A congregation of clergy, religious, family members, friends and lay faithful filled St. Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg on Saturday, June 4, in joyful celebration of the ordination of four priests for the Diocese of Harrisburg.
Bishop Ronald Gainer celebrated the Mass of Ordination to the Priesthood for the new priests, Father Jerome Kleponis, Father Thomas Meinert, Father Matthew Smith and Father Damon Tritle.
“In every Mass, the celebrant invites us at the very beginning of the Preface to ‘lift up our hearts.’ In a very special way this morning, in this Eucharist, we lift up our hearts in great joy and sincere gratitude to God for the gift of these four new priests to serve the needs of our local Church,” the bishop said during the Greeting. “Let us truly be joyful and grateful as we celebrate this Eucharist.”
Family members of the new priests filled a dozen pews at the front of the Cathedral, sitting across the center aisle from the rows of priests who welcomed the newly ordained into their fold.
Addressing the priests in the congregation, Bishop Gainer said, “Today, we will embrace with fraternal affection and sincere joy these newest members of our presbyterate. May this liturgy of priesthood ordination renew in each one of us the grace of our own vocations and the promises we have made to God and to one another.”
In his homily during the Rite of Ordination, the bishop spoke to the ordinandi about the utter significance of the questions posed during the Promise of the Elect.
Those questions, asked during the Examination of the Candidates, are:
- Do you resolve to discharge unfailingly, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Office of the Priesthood in the Presbyteral Rank, as trustworthy coworkers with the Order of Bishops in feeding the Lord’s flock?
- Do you resolve to carry out the Ministry of the Word, worthily and wisely, in the preaching of the Gospel and the teaching of the Catholic faith?
- Do you resolve to celebrate the Mysteries of Christ, reverently and faithfully, according to the Tradition of the Church, especially in the Sacrifice of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, for the praise of God and the sanctification of the Christian people?
- Do you resolve to implore with us the Mercy of God for the people entrusted to you, with zeal for the commandment to pray without ceasing?
- Do you resolve to be united more closely each day to Christ, the High Priest, who offered Himself for us to the Father as a pure sacrifice and, with Him, to consecrate yourselves to God for the salvation of all?
The series of questions from the bishop ensures that the candidates’ intentions and resolve are genuine and public, and points to the fundamental aspects of the priesthood. To the first four questions, the candidates reply, “I do;” to the last, they respond, “I do, with the help of God.”
The words, “I do, with the help of God” should be “understood, even if unspoken, as pertaining to each one of the questions. It is an essential truth that we achieve nothing without God’s help,” the bishop said.
“Jerry, Tom, Matt and Damon, I hope that your life experiences thus far have already taught you that. The life that you are about to begin as an alter Christus, another Christ, will remind you of that fundamental truth over and over and over again. Without Christ, you are nothing. Apart from Christ, you can do nothing holy,” the bishop told the men.
He encouraged them to think often, throughout their priesthood, of the questions posed in the Examination of the Candidates.
“They are a wonderful summary of your responsibilities as priests and will form a useful examination of conscience throughout the rest of your lives,” Bishop Gainer told them. “It is solely with the help of God, by God’s grace, that you have been called to this vocation, and only by grace will you be able to fulfill what you are about to receive.”
Eager and Prepared to Serve
At the conclusion of the Mass, the bishop announced the priests’ assignments as parochial vicars for the following parishes: Father Kleponis to St. Katharine Drexel Parish in Mechanicsburg; Father Meinert to St. Leo the Great Parish in Rohrerstown; Father Smith to Corpus Christi Parish in Chambersburg; and Father Tritle to Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Harrisburg.
Father Kleponis was born in Ashland and attended St. Mauritius School, Cardinal Brennan High School and Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales. Now 66, Father Kleponis worked as a dentist and for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania before entering Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass.
“I retired from dentistry in 2015 and was a full-time caregiver for my mother. Somewhere along the way, I realized the dignity of caring for other people,” he said.
“I realized I was feeling something different, and it really didn’t hit me until the summer of 2017. I started to receive all kinds of signals,” Father Kleponis said of hearing the call. “I remember especially on Transfiguration Sunday, which is in August, something told me to look up ‘older vocations to the priesthood’ on the internet. I thought, ‘Ok, we’ll do this and see what it is.’ Something told me to keep going forward with the search and to consider it.”
“You’re never too old to serve the Lord – that’s what prompted me to pursue this a little further,” he said.
Reflecting on his formation, Father Kleponis said the most memorable aspect is working with the people of God.
“It’s extremely important to know that people are out there. I felt this especially last year when I had a problem with my leg and was hospitalized; all the people in the Diocese were praying for me that I’d eventually get ordained [to the diaconate], which I was later in the summer,” he said. “It’s great to know that people are out there, and people really care about their priests.”
Father Meinert, 26, is a native of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Hershey. He attended St. Joan of Arc School and Bishop McDevitt High School, and received his priestly formation at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia.
“The first inkling that I had a call came when I was in about sixth grade. I was at Mass and I was praying, and I would see the priest. I was an altar server at that time. I thought that it was an interesting possibility, but I almost kind of dismissed it at that point and I wasn’t really ready to address that God was calling me to this vocation,” he said.
“It wasn’t until I was in my junior year of high school when I went on a Kairos retreat that I really found the courage to start praying. I heard the call again and I think at that time I was a little bit more prepared to be able to answer it, but I really needed the grace of God to help me through to get to this point. He did his part; he supplied all the grace that I needed,” he said.
Reflecting on the support he has received from the people of the Diocese throughout his eight years of seminary, Father Meinert expressed his gratitude and explained how their support provided a source of encouragement.
“For the past eight years, knowing that there is such a large amount of people who are praying for me and supporting me in any way that they can has really helped me in my discernment to want to be better for them,” he said. “One of my friends, whenever it would get hard in seminary, would help to refocus it. When you start to get down on yourself and think, ‘This is tough, this is hard, maybe I can’t do this,’ remember the people who are supporting you, who are praying for you. They’re trying to get you to that 100 percent effort, they’re trying to get you all the way there. You owe it to them to give your full effort.”
Father Smith, 28, is a native of St. Patrick Parish in York. He attended York Suburban High School and earned a degree in business from Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., before entering its seminary.
“The first distinct memory I have of feeling drawn to the priesthood was when I was about eight years old and altar-serving at my home parish. The priest at that time was Father Anthony Miller, our pastor. He was just a super joyful priest [and] watching him as a young kid, I would think, ‘That looks awesome. His life looks great. I want that,’” he reflected.
“Altar serving and discovering the more hidden parts of the Mass, like the more quiet prayers the priest says to himself, really brought a whole different side of the Mass I never really knew from watching in the pews. Those are the things that helped me to hear God’s voice calling me to the priesthood and planting a desire in my soul to be a priest,” he said.
Father Smith expressed his gratitude for the support from the people of the Diocese.
“It’s been really amazing to go to our summer assignments [as deacons] and having their excitement in welcoming us and introducing us to their parish and their experience of the faith,” he said. “We don’t come from a seminarian patch somewhere that we’re just plucked out of the ground; we have been raised in the faith by the very parishes that support us…. I came from a family of six kids. We come from those families in the parishes living the faith. We come from Catholics being present in their parishes.”
Father Tritle, 36, is a native of Corpus Christi Parish in Chambersburg. He attended Chambersburg Area Senior High School, Millersville University and Ashworth College and earned a degree in business administration.
Father Tritle is a convert to the Catholic faith, and said the invitation to consider a call to the priesthood came from priests he knew.
“After college, I started hearing from priests I knew who said, ‘Have you considered a vocation?’ ‘I think you have some of these good qualities, why don’t you check out Quo Vadis Days?’ ‘Why don’t you pray before the Blessed Sacrament? I think you’d make a good priest.’ I started hearing that in my mid 20s,” he said.
“I came to the Church with a spiritual hunger and curiosity that led me to read voraciously about the faith, the saints, Church history, etc. I had a lot of catching up to do, because I did not grow up in the Church. Through this, and seeking the counsel and direction of some wonderful priests, I came to hear God whispering to me that I ought to give seminary a chance,” he said. He received his formation at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.
“There is an unofficial, but very true saying around seminaries: Formation works if you let it,” Father Tritle told The Catholic Witness. “The seminarian learns docility, humility, cooperation, and many other great traits as well. But it isn’t magic. You have to trust the faculty in charge of your formation, and work at it. These lessons are not just helpful on the ‘human’ side of things, but are deeply beneficial spiritually.”
Father Tritle said he is elated to be a priest. “The only words I can express right now are utter awe and thanksgiving. I’m so grateful to my God, family, the Church and Her people, and Bishop Gainer. I’m very excited to begin serving the Church,” he said.
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness