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a
member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he
worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and
baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional
actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the
Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He has since received ecclesiastical
degrees in philosophy and theology and worked in youth and
college ministries. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003.
He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson´s
The Passion of the Christ while researching the 2005 Catholic
best seller, Inside the Passion, the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation
of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding
religious issues on CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He has
appeared on Larry King Live, Hannity and Colmes, and the
Laura Ingraham radio show. He also served as the English-language
press liaison for the 2005 Synod of Bishops on the
Eucharist. His most recent book, published by Circle Press in
2007, is called: The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for
Personal Prayer. Fr John current resides in New York, where
he is engaged in doctoral research, teaching Ecclesiastical History, and
continuing his writing apostolate.
For a list of the other
articles in the series, click here.