Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

07 June 2013

Ten Years of Priesthood: A Retrospective

On the seventh of June 2003, the Most Reverend Edward P. Cullen ordained me and Angel L. Garcia-Almodovar to the Priesthood. It has been my greatest joy and privilege to serve as a Catholic Priest in the Diocese of Allentown, and as God wills, I shall serve until I draw my latest breath.
Anniversaries are times to look back and to look forward, usually with gratitude for blessings received and blessings given. Although ten years isn't a very long time, it's the longest amount of time I've been a priest; and I am sadly aware that many of us don't make it to ten years without leaving, whether freely or under duress. One of my classmates has already died.  For these and other reasons I feel compelled to write.

I fondly recognize the many people who have supported me up to this day.  Foremost among them are my parents, Helenann (Welker) and (+) Joseph R. Zelonis. Mom has been a devout Catholic since her teenage years, when she first discovered the faith and dove headfirst into instructions to get sacramentally "caught up." Dad came to embrace the faith more fully through Mom's example and intercession. I also believe that my approaching ordination and his own failing health each played a part. Hey--God uses what He wills.

Mom and Dad gave me the freedom to learn my prayers, to read about the Faith, to interact with ordained and lay Catholic adults, and to consider the possibility that God could be calling their only son (together; my half-brother is a husband and father) to be forever unmarried and without issue. For reasons too numerous to consider here, many parents do not afford their children this freedom. I'm glad my parents did, and I know they have never regretted it.
My primary shepherds, along with Msgr. Treston, my first pastor and Bishop Cullen, my ordaining prelate
The Zelonis and Welker families are godly yet earthy people. They have accompanied me throughout life's joys and sorrows. They respect my vocation, yet are not at all afraid to keep me right-sized when necessary. I know I belong to my family, even as I belong to Mother Church.

I knew dozens of priests and seminarians over the years. They always had time for me. Priests nurtured my vocation with frequent conversations in the sacristy, on the rectory porch, local restaurants, the halls of high school, and elsewhere. I used to hang around the rectory and bug the secretaries. Once, to get me out of her hair, M. suggested I write local parishes to volunteer my services as an organist. At the age of twelve I was hired by a priest who, for the past 25 years, has been a loyal friend and mentor.
Music kept me close to the Church. As an organist I played for my own and several other area parishes, including the United Methodist congregation in town. The organ and trumpet served me well in the seminary, and I hope my offering served St. Charles well. In every assignment as a seminarian and priest I've gotten to play for Mass (not while celebrating, unless you count the Entrance and Recessional hymns at nursing home Masses). It's a real treat. I'm not quitting my day job, as they say, but the occasional homecoming to an organ bench keeps me as sane as possible.

St. Charles Borromeo Seminary prepared me as well as possible to serve as a priest. They did their best with what they were given. They helped me to learn about the truths of the Creed, the practice of the Sacred Liturgy, moral teaching on traditional and contemporary concerns, and the life of prayer. I had regular exposure to people in "field education" assignments in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Allentown--a special needs school, senior citizen daycare centers, a high school, a college campus ministry, and several parishes. It was a long nine years, but it was only the beginning of my formation. More had to be revealed: not simply in terms of meaty content, but also the briny broth of human relationships. I was rightly trained to be a theologian, but soon had to learn customer service.
My first assignment as a priest was to St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish in nearby Sinking Spring. Msgr. Treston was the pastor. He was very kind to me, and so were the people. They would often ask me to give a talk for their groups, to teach at the school, or simply to join them at social events. Every month I would offer Mass at the county prison, the county rest home, and/or the assisted living facility in our territory. Early on I came to enjoy visiting people in the hospital--a terrific moment for compassion and evangelization.
After only one year at St. Ignatius I was asked to be the Chaplain and to teach at Reading Central Catholic High School. I felt rather ill-prepared for the tasks of program/event coordination, classroom management, and intensive interaction with high schoolers. Nine years of seminary formation were, relatively speaking, a breeze for me. I enjoyed academic work, and did well in it. Being on the other side of the desk was another matter. Others have judged my time at Central more mercifully than I, but it was my own discomfort that prompted a return to parish ministry. Encounters with former students, fellow administrators/teachers, parents, and alumni are always joyful. I am grateful for their part in my learning experience at Central.
While teaching at Central I lived at St. Catharine of Siena Parish in the Mount Penn section of Reading. Msgr. Smith and the other priests helped me tremendously by their presence and encouragement. Even though my service to St. Catharine's was mostly limited to Sunday Mass, the people were always friendly. I continue to admire their devotion and service, especially when I "pinch-hit" for one of their priests for a weekday Mass. 

At my own request, the Diocese graciously granted me a mental-health leave. I took part in a program for priests about a half-hour outside of New York City. The staff helped me to regroup from the stresses of high school, and equipped me to face future challenges with greater confidence. I can understand if a priest might feel ashamed to ask for help; and if direction is offered, then it behooves us to follow it! Thank God and thank my trusted advisors that I don't have to face problems alone. A pro-active approach can spare individual priests, and the entire Church, untold hardship.

If I thought my first assignment was short, my next one at St. Joseph the Worker in Orefield (Lehigh County) was shorter--just about ten months! But Msgr. Wargo, fellow priests, and the people found a place for me in their well-oiled machine. As with St. Ignatius, I frequented the hospital and school, instructed converts and engaged couples, and observed the tireless efforts of numerous parish organizations.

In an offseason move (January), I went to Holy Guardian Angels in January 2008, where I have been serving until now. This is the first parish assignment where I've been the only Assistant Pastor, not the junior of two. In addition to other responsibilities mentioned above, I have become more closely involved with the Finance and general Parish Councils, RCIA, and CCD, ministry training and fundraising. I wouldn't give myself a stellar grade for my interaction with every parish activity, but I endeavor to be present to all of them while attending to my spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being.
Crowning Our Lady while a student prays for my safety

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Thousands of people over the years have formed me in various ways and contexts, and thousands more await. I pray that I will have been a blessing to all of them and countless others. By the daily offering of the Church's liturgical prayer and my personal prayer, the reconciliation of sinners, attention to the needy and to children, study and sharing of divine and human wisdom, and the witness of steadfast love amid celibate chastity, I am becoming a pleasing oblation to the Father in the image of the eternal High Priest.  I can boldly say, in union with Christ: This is my body, which is being given up for you.

It seems appropriate that my 10th anniversary falls on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, also the World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests and my favorite devotion. Once in Confession as a teenager, a priest bade me to pray to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, that He "take away my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh" (cf. Ez 11:19). At the time I must have been dealing with one or more of the cardinal sin categories, as I still do; and that prayer still comes to mind for the sake of my priestly service. Of course, I want to avoid scandal; I don't want to dishearten any child of God. I cannot back down from the truth, but I want to help people to receive it as well as possible, and make any changes that the truth requires. If people walk away because the truth is too hard, I can't help that any more than Jesus could (cf. Jn 6:66); but God help me if my personality ever obscures the light and love of the Redeemer. Thank God for the many people who daily assist me to be of optimum service!

A devotional favorite of the upstate babas is still a favorite of mine. Enjoy it, patient reader, with my grateful prayers:


  1. Father, thank you so much for your honesty, humility and transparency. I'm so glad you were able to get the help you needed back then and that you are still serving God and his Church as a priest. May you continue to open to his mercy and love for you. -Tekton Ministries

  2. Happy Anniversary! You shall remain in my prayers. God bless you.

  3. Congratulations and God bless you Father on your 10th. anniversary of being a priest of Jesus Christ. I have seen you many times, but never had the honor of meeting you. I am a member of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Exeter Twp. Thank you for devoting your life to Jesus and His Church.

  4. Happy tenth anniversary Fr. Z. Some people often wonder what the life of a priest is like. And I know that the priests that are in parishes are strapped to the max. I now know that priests struggle with the same things everyday people do. I learned that last year when Fr. Reilly went to God. You are in my prayers as well as every other priest in the vocation.