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Fr John Bartunek, LC, on Priestly Celibacy and God’s Providence in the Mission
Part 2 in a series on life as a priest.

Fr John Bartunek, LC.
"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.

Four 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.

After some brief introductions, the conversation began, with people calling in from across the nation to ask questions or share their opinions.

“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 way.

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 an offer.

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 that day.

Northern lights

The other listener revealed himself later on that summer.

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 his vocation.

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 to serve.

“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.”

Discovering 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
Fr Bartunek directing a small group.
Fr Bartunek directing a small group breakout session.
up for what he is humanly unable to accomplish.

“When 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 with it.”

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,

God has 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 said.

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.’”

Some 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.

“The first 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."

Fr. John 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.



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