Father Brian Olkowski
Hometown: York, Pa.
Education: St. Joseph School in York, Millersville University, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia and Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.
Current assignment:Parochial vicar at St. Joseph Parish and San Juan Bautista Parish in Lancaster
Tell me a little bit about your childhood.
I’m from York originally. St. Joseph in York is my home parish, served by Capuchin Franciscans of the St. Augustine Province. Both of my parents are Catholic. I went to Catholic school at St. Joe’s.
Around fourth grade, I started getting a lot headaches and migraines and I had a lot of health problems. Around seventh grade, I wound up dropping out of school and never went back. The local school district sent tutors once a week and I passed high school and got my diploma. It was a pretty difficult time during my formative years. I eventually went to Millersville as a biochemistry major. I chose Millersville because it was pretty close to home, in case anything happened with my health. I’d worked a lot of things out with my allergies and other things, and I haven’t had a headache since. Thanks be to God, everything got a lot better. I’ve been very blessed in that I haven’t had to deal with that anymore.
When did you first think about becoming a priest?
During my time at Millersville, I had a lot more health, and it was kind of a new lease on life. I started to get very much involved in the Newman House on campus. One of the other reasons I went to Millersville was because I knew they had a chaplain on campus. The house was open 24/7. The chapel was open 24/7. They had events throughout the week, and a really great Catholic community. That’s definitely when I started thinking about the priesthood.
Interestingly enough, when I was a kid, I definitely did not want to be a priest. I remember a day in second grade when the priests from the church came over to the school to ask who wanted to be an altar server. Everyone in my class raised their hand, except for me. I was sitting on my hands, “No, absolutely not. I don’t want to spend any more time in church than I have to.” In fact, I never served until I was a college student and started serving at the Traditional Latin Mass community.
Being on campus the way a secular college campus is these days, I felt very palpably the lack of faith and the lack of morality. I started thinking about, “What am I doing to help? What can I do to help?” I was grateful for the chances I had at the Newman House. I started a prayer group and we’d meet every week. I was involved in Bible study and cooking for Wednesday night dinners. I started looking at that as what I really wanted to do: help foster a little more faith in the area and bring a little bit of God’s light to the campus.
I started looking at my workload as an obstacle getting in the way of what I really wanted to do, which was ministry. I remember going to a daily Mass and I thought, “You know, that priest has it really good because he can do ministry stuff all day long, and it’s his job!” That’s when I knew I needed to enter seminary.
I had signed up for a Capuchin retreat because I was familiar with the Capuchins. That week, I wound up getting a cold and I couldn’t go. The vocations director called me a few weeks later and said he’d like to come and talk to me about vocations. He drove here to visit me and we talked for awhile. To his credit, he said, “I think you do have a vocation, and I think your vocation might be to the Diocesan priesthood.” He recommended that I get in touch with Father LaVoie at the time.
Talk about your ministry here in Lancaster.
I’m at St. Joseph and San Juan Bautista, which is our Spanish-speaking parish, and at St. Joe’s we have the Latin Mass. I’m learning a lot as I go along. There are Sundays where I celebrate the Mass in three different languages.
At St. Charles, we had a thing every Thursday called an apostolate, where they’d send you to a place to work. In my second year, they sent me to a parish where I was to shadow the priest and teach in the school. When I called the parish to introduce myself, I was surprised to find that the answering machine only had options in Spanish. At that point, I had no Spanish background. I realized what a need this ministry was, and the struggles of finding a priest for the community.
At Mount St. Mary’s, my last two years I enrolled in Spanish courses. I also had the chance to study in Guatemala for eight weeks at a little Benedictine monastery. You lived with the monks and prayed Morning Mass, Morning Prayer, Day Prayer, Evening Prayer and Night Prayer with the monks in Spanish.
Being able to speak Spanish is an amazing addition to ministry. I’ve met a lot of people I wouldn’t normally have met, and have been able to be in situations I would not normally have been in. It’s still a work in progress, and I’m very appreciative of how patient everyone is with me. When I’m giving a homily in Spanish and I’m looking for a word, I ask for help and somebody yells it out. There’s a lot of crowd participation that happens when I am struggling with Spanish.
I’m also pleased to help serve at the Traditional Latin Mass Community as well. That’s been a great blessing. I had to do a lot of learning on the spot. In class at Mount St. Mary’s, I did have some training in it, but I’m still learning. It’s been a great grace. The people are reverent, it’s the Tradition. It’s helped me understand a lot more about the liturgy and the calendar.
What aspect of your ministry do you enjoy most?
Being able to be present at very important moments of people’s lives, from the beginning of life and baptisms, joyful celebrations of marriage, to difficult things like Anointing of the Sick and Last Rites and helping the family through the time of the funeral. I can see the action of God’s grace in each of those moments. That’s probably the most powerful thing of this vocation. God can and will work through the priesthood and his Church.
You’ve battled health issues most of your life. Has that given you a level of empathy for those who are suffering?
There is something redemptive about suffering. I find that difficulties in life, whatever they may be, are the things that come and “shake the fence.” If you’re on the fence, you’re either going to fall one way or the other. You’re either going to fall away, or you’re going to fall right into the arms of the Lord. I always encourage people that when some problem comes and shakes that fence, just fall right into the arms of the Lord.
What would you say to a young man in college who might be called to the priesthood?
My advice is that you never discern in the abstract. You always have to go out and meet religious orders, meet various priests, see what a particular Diocese is like, see what the presbyterate is like. An analogy I use is marriage. Nobody ever decides they’re just going to get married. You fall in love with a person. It’s the same thing with religious life. It is not enough to just think about it. It’s not even enough to just pray about it, although prayer is important. You have to go, you have to visit, you have to talk with people. You have to see what the life is like and try to live it.
The Called: Father Brian Olkowski
Father Brian Olkowski
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