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June 24, 2020

The Called: Father Peter DiTomasso, MSSCC

Father Peter DiTomasso, MSSCCFather Father Peter DiTomasso, MSSCC
Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Education: Cathedral Prep High School in Brooklyn, N.Y.; St. Francis College in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Oblate College in Washington, D.C.; Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Md.
Current assignment: Pastor of Immaculate Conception BVM Parish in Fairfield and St. Rita Parish in Blue Ridge Summit

Share with us where you grew up and your childhood experiences.

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and I am the oldest of four boys. My father, Peter, was Italian-American and my mother, Mary, was Irish-American. I would say that I grew up in what can be called a middle class family. My father was a construction worker and my mom started out as a stay-at-home mother until later. When we grew up, she became a secretary for an oncology doctor and she did that for many years.

I lived in Brooklyn for 26 years until I left for my vocation and seminary training. I went to Cathedral Prep High School in Brooklyn, and that was the high school seminary for the Brooklyn Diocese at the time. I thought about becoming a priest in the eighth grade. I went into high school where there were 110 seminarians studying for the priesthood, and I graduated with 26 who were not. After I graduated high school, I wanted to be a history major so I went to St. Francis College in downtown Brooklyn and the sister college, of course, is in Latrobe in Pennsylvania.

I did my four years of college and graduated as a history major, and after college I still had the idea of wanting to be a priest. At that time I looked into the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and joined them. I did two years of studies in Washington, D.C., at Oblate College, which is now closed and then moved to Texas. I joined them in 1987 until 1992. I came back home and worked in the New York public school system as a teacher. I started out as a substitute teacher, but then I went from that to work for the Bureau of Education. We would review all the different federal program funding that was given to the schools, like English as a Second Language and special education needs, making sure that all the money being appropriated was being used properly. It was essentially auditing. I enjoyed that work and I did it for two years. I got to go to parts of New York City that I would not normally go. I was in Harlem and many other neighborhoods, but I enjoyed it because I got to see parts of the education system that I would not normally see or even knew existed. But I still had this thing about the priesthood and having a call to pursue that vocation.

What steps did you take to pursue that call?

A friend of mine told me about going to the Diocese of Metuchen in New Jersey. At the time, I was in my late 20s and I spent a year as a postulate year at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in New Brunswick. At the end of that year, the pastor and I agreed that I was not being called to be a diocesan priest in that diocese. I then went to a temp agency, where I did various little jobs and I eventually got to Merrill Lynch. I worked at that company for five years in the 401K department. I helped with the paperwork side of things with the 401K program. I never thought I would be doing something like working in the economics sector of our economy.

That seems like quite stretch for a history major.

Yes, it was. But you see, it all shows that my vocation was a winding road. In 2000, I was invited to go to the Jubilee Year in Rome – designated so by Pope Saint John Paul II. It was a Eucharistic pilgrimage. It was during that pilgrimage that God hit me square back in the face and said to me that I had to “get back to doing what I am calling you to do – I want you to be a priest.” I came back from that Rome pilgrimage and went on a discernment retreat soon after with an Oblates of Mary Immaculate priest up in Boston. I had always had devotion to the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, and this Oblate priest told me look into the Missionaries of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

Had you ever heard of this order before?

No, I had not, and so after my retreat I gave the Missionaries a call and they were doing a retreat here for the pastor at the time, Father Messaro, here at St. Mary’s. After that, I made a visit to what we call our motherhouse for the America’s in Linden, New Jersey, and did a retreat there and met the vocations director. After a second visit I made the decision to join the Missionaries. That was in 2001 and I did my novitiate here in Fairfield.

Since your previous studies with the Oblates, you were down the road a little from beginning anew?

Yes, I had a ten-year hiatus between the Oblates and the Missionaries. Again, my vocation has been a winding road, but the thing is, I think God has blessed me because I understand what unemployment means, I understand what it means to pay the bills and not be able to pay the bills. I had a girlfriend, and broke up with a girlfriend, so I have had real-life experience. In some ways I have been blessed, so when I became the vocations director for the Missionaries, I could understand where guys were coming from with issues, financial issues. As a vocations director, I can find out if they are wanting to join the Missionaries or wanting to escape from something. You have to see where they are coming from; that is the job of a vocations director.

When were you ordained?

Bishop Rhoades ordained me a transitional deacon here at St. Mary’s and I did my postulant and novitiate here also and finished my studies at Mount St. Mary’s in 2004. I was still in temporary vows so I was not ordained with my class. I did a year in New Jersey and then came back here. In 2006, I was ordained both a transitional deacon and to the priesthood in the same year. I was ordained in Lynnwood, New Jersey, to the priesthood, by Cardinal O’Brien, on June 24.

You have had quite an incredible diversity of life experience, would you not say?

Yes, I have. In hospital ministry, I got to see people at their most vulnerable. Talk about being a good shepherd and finding lost sheep – that was how I saw that ministry. Eighty percent of the Catholics that I came across would always say, “I have not been to church in a while, Father,” or “I’ve not been to Confession in years, and I have issues with the teachings of the Church.” Bringing them back into the Church was the goal, and I always had the fun part of trying to get both men and women back to going to Confession. They would say to me, “I do not know where to even start,” or, “Father, you do not have all day to be with me.” But I really did, and that was a challenge. But after multiple visits, many would come around. Some just did not want to.

I remember people just bringing their full emotions out. One lady who was crying told me it was not tears of sorrow but of joy of having this burden lifted off her that she had been carrying around for years and years. She happened to die a few days later, but the gift of the sacrament was knowing she died in peace, having had this enormous burden lifted from her by the mercy of Christ. Also, meeting Protestants and non-Catholics taught me quite a bit so it was ecumenical ministry as well. It was a wonderful experience and it helped me when I became a pastor for the first time at St. Joseph the Worker in Bonnueauville.

Tell us about that first assignment as a priest in the Diocese of Harrisburg.

There I was able to share my experiences, in homilies and in ministry. Having experiences helps bring it down to earth for people and I still use my experiences, work and ministry to teach through homilies.

How do you prepare for your homilies?

I try to relate what is going on today with Readings and the Gospel many times, and not so much about me, but about the situation. Like the social justice issues we are having currently did not start in 2020. These issues go way back and we must learn to have conversations instead of burning buildings. It makes it worse in the long term. But when you want a conversation, all people see is the negative side and destruction. There needs to be a conversation. That is something I have learned as a chaplain, and I see it with people who have been hurt by the Church – not a racial thing – but they hold deep resentments that go way back. Like, “Father did not do this, Father did this and that upset me.” The hurts go back, and the thing is when you start to have a conversation, many people talk about something 30 years ago. Today, I tell them, this would not happen. The Church has grown and changed.

You actually are able to resolve some of these issues when you get down to talking about them. Many times a current pastor can help solve an issue that has been a source of resentment for many years. It is important to have the dialogue. It is about building bridges, and we need to start doing that more often.

I also always try and tie a saint into my homilies and I like very much the lives of the saints. That is probably the history major in me speaking.

Who are some of your favorite saints?

I have a couple of them. St. Thérèse of Lisieux is one and my founder (St. Gaetano Errico) is another. One of the reasons I joined the Missionaries was because of his story. He did not have a straight road to the priesthood, either. He wanted to be a Redemptorist priest at the time, but they had a quota system when Napoleon took over so he became a diocesan priest in Naples because the Redemptorists were full. He still had a great love for the Redemptorists and would still go on retreats and Holy Hours. I went over to see his canonization in 2008 in Rome. A bunch of us went over, and we were to serve the Mass and go out into the people and give Communion in the Square.

Do you have a favorite aspect of your ministry?

One of my favorite parts outside of saying Mass is the Sacrament of Confession. I want to always be there for the person who feels that they cannot be forgiven for their sins. God is going to be there with his open arms. He is going to be there with his love and mercy at all times. Our founder was a great confessor. In addition, St. John Vianney listened to confessions sometimes 16 hours a day. I like to make sure that nobody is ever turned away. Even during this pandemic, I would go out to hear Confessions, adhering to social distancing. That is important in times like this. It is important all the time, but especially so now.

Could you talk about the challenges of being a priest and pastor during a worldwide pandemic?

The challenge is how to reach your congregation. Much of my congregation is older; they do not use social media, Facebook or even e-mail. They may have cable TV and that may be quite limited in offerings. I sent out a letter to all my parishioners, and the good news is that many have internet. So we did do live streaming and I encouraged as many as possible to do this. We even just posted the bulletins on the church doors and told people to spread the word to as many parishioners as possible about parish news. We did get feedback through Facebook and e-mail and that was helpful. They were appreciative. Some parishioners were not happy with us not giving Holy Communion. We had folks upset with state requirements rather than Diocesan regulations. It has become a political issue, unfortunately. You always have a few that are going to be upset, but the vast majority have had no issues.

What do you do in your free time, or what hobbies do you have?

One of my hobbies is reading. I like to read history and spiritual readings as well. I am reading a book by Scott Hahn right now on the Resurrection, which I am enjoying. I like to read novels like Tom Clancy, in that genre, for pleasure. Sometimes I just like to do puzzles – word puzzles and things to keep my mind sharp. I just enjoy the grace here and the beauty of this area. This is a beautiful area here, and at outdoor Mass I found many people just looking at the beautiful hills and vista here.

What advice do you give to a young person who may be in their 20s that has not or is not following the more traditional route of pursuing their vocation? You obviously have a unique journey, and can you share wisdom or advice?

My journey has definitely been a winding road, like I said before. I try and tell guys that not everybody gets called the same way. Sometimes you are going to have a detour, maybe more than one, but that does not mean you shut yourself off to that call of the possibility of being a priest. Sometimes he may make you go a different road for a while.

When I was asked by the Oblates to leave, I was hurt. I took my vows not as temporary, but as permanent. So when I was asked to leave, it took me a while to adjust to being a lay person again. But thank the Lord, I was able to find a job and adjust. I worked at a homeless shelter for a while in Catholic Charities; I worked at a halfway house as well with troubled youth. They did not have families to go back to. Some were addicts and I had to sit in on their support meetings.  God put me in all these different positions for a reason, and I think I was made vocation director in our order because of my various experiences.

Share your experiences of being a vocations director.

One of the things a vocations director must ask and find out is, are they running away from something or not wanting to deal with an issue or be responsible. I would tell these guys that the road may go left and right and not straight, and it is important to constantly pray and ask the Lord for his help in putting you in the right direction. You cannot fall into despair and discouragement. Maybe you are not called to be a missionary, but maybe you are called to be a diocesan priest or deacon. I tried to be encouraging to the guys. I had great family support throughout my vocation journey. You have to find somebody that you have who you can turn to; it is not always your parents, but you need at least one person who you can turn to and trust. People here in this part of the Diocese very much support vocations in this area. I think the parishioners seeing us down here get to see the paths we have taken, and we appreciate their support very much.

(Interview conducted by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)

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