Catholic Spotlight Interview: Fr. Jeffrey Starkovich -- Hearing God's Vocational Call

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God seems to pepper my life with amazing encounters that leave me blessed and forever changed. They come when I am least expecting them, and leave me marveling at His amazing timing and His bountiful blessings. One of those chance encounters happened last year during my trip to Rome for the beatification of our beloved Blessed John Paul II. I met a young seminarian and his friends. During our conversation, I was struck by their humility, their energy and the excitement with which they were anticipating their upcoming ordination.

One of those seminarians is now settled in as the Parocial Vicor at a very lucky parish in Louisiana. Father Jeffrey Starkovich ministers to his flock, but also takes time to minister to the rest of us through his amazing blog APriestLife.com. What’s infectious about his writing is that joy — that sense of awe at his mission — which was apparent to me when I met him in Rome. Almost half my age…and yet Fr. Jeffrey is so wise and so eloquent in his sharing of the life of a priest. I’m firmly convicted that Fr. Jeff’s brand of ministry and his writing about the simple and profound blessings that fill his days as a priest hold the key to solving some of the vocational woes we face. If young men could read and be inspired by what Fr. Jeff shares each day on his blog, perhaps they would be inspired to open their own hearts to hear God’s calling in their lives.

I hope you’ll enjoy this conversation with Fr. Jeff, that you’ll visit APriestLife.com, and that you’ll pray for him and all of our wonderful priests.

Q: First Fr. Jeff, I must thank you for your service to our Church as a new priest! Could you begin by briefly introducing yourself to our readers? We’d love to know a bit about your family too!

Sure, Lisa! I just have to start by saying it: I love being a priest. It’s not just what I do, it’s who I am. On June 11, 2011, I was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Lake Charles. In case you don’t know it, it’s a small diocese in Southwest Louisiana. I currently serve as the parochial vicar (associate pastor) at Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church in Jennings, LA.

The only boy among my three siblings, I come from an incredible family. My parents are wonderful. From our earliest years, they taught us to treasure our Catholic identity. They did so by modeling it for us. They led by example; they showed the four of us how to pray.

Q: Fr. Jeff, how did you discern your call to the priesthood and what factors do you think led to your ability to “hear” that vocational calling?

Althought I’m only 26 years old, I must admit that my priestly vocation has been growing since the beginning. I’m a “kindergarten vocation,” so to speak. One of my earliest memories is wanting to be a priest. Well, that and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. In my baby book, my mom kept little facts about us: favorite food – pizza; favorite color – blue; favorite sport – soccer; what he wants to be when he grows up – priest. That desire never left.

I would have to say that there are three factors that led me to hear and answer my call to serve: family, Catholic education, and prayer.

  • Family. Vocations are nurtured at home in the family. My parents taught us to always pray for our vocations. Even when we were young, we were praying for God’s guidance to illumine our paths. “There is only one thing in life that will make you happy: doing God’s will,” they told us constantly. When I told them I was going to enter the seminary a year after high school, they were delighted that I was truly seeking to do God’s will. That’s what they had always taught us to seek, and I know it brought them true joy to see us discern that call to the best of our ability.
  • Catholic education also played a large role in my vocation. Almost my entire academic career was nurtured in Catholic education. I remember the role the priests played: throughout the week, they came in and out of the classrooms; they led us in school Masses; they taught us to pray. Being able to pray in school, to learn about the Catholic faith, to discuss the in’s and out’s of the Church, and to gather for school Masses is an estimable treasure. My life would be vastly different had I not attended Catholic school, and I know I owe much of my priesthood to it.
  • Prayer played the largest role. My parents taught me to pray. As a family, we prayed together. It was only in prayer that I could have heard the call to priesthood. In my conversations with God, I simply told him that I was his. Whatever he wanted, that’s what I would do. Day after day, and year after year, he affirmed that call. Now, as a priest, I still make the same prayer.

Q: Please tell us a bit about your seminarian training, and especially about the amazing experience of studying in Rome.

I must admit that my time in seminary was extremely exciting and filled with joy. After I graduated high school, I knew I wanted to enter seminary. But at the recommendation of some good priest mentors, I spent a year at the local university and allowed my vocation to mature even more. It was great advice and turned out to be a really formative experience. After that one year, I was accepted as a seminarian and was sent to St. Joseph’s Seminary College in Covington, LA. The seminary is run by St. Joseph Abbey, a Benedictine monastery. The monks, and all of the administration, instilled within us the joys of religious life. Through the academic rigor, they taught us to be truly human. I made life long friends and cherish my days there.

After graduating from the college seminary, my bishop sent me to continue my formation at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. There, my entire world-view changed. I was immersed in the Universal Church, and I was exposed to the incredible diversity of cultures that the world has to offer. I studied at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Urbe (also known as the Angelicum), where I deepened my love for learning. Walking the streets of Rome and traveling throughout Europe, I followed in the footsteps of saints and I prayed at the tombs of the martyrs. But most importantly, I met people from all over the world. I learned how large the Church is, but at the same time, how incredibly connected we all are.

Seminary formation is an incredible process. It asks a man to shut out the noise of the world, to look deep inside himself, and focus on the whisper of God’s call. There, in the silence of prayer, we find the answer to a vocation. As any seminarian will admit, however, life in a seminary is anything but silent. Formation pushes you to grow beyond yourself. It teaches you to become more human. It teaches you to enjoy life. Seminary was incredibly fun. I feel like I laughed more in those 7 years than I have in my entire life.

Q: What emotions accompanied the weeks leading up to your ordination and that day of receiving Holy Orders?

I could type a really long list of emotions, because I experienced countless feelings. But among all of the emotions that filled the days leading up to ordination, the most common was joy. Family and friends from all over the country poured into Lake Charles for the weekend celebration. It was the culmination of my entire life up to that point. Since my vocation to be a Ninja Turtle didn’t work out, being configured to Christ provided a sense of true satisfaction. It’s incredible to think that my life at home, my parents’ prayers, my work in school, my years in seminary, my journey to Rome and back, and my prayer all led up to June 11, 2011. And to make it even better, I was ordained on Pentecost Sunday.  When my nose hit the marble, I was humbled to realize that my family, friends, church, and diocese were all praying for me at the moment. As I listened to the words of the Litany of Saints, I realized that the entire Communion of Saints was praying for me. Incredible. What else can one feel but joy?

Q: As a new priest, what are some of the biggest challenges you face on a day to day basis? What are some of the happiest moments you’ve enjoyed this past six months?

The biggest challenge in day to day life is definitely remembering everyone’s name! Luckily, everyone in the parish is extremely forgiving if I don’t get their names right. For example, the pastor and I serve a Catholic school, a hospital, and three nursing homes. We visit the sick, teach religious education, and spend alot of time with people. Perhaps they should add the skill of remembering names as a course in seminary.

The happiest moments have been many of the firsts: first wedding, first baptism, first Mass, first Confession. There’s even the first’s I didn’t anticipate: first time someone calls you “Father,” first time the kids at school are excited to meet their new priest, first time my niece couldn’t figure out whether to call me “Uncle Jeff” or “Father Jeff,” (We eventually settled on “parrain.” It’s French for “godfather.” This is Cajun country, so it works!).

Q: How can parish families support our priests?

Remind the priest of your name until he really knows who you are! Then, you can buy him a gym membership to make sure he can exercise amidst the constant invitations to eat! (Is that just a Southern thing?)

All kidding aside, the biggest support families can give to their priests is to pray for them. That, and encourage your own children to ask God to reveal to them their vocation. Encourage them to pray about God’s will. We need more priests, and that is the only way we receive them!

Q: You’re blogging! I love that, since I think our world can truly benefit by our holy priests being involved in using technology in the New Evangelization. Please tell us about your blog, apriestlife.com — how has blogging been for you this past month?

The blog, in the span of the one month that I’ve been writing, has been an incredible experience. While I was at a friend’s house watching LSU play in the SEC championship a month ago, I got a call to go to the hospital. One of our parishoners was dying, and a priest was needed. It was my first emergency call to the hospital. As I prayed, the man passed away. On my drive back to the rectory, I knew that I had just experienced an incredible mystery. That mystery had to be shared. I went straight to our private chapel and spent about 30 minutes in prayer. From the chapel, I went to my desktop, registered a domain, setup web hosting, installed and configured WordPress, found the perfect theme, and started writing 15 minutes later. I posted a link to the entry called “The Apostolic Pardon” to facebook, and the rest is history.

It has turned out to be a real blessing for me, personally. When I finally sit to pray Night Prayer, I reflect on the events of the day for a few minutes. I reflect on where I found God in the day, then I simply write about that experience. Writing has helped me to clarify where I see God operating in my own priestly life. Even if no one were to read the blog, I would still write!

Q: What topics are you hoping to cover on the blog? What do your parishioners think about having a “geeky” priest who blogs and tweets?

The blog is my attempt at sharing the beauty of priestly life. Looking around the blogosphere, I see very talented priests on the web. However, I noticed something peculiar: I had never run across a blog about a priest’s life. When priests blog, they always seem to be writing on Scripture, liturgy, a theological topic, the news, politics, or something else. But I had never seen a blog where a priest simply shared what he did during the day and where he found God in the midst of it.

On that drive home from the hospital, I was saddened by the fact that no one would experience the joy of that moment. I was sad that no one sees “behind the scenes” of a priest’s life. The priestly life is incredibly beautiful. It’s moving, it’s exciting. There’s action, drama, hurts, pains, frustrations, laughter, and joys. I simply want to share the beauty that is priesthood. I simply blog about the day: what happened in my priestly life, and where did I find God in it.

The parishioners absolutely love it. I receive comments almost daily from people who read the blog. They have shared with me their excitement because they get to see the world from their priest’s point of view. They really enjoy hearing where I found God in that moment.

They have also told me that they love having a “geeky” priest. I think that goes for the kids, especially. I’ve always been interested in technology. I’m not afraid to preach about music or video games in a homily, to use my iPad in the classroom, to use my cell phone to wirelessly stream music during Mass when our music ministers aren’t able to be there. Technology provides us priests with many creative possibilities. I’m excited to see where the future will lead us. We have the greatest message to proclaim. We have to use the tools available to proclaim it!

Q: Fr. Jeff, thank you again for your amazing service to our Church and to the families of your parish. Are there any closing thoughts you would like to share with our readers?

Invite your priests into your lives. Sometimes, we get bogged down in ministry as if its a business. What priests often long for is the opportunity to be with people to share the beauty of God’s love. Invite your priest to your home, have him for coffee, invite him to watch a football game, take him fishing or hunting. If there is something you would like to learn about in your parish, ask! Ask your priest how you can get involved. Don’t be afraid to offer suggestions on new opportunities for ministry. The parish is supposed to draw people together for an encounter with the divine—help your priest to make that happen. Finally, and certainly not least, pray for your priests. We operate on grace, and your prayers are certainly a part of that.

Thank you for the opportunity to share a little of my own priestly life with you. My God allow you to encounter him in a new way. I hope you enjoy the blog, and may God bless you and draw you closer to himself.

Visit with Fr. Jeffrey Starkovich at his blog apriestlife.com

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About Author

Lisa M. Hendey is the founder and editor of CatholicMom.com and the bestselling author of the Chime Travelers children's fiction series, The Grace of Yes, The Handbook for Catholic Moms and A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms. As a board member and frequent host on KNXT Catholic Television, Lisa has produced and hosted multiple programs and has appeared on EWTN and CatholicTV. Hendey hosted “Catholic Moments” on Radio Maria and is the technology contributor for EWTN’s SonRise Morning Show. Lisa's articles have appeared in Catholic Digest, National Catholic Register, and Our Sunday Visitor. Hendey travels internationally giving workshops on faith, family, and Catholic technology and communications topics. She was selected as an Elizabeth Egan Journalism Fellow, attended the Vatican Bloggers Meeting, the “Bishops and Bloggers” meeting and has written internationally on the work of Catholic Relief Services and Unbound. Hendey lives with her family in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Visit Lisa at www.LisaHendey.com for information on her speaking schedule or to invite her to visit your group, parish or organization.

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