Father Joe Zaleski tried St. Charles Borromeo Seminary for the first time in 1995 and graduated in 1999 from its College Division.
He then left the seminary.
“I just didn’t feel that God was calling me to be a priest,” said Father Zaleski, who indeed was ordained a priest on May 16.
Zaleski interned for a Philadelphia city councilman the summer between his junior and senior years in the college. The politician offered Zaleski a full-time job if he ever changed his mind. Zaleski called the councilman when he was about to leave.
“Right on the spot, he hired me as one of his assistants,” Father Zaleski said.
Zaleski worked five years for the councilman. He advised campaigns and wrote speeches for political candidates. Anthony Polselli, Zaleski’s cousin and best friend since they were 5 years old, often talked politics with his cousin. Zaleski constantly put Catholic teachings first, no matter if the issue slanted Democrat or Republican. Zaleski sided with the Democrats on banning the death penalty, whereas the church’s just-war teaching had a more Republican tilt.
“He’s passionate about the faith,” Polselli said. “His heart is in it.”
Later, Zaleski taught high-school theology for seven years at SS. John Neumann and Maria Goretti High School in South Philadelphia, where he expanded the pro-life group.
He loved teaching at the school. He once showed pictures depicting abortion’s stark reality to the theology classes during his first year. Later in the week during the pro-life group signups, his 50 printed forms “ran out in about 20 seconds,” Father Zaleski said. He had to use scrap paper in place of the forms.
There he met Father Daniel Dwyer, currently the soon-to-be school minister at Archbishop Ryan High School. Father Dwyer was the theology department chair for six years at Neumann Goretti. Years prior, Dwyer had left St. Charles Seminary then reentered in 2010. The now Father Zaleski was one of the first people Father Dwyer told about his desire to return.
“I think he’s a holy man,” Father Dwyer said. “He has a good sense of humor.”
The next year, 2012, Zaleski — previously like Dwyer — returned to the seminary and departed Neumann.
“Leaving Neumann Goretti was probably the hardest thing I ever had to deal with in my life,” Father Zaleski said.
Just as difficult was the ending of his wedding engagement.
He knew, however, something was missing in his life. His family was supportive throughout the whole process, financially, emotionally and practically.
Through spiritual direction, Zaleski realized he wanted to minister the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. God called him to do more than teach. He again discerned the priesthood, and the seminary accepted him — again.
“It just felt right,” Father Zaleski said. “I would be at Mass thinking, ‘I should be doing more with my life.’”
He felt called to bring people back to church using every means possible, whether church teaching, Scripture or social media.
“Everything else would take care of itself if people just came back to Mass,” Father Zaleski said. “I really believe it is that simple. Just go back to church. That’s all I pray for.”
Father Zaleski believes financial problems in the church as well as moral problems would resolve themselves as a result of higher church attendance.
“The church just wants all of us to be happy, to thrive and to be protected,” Father Zaleski said. “Basically in a nutshell, especially when it comes to the church’s teachings on sexual morality and life, the church wants to protect hearts from being hurt.”