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Turn to Jesus (Article)

Fr Joseph Burtka, LC, on Being a Bridge
Part 12 in a series on life as a priest.

Fr Joseph Burtka, LC
Fr Joseph Burtka, LC

Part 12 in a series on priestly experiences and insights, published on Thursdays in the Year for Priests.

November 12, 2009.  When Fr Joseph Burtka, LC, first realized that Christ was indeed calling him to the priesthood, he was not overjoyed.

“It was a frightening, somber realization,” he says. “I was looking only at what I would have to give up and couldn’t even begin to imagine what I would be gaining.”

But time has a way of opening the heart and revealing the unexpected depths of God’s gifts. And the gift of the priesthood, as Fr Joseph has seen, is not only a gift for the one who receives the call. It is also a gift for all those whom the priest touches on his way through life.

Two souls, one story

Fr Joseph was definitely not expecting to be appointed an in-flight babysitter on his way back to the novitiate shortly after his priestly ordination. After getting settled into the window seat of the 737, he discovered that his traveling partners would be a young mother and her six-year-old daughter.

As the little girl made her way to the seat right next to him, he looked up and asked the mother if her little girl might perhaps be “afraid” to sit next to a stranger dressed so seriously in black. The mother answered with a smile, “Oh no, you definitely don’t have to worry about that!”

He soon found out why.

“That girl was a dynamo of energy, so lively and outgoing. She had me doing circles,” he says. His flight was soon absorbed in telling the little girl stories and helping her with her coloring books. He also read to her and learned about important cultural entities such as the Spice Girls.

“I think Mom was overjoyed to have a babysitter for the two-hour flight,” he says wryly.

After some time, he pulled out his breviary and excused himself to pray for a bit. The little girl was fascinated by the colorful ribbons of the breviary. Once he was done, she asked him what he had been reading. It was the feast of St John the Baptist, and the reading was all about his imprisonment and death for upholding the indissolubility of marriage.

He had spoken briefly to the mother during the course of the trip and knew that she was in the midst of a divorce settlement, so he was a little reticent about telling the story. But his mother nodded her assent, asking him to go ahead.

He launched into the story, doing his best to make it understandable to a little girl. He spent some time describing the details of Salome’s beautiful dress “and who knows what other details that we men usually could care less about.” But at the same time, he was speaking above and beyond the girl to her mom.

“I wanted to let her know that despite the difficulties she may be experiencing in her marriage, that God continues to love her and that he and his ministers will always be there to help,” he says.

The little girl was thrilled with the story. But it was the mother who sat pensive and quiet afterwards. A few minutes later, she looked intently at him and softly said, “Thank you.”

“She didn’t have to say anything else,” says Fr Joseph. “I got the message that she got the message. It was nice to be able to touch two souls, each one according to her level and needs.”

Sensitivity training

Empathy and understanding are important qualities for a priest, and souls can sense it when a priest truly has a shepherd’s
Fr Joseph Burtka with monstrance
"When you suffer, you learn to lean on Christ alone. You learn to find strength in him alone and you withdraw from everything else that is not him."
heart. Sometimes, as in Fr Joseph’s case, these qualities seem to come naturally, in a native gift for listening deeply and reaching out to others in friendship. And sometimes that natural gift is further honed by experiences that make us more aware of how it feels to be vulnerable, fragile, and needful of others’ help and consideration.

When it comes to empathy, suffering is one of the best teachers. And Fr Joseph has had his dose of physical hardships, with five operations on different parts of his body.

“Some have been very painful, but all have let me understand suffering—Christ’s and that of others—with more clarity and appreciation,” he says.

Hospital rooms leave people with plenty of time to think and pray. At times, the abundance of thinking time can bring its own temptations. But it can also bring sudden graces of growth, an inspired decision to leave self behind and think of others.

“One of those moments was particularly anguishing and brought with it quite a bit of fear for my vocation. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to walk again. As I lay in the emergency room, somehow I found the strength to think about those who were around me, to show interest in their sufferings, to offer a word of consolation and kindness. Where did that come from?  It can only be from God.”

Regarding moral sufferings as well, he comments that the past few years have not been easy, with all that the Legion of Christ has been through. But again, faith redimensions everything, helping him to see the spiritual gift behind the cross.

“The hand of God was very present there,” he says. “When you suffer, you learn to lean on Christ alone. You learn to find strength in him alone and you withdraw from everything else that is not him. This is what I was longing for when I decided to become a Legionary priest.”

He adds, “The path of pain was not expected, but it was totally efficient. God be praised for the sufferings he sends me.”

And then, with a smile, “But if he could choose another path, I wouldn’t mind…”

Seeing our failures with Christ’s eyes

We have to remember, says Fr Joseph, that priests are human, too. And because priests hold themselves to a very high standard of perfection—Christ himself, the perfect priest—they can sometimes feel the temptation to think that their failures are “catastrophic.”

Learning to redimension a personal failure is also something that comes with time – and it can be helped along by the example of other penitents in the sacrament of confession.

“It was very helpful for me personally to see the faith and courage that souls have when they come to confession; their simplicity, their love.  Little by little you realize that we are deep down all the same. We struggle with the same difficulties; we falter. We are less than we would like to be.”

In confession, part of the priest’s work is to show people how Christ sees them – how he believes in them, how he sees more in them than they see in themselves… and how he can help them make a fresh start from what seemed like a dead end.

Fr Joseph says, “When someone comes and is suffering, I can almost physically feel Christ wanting to tell them not to worry and that he loves them and forgives them.  I burn with the desire to have them leave the confessional joyful and convinced that Christ is with them as a friend.”

“I wish people could know how much he loves them.”

A living bridge

As one who represents Christ, a priest is
Fr Joseph Burtka preaching to novices
“It is very humbling when God uses his instruments to bring a spark of love to others."
in a privileged position to show people the face of God. Through his words and his way of listening and responding, he helps people to experience the unconditional love and confidence Christ has in them.

At the same time, he is a man chosen from among men. And far from removing him from that awareness, the priesthood accentuates it. One of the unexpected aspects of the vocation is that it can make him more keenly aware of what it means to be human, and of how much we all need each other.

It makes him like a living bridge between God and man.

“Hearing confessions has brought me closer to Christ and closer to all my brothers and sisters,” says Fr Joseph. “You can’t help feeling that we are all in this together.”

At the same time, we are all “in this” with God, who is constantly making little miracles from ordinary moments. Fr Joseph has experienced many of those moments – on airplanes, in meetings with lay people, and in Cheshire where he is currently the Instructor of Novices. Witnessing those moments is part of the gift of a vocation, a confirmation that the “yes” given in faith has been worth every sacrifice.

“It is very humbling when God uses his instruments to bring a spark of love to others,” he says. “Each one of those moments is a treasure.”

Originally from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Fr Joseph Burtka, LC, entered the Legion in June of 1986. He completed his studies in Philosophy and Theology in Rome, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy at the Gregorian University and his Bachelor’s in Theology from the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum College. He was ordained to the priesthood on September 3, 1997 and is currently serving as the Instructor of Novices at the Legionary novitiate in Cheshire, Connecticut.

View a list of previous articles in the series here.



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