success stories

Mentoring program helps new priests, builds fraternity

By Lisa Schulte
Catholic News Service

The first years of a priest's ministry can be difficult as he makes the transition from a structured life of academics, according to Father Dan Kampschneider, director of continuing education of priests for the Archdiocese of Omaha.

"Newly ordained priests have an amazing array of new responsibilities, and it can sometimes be overwhelming," he said.

To help them make the transition, Father Kampschneider developed a mentoring program for newly ordained priests of the archdiocese. In its fifth year, the program pairs new priests with more experienced priests -- those who have been in ministry for 10 or more years.

The two meet on a regular basis for three years, Father Kampschneider said. After that, they can decide if they will continue to meet.

In addition to meeting with their assigned partners, the mentors meet with Father Kampschneider four times a year for a peer review process.

"This is sort of on-the-job training," he told The Catholic Voice, Omaha's archdiocesan newspaper. "The mentors are learning as they go, and I'm also learning as they are. It's been a great experience."

Fewer than half the dioceses in the United States have mentoring programs for priests, he said, noting that Omaha is recognized as having one of the strongest and most successful programs in the country.

Father Jim Keiter, assistant pastor at Sacred Heart/St. Mary Parish in Norfolk, said he appreciates what the mentoring program has brought to his priesthood.

"It builds confidence and also accountability," he said. "It gives you reassurance as you are beginning the priesthood."

Father Keiter was ordained in 2001, and since then he has been meeting every month with Father John Pietramale, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Hartington and St. Michael Parish in Coleridge. He said they talk about a variety of topics, including rectory issues, personal prayer and conflict resolution.

Mostly they talk about everyday life, he said, noting that all discussion is confidential.

Father Mario Rapose, ordained in 2000 and serving as assistant pastor at St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Omaha, said he also appreciates the guidance he receives from meeting with his mentor, Father Steven Stillmunks, pastor at St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion.

"In the seminary, you study about things, but the practical application is of a different nature. (The mentoring program) helps you to see the priesthood in a different light," he said. "You come into the priesthood with so much passion, thinking, 'This is how it is,' but you need to take time and discuss."

Father Stillmunks said he understands how important guidance is to a newly ordained priest.

"There's nothing more intimidating than to go to a pastor and say, 'How do you do this?' You hear things differently when they come from the mentor rather than the pastor," he said.

The role of the mentor is to be a guide, to support and to challenge the new priest, not to be a supervisor or take away from the role of the pastor or spiritual director, Father Kampschneider said.

The mentor deals only with external formation of the newly ordained priest -- those things that concern public relationships. A spiritual director helps with internal formation and acts as a confessor for the new priest, Father Kampschneider explained.

The mentor-priest's job is to help the newly ordained priest bring serious internal matters to his spiritual director, and external concerns or problems to his pastor or to the archbishop, he said.

It is not just the newly ordained priests who benefit from the mentoring program. The mentors said they gain from it, too.

Father Pietramale said he enjoys the time he spends with Father Keiter and looks forward to their meetings. The two have decided to meet regularly even after the required three years are finished.

"It's exciting when Father Jim comes to me to celebrate the good things that have happened in his life," Father Pietramale said. "It's a fraternal friendship bound by the priesthood as holy and healthy priests."

Father Stillmunks agreed.

"It's been extremely rewarding for me. I've been a pastor for many years, and this isn't how I interact with my assistant pastors," he said. "It has given me a greater perspective of the men coming in.

"As the years go by, we'll never be strangers," he said. "It has been validating for me -- though many years separate our ordinations -- we share that one community that bridges that gap."