Thomas Burke is the son of William Burke and Margaret Dvorsky Burke of Pittsburgh. He received a bachelor of science degree in communications from Clarion University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy from Duquesne University. He is a 1988 graduate of Carrick High School. He earned a master of divinity degree from Saint Vincent Seminary in 2000. He is now a priest in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
By Thomas Burke
As I enter the last year of my studies at Saint Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, PA, before being ordained a priest for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, I would like to reflect on my road to the priesthood.
Ever since I was young I always thought about becoming a priest. I grew up in the Carrick neighborhood section of the City of Pittsburgh. The youngest of three children and the only boy in my family, my parents, Bill and Marge Burke, taught my sisters, Lisa and Linda, and myself good morals and values.
My sisters and I all attended St. Norbert Elementary School in Overbrook and went on to Carrick High School. We went to Mass as a family every Sunday. Growing up I was an altar server, then became a lector and Eucharistic minister and taught eighth grade CCD. My parents were very active in the PTG and various school functions.
After graduating high school in 1988, I attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania and majored in communications. I wanted to become a newscaster. While at Clarion, I joined the Newman Association and went to Mass every weekend. I loved going to church. After graduating in 1992, I took a position as an admissions counselor at the Pittsburgh technical school, Triangle Tech. I did a lot of driving in my car traveling to area high schools giving career planning presentations and attending various college fairs. I would find myself turning off the radio to pray. It was very peaceful. In 1993, I accepted a job with the Greater Pittsburgh Council — Boy Scouts of America as a district executive in public relations and marketing.
I loved my job, bought a brand new Saturn SL-2 car, lived in a nice apartment in downtown Pittsburgh and had a girlfriend. I had everything a normal, 25-year-old male could dream of. In March of 1994, a priest invited me to dinner while I was at a Cub Scout sign-up night in Duquesne, PA. While at dinner we discussed my life and at one point he asked me, “Tom, did you ever think about becoming a priest?” It was at that point that I really began to think about my life.
It took me a whole year to really decide to enter the seminary. My parents, sisters, grandmothers and friends all said the same thing when I first told them that I was going into the seminary — “We are not surprised.” So, in the fall of 1995, I resigned from my job, moved out of my apartment and entered the seminary. At first I was filled with a lot of questions. Would I be able to make it? Is the priesthood really for me?
After being in the seminary for five years, I can honestly say it was the best thing I ever did. I love my faith. I love helping others and I love people. I thought six years of studying philosophy and theology would be very difficult. But over the years, I have matured and learned so much. I never thought it would be possible but I now know that “all things are possible with God.”
We all know there is a severe shortage of priests across the United States. There are a number of reasons men are not responding to the call. For one thing, parents are not encouraging their sons to think about the priesthood as a possible career. Many parents want their sons to make a lot of money, get married and have kids. Also I feel priests need to ask children to think about the priesthood. A happy and healthy priest is a good role model for today’s youth. Kids can really look up to their pastor or parochial vicar as a good role model. There are many good men out there thinking about the priesthood. They just need to be asked and encouraged.
Celibacy is not the main reason for the decline in seminary enrollments. This is just an excuse. In fact, many Protestant seminaries are also facing a decline in enrollments. They are not required to be celibate. Not everyone gets married. A priest is “married” to the Church and the parishioners are his family. A priest needs to have a good, loving family and a close set of friends in his life. By being celibate a priest is free to be available to all people at any given time.
There is hope for the future. At Saint Vincent Seminary, our enrollment is growing. Many more men are entering the seminary “later in life.” Most men entering the seminary are in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Men are starting to see the priesthood as a “second career.” A number of my classmates are former lawyers, teachers, computer programmers, truck drivers and salesmen. By entering the seminary later in life as I did, priests can bring much life experience to their ministry.
In closing, I feel all of us have a responsibility to promote vocations. By encouraging men to consider a vocation and lending our support we can all make a difference.
(Father Burke is parochial vicar at Saint Alphonsus Parish in Wexford.)