Former Pastor Recalls his Path to Priesthood
Fr. Gabriel cites the "hospitality and warmth" of his former parish as helping him to grow as a priest. It is a parish, he stresses, that sustains "an incredible love of priests and the priesthood." While he was pastor, Saint Thomas More took in many seminarians. Most of those men said they "felt at home" in the Fairfield faith community. At the same time, Fr. Gabriel worked with a formation group at the College Seminary at Seton Hall University the past six years. He was also involved with Immaculate Conception Seminary, also on the Seton Hall campus, as a formation presenter and was part of an Ad Hoc Formation Committee.
His own journey to the priesthood was typical of many of his colleagues. He felt the first inkling while at Nativity Parish. A major influence was the parish Youth Ministry and a retreat he attended. The retreat, Fr. Gabriel recalls, "changed my life. It introduced me to Christ." In fact, he stresses, two others on the same retreat went on to the priesthood. "Once you know Him personally it is a different ballgame," Fr. Gabriel said.
After high school, he worked with disabled children in Wyckoff. It was there, he explains, that he knew he wanted to give his life to helping people. One incident during those early days sticks out in his mind. While he was busy helping young people into wheelchairs, someone turned on TV coverage of the election of Pope John Paul II. The awe and majesty of the moment is still a vivid memory.
Following that experience, he talked about the priesthood with his parish priest. Not long after that, he decided to enter the seminary. Initially his mother cried and thought it was "a terrible idea." However, his mother quickly became supportive of his decision. Today, her son being a priest is "the greatest joy of her life," he says.
The family, he stresses, plays an essential role in helping a man decide on the priesthood. "I see the family's responsibility as leading a man to Christ so that he hears His call," Fr. Gabriel explains. In fact, among his priorities as vocations director is to enlist parents and siblings in helping promote a vocation.
The proverbial "calling" to the priesthood, Fr. Gabriel explains, exhibits itself "in different ways in different people." Although in some instances it can be a dramatic revelation, he says in his case it was a process that unfolded slowly. "It's a feeling in the heart that begins a relationship," he explained. "It is being in love with God."
Discernment is a complex, personal process of spiritual exploration. Father Joseph A. Mancini, the former head of Emmaus House-located at the rectory of Saint Patrick's Pro-Cathedral in Newark-where young men spend a year of study and reflection before entering seminary, said discernment is "coming to the realization that God is calling you." Fr. Gabriel succeeded Fr. Mancini at Emmaus House.
Interviewed last year on the eve of Priesthood Sunday (see The Catholic Advocate, Oct. 24), Fr. Mancini said a spectrum of factors can trigger discernment: from a man's involvement in parish or community groups; to a sudden, devastating tragedy that can bring God's presence into focus.
To someone considering the priesthood, Fr. Gabriel says the first thing he asks is how Christ is working in that man's life. "It is a beautiful thing," he says quite contently. Looking ahead to his new assignment, it will be a "wonderful privilege" to help guide young men on their decision to enter the priesthood. He plans to bring his "love for the priesthood" to the vocations' office. He lamented the priesthood today is often maligned by the secular media as well as some Catholics.
Following his own ordination, Fr. Gabriel was assigned to Saint Michael Parish in Union where he stayed for only six months before being named chaplain at Roselle Catholic High School in Union County. Although he loved working with students, Fr. Gabriel realized too he was not cut out for grading tests and papers. Three years later he asked to be transferred to a parish and was sent to Saint Thomas Parish in Bloomfield. It was there that he learned how to become a parish priest.
When his next assignment came six years later, Fr. Gabriel remembers, he didn't want to leave. But he learned that obedience to the archbishop "opens up doors to us." It was off to Saint Teresa of Avila Parish in Summit before the move to Saint Thomas More Parish.
As the new vocations director, Fr. Gabriel sees his role as supporting what parishes throughout the four counties of the archdiocese do in fostering vocations. To that end he plans to visit parishes on a regular basis. He notes it is vitally important that the faithful pray for vocations. To foster prayer, he is planning Eucharistic Adoration at parishes during the current Pauline Year.
While vocations in the United States are struggling, Fr. Gabriel stresses the Archdiocese of Newark has been blessed with many new priests from other countries. For example, ordinandi in the Class of 2008 hail from Nicaragua, Spain, South Korea, Poland, the Philippines, Malta and Italy (see The Catholic Advocate, May 21). Though grateful for these international faith journeys, he will continue to seek out and inspire homegrown vocations.
Father Brian G. Plate, the previous vocations director, currently serves as the pastor of Saint Teresa of Avila. After posting the highest number of ordinands (17) in the United States two years ago, the archdiocese has been among the leaders in the nation last year and this year (see The Catholic Advocate, May 21).