Friday, August 19, 2022

The Called: Father Samuel Miller

Father Samuel Miller
Hometown: Lititz, Pa.
Education: Warwick High School, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.
Current Assignment: Parochial Vicar at Good Shepherd Parish in Camp Hill
Please tell us about where you grew up and your childhood.
I grew up in Lititz, Pa., where my home parish was St. James; it’s a parish run by the Redemptorists, a religious order. There was a priest there when I was young named Father Girard who taught me how to altar serve, and that is where I got my first foray at the altar. He was replaced by Father James O’Blaney a couple years after that, and that is who I first told of my potential vocation to a Diocesan vocation, which made for a little of a fun conversation. He said to me, “Well, why not the Redemptorists?” It was a fun back and forth conversation.
I have one sister, and she and I are very close. She helps me be a better person. She is younger, three years than me, and she helps me. Mom and Dad were very supportive of me when I told them I wanted to be a priest. I think my mom was secretly very excited and elated. She is the one, though she will fight you tooth and nail on this, who pushed me into being an altar server.
How young were you when you began serving?
I was around nine years old, about as young as you could be. I served all throughout my childhood and up into my teenage years. One of the things when I talk about my vocation to younger kids is that I point to my dedication altar serving, though I was kind of forced into it a little. But once I started doing it, I wanted to do it right and make sure things were done correctly. It was important to me.
I was very attentive to all the things that were needed, and when Father O’Blaney took over we wore cassocks just like I am wearing today. If I was wearing a white shirt underneath, I would look in a mirror and pull up the white shirt and see how it looked. That is sort of a tell-tale sign of my childhood that there may have been a hint of a vocation in my soul. But in high school, you kind of put that sort of stuff behind, at least I did.
You went to Warwick High School.
Yes, I did. I was pretty lukewarm growing up about a vocation, but I had a good group of friends and I am still friends with them today. When you go to seminary you have your seminary buddies and your high school friends. I stayed in contact with my high school friends and we have been together forever, it seems. They are really a solid group of guys.
I remember one of my friends coming up to me in high school and asking me if I was Christian, and I said, yes. “Well you really don’t act like it,” he said. So I thought, “Oh no, I am a horrible person.” But it was great because it was like a kind of kick in the butt that I needed to shape up. It kind of made me want to be good, and the fact that they were there as a buffer for me was really great for me. They still are, and that is great.
In high school, probably around my junior year, my youth group went to Atlanta for a Steubenville conference, which was a pretty big conference. It was pretty much a big spiritual awakening for me. People who were coming up to us to talk, they were on fire for the faith, which was something that I had seen very rarely growing up – which is not anybody’s fault. But to see that in person, to see young people in Adoration that way gave me a fire I never felt before. It was a turning point for me. I thought, “If I am going to be Catholic, I need to take this seriously.” So I had a sort of big conversion and I began reading spiritual books, apologetic works. My senior year was all about that. I sort of owned my Catholic identity, to the point where one girl said to me, “You are really into this Catholic stuff, aren’t you?” to which I said, “Yes I am.”
If you would not have gone to that conference, you would say you may not have had that vital turning point?
That was – and it is probably the one big thing that I point to – kind of at least conversion-wise, very important. St. Pope John Paul II always talked about needing that conversion of heart constantly. It completely gave me a 180 when it came to my faith.
More than reading and studying works, did your views toward the Mass and sacraments change?
Good question. My view with spending time with our Lord, I would sneak into St. James when I had free time and adore the Blessed Sacrament. I was in show choir in high school; I played football for a while too, though I was a bench warmer – not sure I had the aggression they wanted then. I eventually had to commit to one. The show stuff we would do took rehearsal time, so I would sneak back into a quiet place and pray the Rosary in a corner by myself.
There was a priest that would meet with me regularly that gave me spiritual direction, so my senior year is when I also took a “come and see” vocation retreat with our vocations director (Father LaVoie) and a couple of other guys from the Diocese discerning the priesthood. We went to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia to see it for the first time. We got to see seminary life, and that was the first time I really got to see what seminary was about.
I always ask kids when I do vocations talks about what they think seminary life is like. Is it like bars on the windows, candlelight, no Internet or TV or free time? Really, they start nodding their heads and it was exactly how I thought seminary would be like. Really, it is college with a spiritual undertone, but you are not alone either, and you are with guys who are in the same boat as you: learning about our Lord, about the Church, the basics of Catholicism all with the goal of discerning as to whether they want to become priests.
I was like, “I think I can do this” after the visit, and “Not only can I do this, but I am called to do this.” I called my mom, and she said yes. My dad was a little hesitant at first, but then he committed to it wholeheartedly and he was really happy for me. I graduated Warwick and went right into St. Charles Seminary out of high school, which was sort of a huge leap for me. Seminary life took a little bit to get used to and maybe it was me butting heads with the system some there, but just getting used to the regimen of Morning Prayer, Mass, Evening Prayer, Night Prayer and the schedule. And college seminary is about philosophy with some theology thrown in, but the main study is philosophy. We would have philosophical speakers come and speak to us for several hours, and it was stuff I had little previous idea about.
Coming right from high school, that was a very big step for you and nothing you experienced before.
Yes, that is exactly true. And coming from public high school as well, it just was a completely new world to me, like Morning Prayer, which you might have had some in a Catholic high school. Catholic high school would have given you a little bit of Latin too, which I had no clue about. But once things started to click for me in seminary life….
I assume you made some friends, and that was a big help?
Exactly. It was what made things click for me, and those friends are priest friends today that I still stay in contact with. Entering right after high school, I got to know guys who were eight years in and guys who were like me, so I had the whole range. There is a statistic told to us that nearly a third of our presbyterate has been ordained in the past ten years and a good number ordained in the past five. I know many of them, and fraternity was huge with Father LaVoie and we became like a unit. We hashed out our differences and we still hold that bond today.
Many of these priests are pastors now, so I know them. They used to give me rides home and they would listen to Johnny Cash, so I can tell them not to give me any lip. That sort of fun thing builds a fraternity and camaraderie that will last. It was a ton of fun in seminary. It’s school so there is study and making sure that you put into it what the Diocese and the good people of the Diocese are giving and putting into your education. It’s like, “Ok, this is for them. When I am ordained a priest, I want to preach, teach them and lead them to Christ as best that I can.”
Is it humbling to know that you are being supported by so many faithful?
It is, and the people of this Diocese are so good and are very generous to their seminarians. They just are. It is a grassroots effort because a lot of the people know you, and know you since you were a kid, like many do from when I was at St. James. They would always ask, “How is seminary going?” You just always felt their support.
Were you always discerning about becoming a priest, or were you lock-step on board the entire way?
I would not say I was lock-step the whole way. I was not fully prepared about being ordained a priest under my first year of theology study. College seminary was that testing ground, and I used those first couple of years to head butt the system a little, and get the obligations down. I never had anything that would cause me to want to leave. I mean, you meet guys who you can tell that they make a good discernment process and head out. They say, “This is not for me” and leave, and it is understood. In first Theology, I was with a priest who told me that you eventually make the call, barring an act of God, and from then on I was totally gunning to become a priest. I was in a parish over the summer and it was nerve-racking in some ways but also exciting. But I got to know the people and I really loved what I was doing and where I was at.
In what parish we you assigned that summer?
I was at St. Patrick’s in Carlisle with Father Forrey and Father Bender. I remember one time I was at Quo Vadis Days, our discernment camp, and I was so tired and almost falling asleep in chapel. Father Bender yelled over at me across the room, “Sam Miller, wake up!” He probably does not remember that, but I do! I deserved it. I shot right up and was awake.
You were not at St. Charles you whole seminary career, correct?
No, I was not. Father LaVoie asked me where I would like to go for Theology, so I said I think I would like going to the Mount, and see what a different seminary is all about. He thought that was a good idea for me. I like both St. Charles and the Mount, but the Mount for my Theology years was a beautiful place to grow and pray. St. Charles was a beautiful place to grow and pray, and to get ready for the priesthood. I’m not saying St. Charles is not, but the Mount gave me places to run and jog around the mountain and also go to the Grotto; gorgeous places, peaceful places. I actually miss going down, with the pandemic these days. I graduated from the Mount, and was ordained June 1, 2019 – it’s been a year and 25 days since then – who’s counting!
Tell us about your first year as a priest at Good Shepherd.
It does not even feel like a year, and it has been a unique year for sure. The first months, I was learning the ropes, and I still am. I made a joke in a homily a couple of weeks ago, referring to last summer when I was green. “Who am I kidding?” I said, “I am still green.” It has been sort of a whirlwind with all the seasons. When Lent started, I took a priest retreat to France and came back and everything was closed. I went over at the end of February, early March and there were rumblings about closing things. I went along with two other classmates, priests from the Mount.
Where did you go in France?
We went to Ars, France. I got to say Mass at St. John Vianney’s altar, where he is interred. He is just lying there in wax peacefully and his body is incorrupt. It was hugely humbling. When I was asked to say Mass, I jumped at the opportunity. I was thinking I was not worthy, as more than 20 priest were there, but they wanted me to do it. We got the chance to explore Ars for a day and then went to Leone, and we just celebrated the Feast of the Sacred Heart. I got to see St. Margaret Mary and see where she is buried. It was amazing. It was a great trip.
It was easy getting back into the U.S., but it was a little too easy. The doors started shutting right after. It was a challenge, but it provided a ton of opportunities as well for us to grow, because there has been a push about using digital technologies to communicate for quite some time to reach our homebound parishioners or people unable to get to Mass.
I originally was going to go to college to study film, at DeSales University, if I did not go to seminary or things did not work out with that. I was accepted, but the tug towards the priesthood told me that was the way to go. I had made some short, fun films with my friends, which were really fun to do and I got acquainted with digital technology and learned what it can do.
When the parish went to live streaming, were you a part of that process?
It was already set-up while I was in France, and when I came home we thought it best that I self-quarantine for 14 days, which was fine with me. We have continued to improve on things greatly since this all started.
The faithful appreciate what has been done to make things available on the computer, true?
Definitely. I noticed that I had a huge audience for when I prayed the Rosary and broadcasted it live. We used artwork from around the parish as backdrops. We also have had a good response to our Tuesday night live shows – that is 7 p.m. every Tuesday.
Tell us about this program.
We call it the Good Shepherd Show. We may cut out the live show part, but we (Father Sullivan and Brian Pritchard) broadcast it every Tuesday night. It is kind of like a comedy show, but we share some spirituality and some parishioner spotlights also. We have done seven episodes up to now, though we may take some time off this summer. I usually spend Tuesdays in the studio, editing booth, scrubbing through footage and sound tracks, and YouTube is good to sound file things. It has been a fun challenge. The whole year has been full of its challenges but it has also been full of its graces and consolations. You know what they say, if you are in a state of consolation immediately prepare for desolation. But this is a vocation, it is not a job, it is what you were born to do. I never want to toot my own horn. I am only as good as the Lord has given me the grace to be. I cannot take any credit for what has been done.
Your parish has been through times of consolation for sure?
Yes, and we always want to be there for them. We are attentive to our parishioners. We want people in Camp Hill to know that there is always a priest here for them and our doors are open. Father Sullivan and I started on the same day last summer (Father Sullivan was assigned pastor in June 2019) and Father Sullivan’s door was and is always open. “The door is open, come talk to me” was the inviting message. There are so many good things down the road for us and we are both super excited about how things are going to develop here at Good Shepherd. There is always hope.
What are some of the fun things or hobbies you do to recharge your batteries?
My free time consists of reading. My sister got me a guitar for my birthday, though I am still stuck on the three chords I learned a while ago. My mother tried to get me to learn an instrument, the piano, and I was a lazy kid so I never practiced. I had a friend at the Mount who played and I thought that it would finally be nice to be able to do it. With the guitar, it is nice to hit the right chord correctly and hear it. I was going to take some lessons but then Covid-19 hit. It looks like I will be self-taught for a while longer.
What do you like to read?
Currently I am reading Dune, which is a classic science-fiction novel. And you will hear this from a lot of priests, but Lord of the Rings is one of my favorites also. I lean towards the suspense-type thrillers; I am sort of that type of guy. A good ghost story or creepy, dark theme. I liked to be scared growing up, which is fun. I like the lives of the saints as well – those are the real superheroes.
Who are your favorite saints?
One of my Canon Law professors at the Mount said that we tend to only pick one saint as our patron. He said, “Why not pick more than one?” so I decided to do that. St. Thérèse of Lisieux has been watching out for me since I was a kid. Just before I became a transitional deacon, I read Story of a Soul and I realized that she has been the one looking out for me since I was seven. They say if you pray a novena to her, you will get roses. I have gotten roses for sure. She has adopted me more or less. When I was young, I saw a picture of her as a young child and I have always felt a connection. You usually only see pictures of her as a young woman.
St. Maria Goretti is one of my favorites because it is so redemptive. It is just not her story but the story of her murderer, Alessandro, and just the mercy and reconciliation he had and the conversion he had. The whole story of how he became humble and contrite, I just love the whole beautiful story.
Also, since I went to a Redemptorist parish, I learned about St. Alphonsus Liguori. My focus in theology was moral theology, and he was a doctor of moral theology. I did not know that when I was taking the courses, so I feel that he has been looking out for me also.
There is St. Philip Neri, who is the second Apostle to Rome. There was a deacon – now priest – at the Mount who told me about St. Philip’s heart being twice the size of a regular heart, and that when he gave hugs you could feel the heat of his heart. That is the priest I would like to be like. He liked to play tricks and he was a wise guy – so I can relate to that.
There is St. Pius X. People think he is so rigid and dogmatic, but his mother called him Bevie, and he was very gentle and humble and poor in spirit at times. “Born poor, die poor,” he said, even though he was sitting in the Chair of Peter. He was the first pope canonized in 500 years, so it is a pretty big thing. St. Thomas Aquinas is a favorite of mine, a good pillar of strength. I need an army of saints looking out for me.
How do you prepare for a homily, Father?
I prepare a week in advance. I check the readings for the next week and begin thinking. I mull it over for a while. At the Mount, we had a biblical software that allowed us to look at the Greek and the commentaries for that weeks’ readings. I try to cross check it and there is so much to do, but it can be one little word in the Gospel that can make all the difference. I try not to be too complex, but try then to relate it to life so when they walk out the doors they can use what I have been preaching. How do we continue to grow in the Lord? St. Pius X, he would say “Confession, Communion, Confession, Communion,” and I am sure the parishioners are probably tired of hearing me say it. Pope St. John Paul II was all about the constant conversion of the heart, and I think it is important to constantly renew your soul every chance you get.
Do you have a favorite aspect of you ministry?
My favorite part of ministry is hearing Confessions, and of course saying Mass, but Confession brings a devotion to St. John Vianney that really hits home. He was so good in that box that you would come out of Confession feeling a weight lifted off your shoulders. You just always felt welcome in his confessional and he would always say, “Come back.” What a gift.
I would say another part of my ministry I have fallen in love with is being an ambassador for our Lord to those who maybe have not seen him for a while. Maybe it is somebody who is sick and the family is there and maybe the person is about to die. You have a chance to be a healing hand. You are right there in the midst of sorrow or suffering and of course you are there so the Lord can work through you. Being that ray of hope is a chance at redemption and reconciliation.
Also the shut-ins and nursing home patients, which I have not been able to visit much since the pandemic, bringing hope to them is something I enjoy doing. It is a beautiful part to be a ray of hope and maybe the only person they really see that day. I also love going to the schools; just being on the kickball field is fun. Being with the parish family is special, I get to tease them and have fun with them and it is great. Since we have opened the doors back up and seeing the people again, you just say to yourself, “Thank God.”
(Interview conducted by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)

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