A New Priest's Long Journey To The Clerical Life He Underwent Years Of Questioning And More Years Of Study. At Last, He's The Rev. Michael H. Spitzer.

Posted: May 24, 1998

Catholics believe the faithful are surrounded by a cloud of saints who guide and uphold them. Last Saturday, in the grandeur of Philadelphia's central cathedral, Mike Spitzer and 10 other new seminary graduates were surrounded by a human cloud as well, of clergy and loved ones who came to lift them to their new station as fledgling priests.

Ordination ceremonies, a rite of spring in Roman Catholic dioceses, are suffused with tradition and spiritual power for participants. ``I just went back and forth between peace and tears, peace and tears,'' Spitzer, 28, said afterward.

The next day, the cloud followed him - now the Rev. Michael H. Spitzer - to his boyhood church, where he celebrated another emotional passage: presiding at his first Mass.

About 350 college friends, relatives, neighbors and well-wishers were gathered at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church in tiny Hilltown, Bucks County. Fellow priests and seminarians joined him at the altar. Several dozen parish musicians, including a bell choir, sang and played, and the congregation was in full voice.

The new priest officiated flawlessly. As the service concluded, he told the worshipers, with a mix of laughter and tears, that saying Mass outranked even the no-hitter he once pitched. ``I knew I could have been overcome with emotion [during the Mass], but I felt Christ's strength'' upholding him, he said at his reception afterward.

* Mike Spitzer a priest? The straight-talking sports fan who lifts weights in his spare time might have seemed an unlikely candidate for celibacy, obedience, and a life of uncertain work in unknown places.

He went to public schools and graduated from Central Bucks West High School and Temple University, where he majored in journalism. His father is Jewish, his mother Catholic, and they are divorced. He dated regularly in high school and early college.

Never more than what he called a ``lazy'' Catholic, he wasn't even particularly drawn to God until his early 20s. At that time, he was living with 34 guys in a fraternity house at Temple, often carousing at night and downing cold pizza for breakfast. ``There were lots of good times, but it got old after a while,'' he recalled.

While at Temple, he began what he called a gradual conversion, prompted in his third year of college by a frat brother who openly went to Mass. The brother ``challenged me to look at my moral conduct, the importance of the Mass, prayer and reading Scripture.''

Over time, Father Spitzer recalled, he began to go to Mass himself, to frequent the sacrament of confession, to desire a prayer life, and to participate when he could in a prayer group. He found himself increasingly away from the crowd and the alcohol at parties.

When he learned about the reported apparitions of Mary in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, he found her messages appealing. ``They were basic: Convert. Change your life. Jesus loves you. Give your life to Him.'' Then came what he called a ``providential turn of events,'' when a still-anonymous donor sought to underwrite a trip to the shrine for someone who might benefit from its graces. Spitzer, halfway through school and broke, was asked if he'd like to go.

In Medjugorje, he was awed by the magnitude and the fervor of the larger church. ``This Catholic faith is so much greater than I ever realized, and I wanted to be part of it,'' he said. He first felt called to the priesthood midway through a 2 1/2-hour climb up a Yugoslavian mountainside during a stations of the cross service, in which hundreds of pilgrims were commemorating Jesus' journey to Calvary.

``I couldn't tell you at which station it was, but I had the overwhelming sense of God's presence. I was brought to my knees by it and started to cry.'' He felt God asking for ``total surrender, specifically to the role of priesthood.''

``I can't say that I knew for sure then that I would become a priest, but I knew that I would consider it. I made a promise then that I would be open to it.''

The mountaintop experience filled Spitzer with serenity, but back at home that faded and he began what he called a two-year ``tug of war of the human heart.''

``You start to question, `Was God really there in all that, or was I fooling myself?' '' He questioned whether he was ``holy'' enough: ``I started thinking of a priest as someone who was born with rosary beads wrapped around his hands.'' He doubted that he fit the mold: ``It's a very public life, and I like to be more anonymous. . . . I'd always presumed I'd get married and have a home, and even a Porsche, if I did well.''

Answers eluded him despite several weekend retreats at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, retreats designed to help would-be priests discern the authenticity of their call through prayer and Scripture study.

In the spring of 1992, Spitzer was invited to visit the seminary again, and accepted - as much to eat well and to avoid seeming rude as anything else, he said, only half-joking. But he arrived nauseated and nervous, knowing at heart that ``the Lord's hand was in all of this.'' By weekend's end, ``I had the sense of a weight being lifted off, of a clarity of mind,'' with the same serenity he had felt at Medjugorje.

That fall, he entered the seminary, his first Catholic school, and never looked back through six years of study, prayer and work in a variety of ministries.

* The training culminated in the sacrament of Holy Orders that he received from Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua last weekend at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Center City. During the two-hour ceremony, Father Spitzer and the other ordinandi dropped to their knees one by one before the cardinal and promised obedience to him and his successors. Then the 11, clothed in white, lay face down together before the massive altar while the congregation of 1,400 appealed on their behalf to God for mercy and to the saints for prayers.

Afterward, the candidates again knelt before the cardinal for the laying on of hands. In a 20-minute-long expression of welcome and affirmation, each of about 150 bishops and priests present placed his hands on the heads of the men being ordained.

The laying on of hands is emotional for those senior priests, especially ones who have long known and prayed for the newly ordained. Some priests say a brief blessing or word of welcome.

Father Spitzer has an uncle who is a priest, the Rev. Howard Campbell of Pittsburgh, who turned 37 that day. When his turn came to lay hands on his nephew, Father Campbell said: ``I just kind of shook his head a little, just to let him know it was me.''

Msgr. Joseph T. Marino, pastor of St. Denis Church in Havertown, served in the Spitzer family's parish during the 1980s. Great joy comes not only from the human bond, he said, but from the older priests' experience of working in partnership with Jesus.

``It's a very fulfilling life. You're invited into people's lives in such deep times, on such intimate occasions . . . and you know your friend Jesus Christ is in there with you,'' he said.

Sunday's first Mass in Bucks County was something Father Spitzer had rehearsed twice a week for months. Although it will be among his most memorable Masses, it was essentially identical to those he will now celebrate every day of his life.

For Catholics, the Mass, or Eucharist, is the highest form of adoration of God. For priests, it is also the most important duty for which they are ordained.

All of the church is charged with imitating Christ through service, but the priest is called specifically to give his life to the service of others' spiritual needs, to share with Jesus the job of bringing the world to God. Priests say that celebrating Mass each day reminds them of that responsibility, and, in so doing, helps them fulfill it.

Daily Mass becomes the ``heart and soul'' of a priest's life, ``like breathing,'' said the Rev. Daniel Mackle, director of the archdiocese's Office for Worship.

Even when he travels, Father Spitzer will likely check in with a local pastor to see about celebrating Mass there. With family or friends he may say Mass at home. Priests have a portable Mass ``kit'' that contains smaller versions of the prayer book, candles, and chalice - or cup - normally used.

Father Spitzer's chalice is the gift of an older priest, and Father Spitzer's family had his mother's engagement diamond embedded in it. Father Campbell, his uncle, blessed it before it was used Sunday for the first time.

The new priest's family and friends - even ex-girlfriends and non-Catholic frat brothers, he said - were ``extremely positive'' about his vocation. At the end of Mass Sunday, he gave thanks for the support that eludes some prospective priests.

``There's such a deep gratitude that anyone who's been involved in any way in the formation of a priest feels'' at such a time, Ruth Spitzer, 51, his mother, said later. She has a priest and a nun for siblings, so her children have not been afraid of vocations, she said: ``They see it all around them.''

And what of a life of celibacy? Father Spitzer calls it ``a settled issue.'' What most matters ``for me, personally, is the conviction that I'm called to it. I embrace it as a gift.'' While it is not easy, he said, it is possible ``with a very active and deep prayer life.''

Not until month's end will Father Spitzer know where his first assignment will take him. But despite the much-publicized decline over the last 25 years in the number of priests on duty, he is unlikely to be overwhelmed by the workload. Lay staff members shoulder much of the work formerly done by priests, freeing the clergy for their primary duty: pastoral and sacramental work.

Father Spitzer feels ready. Earlier this month, he spent a week at St. Joseph in the Hills Retreat House, Malvern, away from the final exams, guest lists, invitations, rehearsals, vestments and such, away even from spiritual reading and formal prayer. He said he spent his days sitting quietly in the chapel, absorbing the graces he will need for the priesthood with ``a real deep peace, and an overwhelming sense of gratitude.''

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