Father Philip Burger
Hometown: Lancaster, Pa.
Education: St. Joseph School, Lancaster; Lancaster Catholic High School; St. Pius X Seminary in Erlanger, Ky.; Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Md.
Current Assignment: Pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Abbottstown
Tell me about your childhood.
I grew up in the area of Lancaster city that often referred to as Cabbage Hill. St. Joseph’s was my home parish. I went to the parish grade school, and the Franciscan Sisters taught me all those years. Then I went to Lancaster Catholic and graduated in 1975. I should have graduated in 1974, but I liked second grade so much that I stayed another year!
My father was a butcher and meat-cutter by trade. Right at the beginning of my seminary career, he was diagnosed with Chron’s Disease. He ended up, after surgeries and everything, working at Lancaster General Hospital, and my mom worked there as well. They worked there through most of my priesthood, until my dad died in 2011. I have a sister and brother. My sister has one child, and that child has two more. My brother has four children, and two of them have two children each. So my mom has six great-grandchildren. She’s still in Cabbage Hill, about a mile from where I grew up.
Talk about the faith formation you received in Catholic school.
When I went to St. Joe’s School, the day started out with Mass at 8:15. If you were late for church, you were late for school. Then in school, the first thing we did was religion. That really impressed on me the importance of the faith dimension and the primary purpose for our schools. We prayed before meals, we prayed before each class would start.
One of my favorite times in my younger years there was when the sisters would have certain ones of us go over to the convent to carry their bookbags. The reason why you wanted to be chosen was, the German sister was there with a tray of cookies!
It was a great time for me. I really do attribute my vocation to the nuns. I had good priests who were good examples, but most of my exposure was to the nuns and their lifestyle. I think that was really what began to nurture the vocation for me.
When did you first consider a vocation to the priesthood?
It was my junior year of high school. Prior to that, I saw myself working as a police officer. My junior year, Father John Schmalhofer was being ordained a priest. I remember Father Gross, our pastor, asking me if I could go to the ordination. I couldn’t, because I was taking the SAT test. I remember Father saying, “You don’t need that if you go to the seminary.” Which I found out later isn’t true! But I remember thinking to myself, “He thinks I’m going to be a priest.” I dismissed the idea, but I went to John’s first Mass. I was toward the back of the church and the music started and the priests were processing in. And I just heard, “That could be you.” That’s what kind of started me on seriously thinking about the seminary.
I went to our high school chaplain, Father LaVelle, and told him I wasn’t sure what to do. He told me he had wanted to be a State Trooper before he went to the seminary. By the time I walked out of his office, I decided to go the seminary.
That summer, I started to have doubts. I thought, “Maybe I should go to Millersville and get a degree, and if I still feel called, I’ll go to the seminary.” Then I talked with a couple of the sisters at the high school: My aunt, who was a Franciscan, was head of the business department, and another Sister, who was an Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister. I considered them by first vocation directors. I could tell they were disappointed that I wasn’t going right into seminary. I found out Millersville University had early acceptance, and if you applied for it and were accepted, you would have to go. I decided I’d make a deal with God: “If I get early acceptance, I’ll go to Millersville. If I don’t get it, I’ll go to the seminary.” I didn’t get it, so I went to the seminary.
What was your seminary experience like?
At St. Pius, formation was very structured. We couldn’t leave the seminary without permission. The only day we were allowed off campus without permission was Saturday, and we had to be back by 11:00 or we could get grounded for the month. We had structured time for Morning Prayer, Mass and Evening Prayer. We had wonderful Days of Recollection every month and a week retreat, and they were all in grand silence. We only were allowed to speak with each other for about an hour after an evening meal.
Both at St. Pius and Mount St. Mary’s, we had really good speakers. That spiritual part was very helpful.
Once I moved to the Mount, there wasn’t as much structure. What I was happy about was, the structure now was up to me. The four years in Kentucky helped me see the importance of structure, and I carried most of that when I went on to the Mount. When I left the seminary, I felt prepared.
You were ordained in 1983. What were some of your early assignments?
The first was St. Joseph in Hanover for four years, and then I moved on to Annunciation in McSherrystown. I was in residence there because I was the campus minister for Gettysburg College and chaplain at Delone Catholic. After a year there, I was transferred to campus ministry at Shippensburg University. I was there for four years, until 1993, when I became pastor at St. Joe’s in Shamokin for two years before the consolidation.
The people at St. Joe’s, I found to be receptive to the consolidation. I’m sure there were people who were nervous about it, but as time went on and we worked closely with the leadership at St. Steven’s, we all agreed that whatever church edifice was chosen, the interior needed to change to reflect the new parish. St. Joseph Church was used and the new parish. There were some people who left from St. Steven’s. It was hard for them because they were losing their church. Even at St. Joe’s, when we made the formal announcement, I felt it, and I had only been there two years. This was the place where their parents or grandparents were baptized and confirmed, so I could understand the hurt and pain. But in the end, I think once the merger officially happened, people really did come together. I was privileged to be part of it.
Then with St. Patrick’s, I became pastor of two parishes, with two parish councils, two finance committees, two of everything. But I enjoyed both parishes, and it was a nice area to work in, too. The thing I liked about the people most is their honesty. I didn’t find them holding grudges. They were hard workers. I realized, there are people here who didn’t like the merger, but they understand, and they’ll do the best they can to make this work. And there were people who didn’t like it, didn’t want to like it, and nothing I did was ever going to change that.
I was involved in prison ministry at SCI Coal Township. The first few weeks of going in there and hearing gates close behind you is kind of nerve-wracking, but I felt safe with the guys. During Mass, there usually weren’t guards in there with you. I didn’t fear going in. Since there, I’ve worked in Dauphin County Prison and SCI Camp Hill while pastor at St. Joan of Arc in Hershey and Good Shepherd in Camp Hill.
What aspect of your ministry do you enjoy most?
What I usually enjoy most is working with people in small groups. In terms of the sacraments, Mass and Confession. The Sacrament of Confession has always been a particularly humbling time. I know what it is to have to go to Confession myself, but I also feel very humbled sitting there as the instrument of God’s forgiveness for a person who, in many situations, is holding something very heavy.
What do you enjoy in your free time?
To recharge myself, usually it’s an evening to just be alone in the evening, because I am a high introvert. The things I like to do, I enjoy the shore. I have hunted, but probably not since 1993, and mainly because I’ve had no one to go with, or a place to go. I still fish, and I go bass fishing with my brother-in-law, who lives in Florida.
The Called: Father Philip Burger
Father Philip Burger
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