To ease the "shock factor" of new priests leaving the seminary and entering parish life, the Diocese of Little Rock has adopted a new mentoring program.
Following ordination, a young priest will be assigned a mentor for at least two years and will meet monthly for 60 to 90 minutes to discuss their current challenges and revelations.
"In seminary formation, it's not a real setting," said Father John Marconi, pastor of St. Paul Church in Pocahontas who will oversee the mentoring program. "You get practice and experience, but once you leave the seminary, all of your safety factors disappear. You are out on your own ... trying to figure out how this works out in priestly life and priestly ministry."
On May 4-5, 10 priests were trained at St. John Center in Little Rock to be mentors by representatives of the Institute for Priests and Presbyterates at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana. The seminary started the training four years ago to assist dioceses that send seminarians to their school. While the seminary will train the mentors, how the program is structured is left to the Diocese of Little Rock. Bringing the program to Arkansas was initiated by Msgr. Scott Friend, vicar general and vocations director, and approved by Bishop Anthony B. Taylor and the Presbyteral Council.
Bishop Taylor, Msgr. Friend and Father Marconi chose the mentors based on their interest in the program and their past experiences mentoring young priests informally.
In addition to Father Marconi, the 12 other mentors are:
Father Marconi said 13 mentors need to be trained to handle the needs for the diocese over the next four years. Last year two men were ordained, this year five men will be ordained and in 2011 and 2012 another five men are scheduled to be ordained.
During the two-day training, the priests learned what a mentor is and how they can support and encourage those who are newly ordained.
"We are not a spiritual director and we are not a confessor," Father Marconi said. "We are like a priest friend that they can come and talk about things they are experiencing and things that are going on with them."
Even though new priests are assigned as associate pastors and work and live with another priest for at least two years, they need another seasoned pastor who they can look to as a role model.
"The pastor is not going to be your mentor," Father Marconi said. "Some of the issues the 'mentee' needs to talk about might concern getting along with the pastor."
Father Gabriel Hodges, OSB, mentor program coordinator at St. Meinrad Seminary, said the mentoring program is really about easing the transition into the priesthood and getting the new priests started on "a firm foundation."
"We've moved from the idea that they are broken ... and we've got to fix them," Father Hodges said of the earlier mentoring structure. "We've moved to the mindset of an older brother sharing with a younger brother."
"By welcoming the new priests into the presbyterate early hopefully it will deter the lone ranger mentality that I am here all by myself and I have to know all the answers," Father Hodges said.
Father Marconi said he believes the biggest challenge for the new priests will be loneliness. Even though they will be around a pastor and parish staff, they might come back to the empty rectory at the end of the day and have challenges with what to do on their day off, which is on a weekday.
Father Marconi, who will become the pastor of St. Joseph Church in Conway in June, will be one of the first mentors. He will mentor Tony Robbins, who will be ordained May 22 and assigned to St. Theresa Church in Little Rock.
"I am excited to get together once a month with Tony Robbins," he said. "I am excited that I will have a very important role in his first years as a priest. Hopefully that relationship will grow so he knows he can talk to me about anything. ... To see that relationship grow, I feel it will make me a happier priest to know I am there helping my brother priests."
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