|Fr Joseph Burtka, LC|
Part 12 in a series on priestly experiences and
insights, published on Thursdays in the Year for Priests.
2009. When Fr Joseph Burtka, LC, first realized that Christ
was indeed calling him to the priesthood, he was not
“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
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.
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.
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
“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
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.
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,
“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.”
and understanding are important qualities for a priest, and souls
can sense it when a priest truly has a shepherd’s
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 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."|
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.
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
“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.”
then, with a smile, “But if he could choose another
path, I wouldn’t mind…”
Seeing our failures with Christ’s eyes
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.
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
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
“I wish people could know how much he loves
A living bridge
As one who represents Christ, a priest is
|“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
It makes him like a living bridge between God
“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
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
“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.
a list of previous articles in the series here.