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
Recently, I celebrated my “first Christmas” as a priest. Newly ordained back in May it has been an exciting time for my five classmates and I. How quickly the seven months have gone by. Each day is a new encounter.
Christmas Eve for me will be a memorable one. I was the celebrant for the 5:00 p.m. mass. It was standing room only at St. Alphonsus Church in Wexford where I am currently assigned as the Parochial Vicar. Walking down the aisle and seeing so many people for this joyous occasion brought a tremendous feeling inside me. Everything seemed to go very well. It was a wonderful experience.
After the mass ended and we finished cleaning up the church, I walked back into the rectory where my pastor, Fr. Peter Murphy greeted me. He was preparing to get ready for the next liturgy at 7:30 when the phone rang. It was the McCandless Township Police Department. A man had suddenly passed away in his home and his wife requested that a priest come and say a few prayers. Fr. Murphy asked if I could go to the home since he was on his way for the next mass. I wrote down the directions and telephone number and grabbed my prayer book and headed to the home. Many thoughts were running through my mind. What was I going to be encountering? What would I say? It was Christmas Eve and a wife had just lost her husband. This was my first Christmas Eve as a priest!
I drove up into the housing plan in McCandless. Upon entering the home two police officers greeted me along with a man named Jim. I walked up the stairs and turned the corner and entered the bedroom. There I found the deceased in his bed. His name was Tony Burrelli. He had been sleeping and just went home with the Lord very peacefully. His wife Mary was at his side in tears. Mary’s cousin Rosemary greeted me. I introduced myself and then hugged Mary and told her that my thoughts and prayers were with her.
We said some prayers and I prayed over Tony. I stayed with Mary until the local funeral director arrived. What a powerful moment that I witnessed Christmas Eve night. My first Christmas as a priest and here I was in Persona Christi (the person of Christ) comforting the mourners and being loving and compassionate. Just taking the time to be with Mary and her cousin and friend meant so much.
After the funeral director arrived I then returned to St. Alphonsus to con-celebrate the 10:00 p.m. mass. As I was driving back to the parish I felt very blessed to have been able to be with the family.
I visited the viewing at the funeral home and Tony’s funeral liturgy was celebrated at his home parish St. Athanatius in West View. I will always remember him since this was such a powerful encounter. God works in strange ways. A priest is always “on call” and never knows what to expect, even on Christmas Eve.
Life is sure exciting in the priesthood. A Priest – An ordinary man, called to do extraordinary things!
(Father Burke is parochial vicar at Saint Alphonsus Parish in Wexford.)