(Excerpt from my commencement speech to the graduates of St. John’s Seminary, Camarillo, CA on May 14, 2019)
What words of advice should I leave you, my dear graduates and seminarians?
Believe in yourself and all the gifts that God has given you. Don’t listen to the voices of negativity that tell you that you’re not gifted, or you don’t have what it takes to be a good priest.
The goings may get tough. You may find it difficult to live or to work with fellow priests and people
You may hear that people don’t like you and what you’re doing but believe in your good intentions.
Yes, listen to people, but never lose sight of your capacities to learn from your mistakes, from others, and to keep growing in leadership and ministerial skills.
You will get sick; you will get frustrated; you will have sleepless nights, but don’t lose your belief in God who calls you to be faithful to your vocation.
Yes, you will suffer, but remember that when you suffer, you become wiser!
Second, be radical!
The word radical comes from the Latin word radix, meaning root. Remember always the root, the origin of your calling: your love for the Lord and his people. Be like Peter in the First Reading two Sundays ago. When the Sanhedrin gave the disciples strict order not teach in the name of Jesus, Peter boldly answered, “We must obey God rather than men!”
Peter’s words reminded me of my favorite Gospel passage when Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Every time that Peter responded with the words, “Yes, Lord, I love you,” Jesus answered back, “Then feed my sheep.”.
Yes, my friends, remember again that your ordination is for the service of the people of God. So, don’t complain if you have to say three Masses on Sunday because of a lack of priests. Don’t get upset if there are hundreds of people in line for Confession. Don’t complain if you must to do three funerals during the week, and you must switch your day-off.
To be radical in today’s world means to be passionate about the Gospel, to have a vision for a better Church, and to move on despite the trials and scandals of the Church.
To be radical means to be a witness to Christ by the simplicity of our lives and our selfless service.
To be radical means to love our people, even those we find unattractive. They may have their idiosyncrasies; you may not speak their language, eat their food, or agree with their ideas, but give yourself to them who are not like you.
Third, be authentic, be real!
Rumble with your emotions; you’re still the same person after ordination, with all your insecurities and anxieties.
Know that you cannot do everything. You’re wired for connections; you need to surround yourself with good people.
A pastor once gave me this advice me when I was a young priest, “Learn to share your success with other people.”
Fourth, be vigilant!
Let your ministry be rooted in prayer. Remember to approach everything with the eyes of faith, even the administrative work which you may probably hate.
Be prayerful but be proactive. Know your strengths and your limits. Be wise—have prudent zeal and good pastoral judgment. Take care of your health. Don’t wait until situations get worst. Consult with people, with experts. Be humble, you don’t know everything; the priesthood is life-long learning and re-learning!
Fifth, be excited about the ministry!
Don’t lose your zeal and positive spirit. My early years as an associate pastor were the defining years of my ministry. I enjoyed them—my involvement with school children and youth, the summer camps, the youth retreats, my ministry with families and seniors. Even now, I get excited as I begin another journey and mission.
Believe, be radical, be authentic, be vigilant, and be excited in your ministry! If you put the beginning letter of these words, you will come up with the acronym B.R.A.V.E. –Brave!
So, be brave!
Be brave to face those who are hurt and disgusted by the Church and those who don’t have religious affiliations. Dialogue with them. Be brave to have respectful religious disagreements. Be brave when you don’t have the answers and be brave to come back with the answers!
Be brave when you must make hard decisions as a pastor. Be brave to face your critics, when you don’t have to be “nice” to people all the time. Be brave to deal with failures, sickness, and anxieties.
Remember the words of Theodore Roosevelt in his speech “Citizenship in Republic”:
“It’s not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumphs of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”
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From a Filipino immigrant family, Reverend Rodel G. Balagtas was ordained to the priesthood from St. John’s Seminary in 1991. He served as Associate Pastor at St. Augustine, Culver City (1991-1993); St. Martha, Valinda (1993-1999); and St. Joseph the Worker, Canoga Park (1991-2001). In 2001, he served as Administrator Pro Tem of St. John Neumann in Santa Maria, CA, until his appointment as pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary, Los Angeles, in 2002, which lasted 12 years. His term as Associate Director of Pastoral Field Education at St. John’s Seminary began in July 2014.