A director of spiritual formation at St. Charles Seminary reflects on growth in holiness for seminarians, or anyone

By Christie L. Chicoine
CS&T Staff Writer

In the first of a monthly series of questions-and-answers with priests reflecting on their ministries in this Year of the Priest, the CS&T caught up with Father Joseph F. Gleason at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood as the new academic year was getting started.

Father Gleason, 52, holds master’s degrees in spaninity, community counseling and Christian spirituality, as well as a certification in spiritual direction.

In addition to his work at the seminary, Father Gleason provides weekend ministry at nearby Presentation B.V.M. Parish in Wynnewood.

Q. How were you called to the priesthood?
A. I had always thought about the priesthood because of going through St. Bridget’s School …and I was an altar boy.

One day, the priest came into our second grade class and asked us, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I raised my hand enthusiastically and said, “Father, I want to be a major league baseball player.”

Sister Louise Madeleine, a Sister of St. Joseph who was standing behind me, said, “No, Joseph, you’re going to be a priest.” She was prophetic. I really loved baseball, but the priesthood was always there.

My dad was a tremendous influence on my vocation in the sense that he was really a man of prayer. He would have a stack of prayers that he would say every single day. He would go to confession every Saturday. His influence was tremendous, and my mom’s, too, because my mom really has a great love for priests. Her example and her love for priests I’m sure had a big influence on my own perspective on the priesthood.

Q. What were among the deciding moments that led you to enter the seminary?
A. I was teaching grade school [language arts] at St. Mary of the Assumption in Manayunk and at the same time coaching Roman Catholic’s baseball team. The Franciscan sisters at St. Mary’s asked me to teach religion also for one year. That really gave me the push I needed to think more seriously about my vocation and to take the step to try it.

Q. What are among your biggest challenges as a priest and how do you meet those challenges?
A. Here, the biggest challenge is really asking for God’s grace to help form these men into good, holy priests. There’s only so much you can do as a priest. My biggest challenge is to realize my own limitations, to stay out of the way and let the Holy Spirit work. It’s really God’s grace that’s working through these young men that’s going to form them. I pray that they are open to receive God’s grace to be holy priests in the future.

Q. What are among the highlights of your role as director of spiritual formation of the theology spanision?
A. One of the big privileges I have is to be able to hear [the seminarians’] confessions. We have penance services throughout the year, but we also make confessions available every morning before Mass. They’re really striving to grow in holiness and conversion. Just to be God’s instrument in that confessional is a privilege. The seminarians have actually helped me to become a better penitent because the sincerity that they bring to the confessional has challenged me to look at my own life in different ways. It really is a privilege.

And spiritual direction. They come for spiritual direction, but in a sense sometimes I feel as if I’m receiving spiritual direction because some of the things they talk about challenge me to look at my own life.

Between the sacrament of reconciliation and spiritual direction, I feel they’ve helped me to become a holier priest.

Q. What advice do you have for the lay faithful who want to strengthen their spirituality?
A. I would encourage people just to pray, to focus on Scriptures, to become familiar with the psalms and Gospels, to let them sink into their hearts and minds. Accompanying Scripture, to develop a great devotion to the rosary. It’s a wonderful way to keep connected to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is going to lead us closer to her Son, Jesus Christ. Pope John Paul II said the rosary is the chain that connects heaven and earth.

Q. What about those who are breaking open their Bibles for the first time or after a lengthy hiatus?
A. I would encourage them to go to the Gospel of Mark first. It captures the public ministry of Jesus and it’s easy to read. The psalms in the Old Testament are beautiful. The Church really is encouraging lay people to develop a devotion to the Liturgy of the Hours. Some of the seminarians who come into the seminary today have been praying the Liturgy of the Hours on their own for a couple years already. I know when I came into the seminary [as a seminarian] I had no idea what it even was.

Q. How would you advise lay people who have been away from the sacrament of reconciliation?
A. I would echo the words of John Paul II: “Don’t be afraid.” Even if you’ve been away from the sacrament for a very long time, sometimes there’s a hesitancy to come back again. I think sometimes there’s that fear, “What’s the priest going to think?”

As a priest, it really is a privilege to welcome people back to the sacrament, to be an instrument of reconciling them back with the Church and with God.

At the same time, for people who do come faithfully to the sacrament, sometimes there’s a frustration [on their part that they] keep confessing the same things over and over again.

Have confidence in God’s grace that, in time, and through our own cooperation, we will see conversion. One of the great books I read on that was Scott Hahn’s book, “Lord, Have Mercy.”

Q. What other books would you recommend?
A. One of the best books I’ve read and I encourage the seminarians to read it is “True Devotion to Mary,” by St. Louis de Montfort. It’s not the kind of book you read once or twice. You’ll probably have to read it half a dozen times before it really makes sense. John Paul II said he had to read it half a dozen times before he understood it. Read it slowly and try to develop that relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Q. What are among the most humorous incidents of your priesthood?
A. I was just ordained a priest and that day we had the reception back at St. Bridget’s in the school hall. My sister had just bought a beautiful Miraculous Medal. My mom came up to me with my sister and asked, “Will you bless this for Dorothyann?”

Dorothyann said, “Mom, I want a real priest to bless it.”

Talk about your family keeping you humble.

[My first year teaching at Roman Catholic High School] the principal asked me to open the meeting with a prayer and, being nervous, I began [with grace]: “Bless us, O, Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive….”

One of my weak points is my singing voice. The diocese ran a trip to the Holy Land in 1988. We were in the Upper Room celebrating Mass. The priest in front of me turned around and asked, “Joe, what did you do with the money?” I asked, “What money?” He said, “The money your mother gave you for singing lessons.”

Q. Any concluding thoughts?
A. I think what people need today more than anything is to really experience the love and mercy of Christ and to be that instrument of God’s love to people. If the people can experience the love of Christ through [a priest] in a subtle way, it will bring them back to the Church again if they’ve been away.

CS&T Staff Writer Christie L. Chicoine may be reached at (215) 587-2468 or cchicoin@adphila.org.