June 12, 2003
VOL 122 NO. 23
The Seed is Planted
Newly ordained Father Thomas Servatius blesses Bishop Thomas Costello during the ordination Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on June 7
By Howie Mansfield
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
A cup of coffee can do a world of good. That simple act of fellowship was enough to get Father Thomas Servatius to apply for the diocesan priesthood. He has never looked back on that decision. “As I reflect on the past six years of transformation, I think back to what a faculty member from Syracuse University said, ‘Accept the freedom that comes from commitment.’ There is much wisdom in that statement. It has been a spark for my own journey,” Father Servatius explained. “Society can diminish one’s freedom. But I feel the priesthood has enhanced it. There are many opportunities in my life by responding to this call.”
Father Servatius, 43, a native of Utica, was ordained a diocesan priest by Bishop James Moynihan at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse on June 7. The Cathedral was filled with family, friends and parishioners from his home parish, St. Mary of Mount Carmel in Utica, and from St. James Church in Johnson City where he spent his pastoral year.
Father Joseph Salerno, former pastor at St. Mary of Mount Carmel and current pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Utica, was someone that provided Father Servatius with the “gentle nudges” toward the priesthood. “We sat down to have a cup on coffee on the fourth of July. I had made the decision that this was the time to join the priesthood,” Father Servatius said. “Little did I know that Father Salerno was thinking the same thing.”
Father Salerno knew Father Servatius hadn’t been happy in his previous careers. “I looked at him and said, ‘You still aren’t happy and you won’t be until you go to seminary,’” Father Salerno said. “A cup of coffee really changed our relationship.” Father Servatius said the seeds of his priestly vocation were planted at St. Joseph’s/St. Patrick’s Church in Utica when he was nine. He said two Franciscan priests, Father Coleman Grevy, OFM Conv., and Father Tom Tasber, OFM Conv., made an impression on him. “Father Coleman was the one that gave me my first communion. He was a gentle spirit, but a strong guy that led the church through the merger,” Father Servatius said. “For Father Tom, this was his first assignment as a priest. He would always give me those gentle nudges.”
Father Salerno said Father Servatius is a person of great faith and is happy he made the decision to become a priest. “Tom has a caring heart, especially for young people,” said Father Salerno. “I thought for sure he would be in a religious community, but I was thrilled when I heard he was going to be a diocesan priest. I’m delighted over his decision. I have been waiting for this day for a long time.”
Father Servatius’ mother, Leonarda Servatius, was speechless when asked about her feelings on her son’s ordination. “It’s overwhelming. I can’t explain it. Six years ago, it was so wonderful when he told me he was going to be a priest. As a little kid growing up, that’s what he wanted to do. He was upset when he couldn’t be an altar server when he wanted to,” Leonarda said. “He was a good boy, very religious. My [late] husband [Robert] pushed religion. Our kids went to church or they didn’t get out of the house. Tom has always been happy on the altar.”
Leonarda said her husband knew Father Servatius would be a priest someday. Leonarda is excited about all of the wonderful opportunities her son will have. “It will be exciting to know he will give people the sacraments,” she said. “Can you imagine the excitement when he baptizes that first baby?” Father Servatius has an associate’s degree in general studies from Mohawk Community College and a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Le Moyne College. He received his master’s in social work from Syracuse University in 1994. On May 15, Father Servatius received two degrees from St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, Md. — a baccalaureate in sacred theology and a master of divinity.
The ordination Mass began with Father Servatius being called from the congregation. Father Neal Quartier, diocesan director of vocation formation, attested to Bishop Moynihan the readiness of Father Servatius for the priesthood. The congregation affirmed the election by Bishop Moynihan with applause. In his homily, Bishop Moynihan discussed Father Servatius’ new role as priest. One responsibility he will have is to be a teacher of the faith. “As a teacher whom Jesus sends, you therefore must teach as Jesus did. Which means that you have to either preach the Gospel without compromise, or else keep quiet. You have to be ready for the rotten eggs and the tomatoes. As a preacher of the Gospel, you will receive words of affirmation and praise, of course, but you will also encounter confrontations, insults, and stony silence,” the bishop said. “However courageous preachers say with Paul the Apostle, ‘I am not ashamed of the Good News: it is the power of God, saving all those who have faith.’ (Rom. 1:16.)”
Bishop Moynihan discussed many other aspects of the priesthood. The call can be difficult at times, but there are many joys, the bishop explained. “People are not looking for leaders who can solve all their problems or answer all their questions. Often they know the answers already, or they know the problem has no immediate solution. More than anything else, they look to us for our presence as loving and forgiving people,” he said. “Thomas, your sanctity must be rooted in the depth of your conversion, in the joy of your love, and in your constant willingness to sacrifice yourself for others.” After Bishop Moynihan’s homily, Father Servatius came forward for the examination of the candidate, to directly inquire the ordinand’s willingness to be ordained. Father Servatius then made a promise of obedience to Bishop Moynihan by placing his folded hands inside the folded hands of the bishop. The Litany of Saints was chanted while Father Servatius prostrated himself — a sign of Father Servatius’ total submission to the will of God. The Laying on of Hands is the ancient symbol when the bishop places his hands on the head of the ordinand. All of the priests in attendance did the same, before Bishop Moynihan said the Prayer of Consecration. Father Servatius then received his stole and chasuble, signs of the office of priesthood. The investiture was performed by Father Salerno and Father Thomas Ryan, Southern Region Vicar and pastor of St. James Church in Johnson City.
Father Ryan said Father Servatius is a great addition to the diocesan priesthood. “Tom brings a very even-tempered personality to the ministry. He’s very well balanced pastorally, psychologically and emotionally — he related to the people of all ages very well. Tom steps back, looks at a situation before making a decision,” said Father Ryan. During Father Servatius’ pastoral year, the people of St. James embraced him and his talents, including all of his gardening. “Tom has an unbelievable green thumb. He grew tomato plants in front of my window here and they came along beautifully,” said Father Ryan. Even after his pastoral year was completed, Father Servatius kept in contact with the people he ministered to on breaks from classes, Father Ryan said. “He has a mature, balanced view of the ministry. Tom brings a lot of life experience with him because he is older than the average new priest,” said Father Ryan. “Tom would come back, visit the shut-ins and those in the hospital, drop them a line and let them know that he cared and was still there for them.”
One of Father Servatius’ seminary friends, Father Martin Burnham, parochial vicar at St. Louis Church in Clarksville, Md., was in attendance at the ordination. Father Burnham said Father Servatius is the type of person anyone would be happy to know. “Tom is grounded — a very caring guy with a deep faith, formed by his mom and dad. We spent a lot of time together. Tom always tells me that his first year seminary GPA could have been better because we were always in each other’s room late at night talking about becoming a priest,” Father Burnham explained. “He was always there to listen and support us. I am very happy to see him reach this point.” Father Burnham said he would often go to Father Servatius’ dorm room and remark on the number of plants and planting supplies filling his room. “It was my hobby to go down there and discuss that,” Father Burnham said with a smile. After the investiture, Father Servatius returned to Bishop Moynihan for the Anointing of Hands. The hands are anointed to allow the new priest to celebrate the sacraments of the church. Leonarda and Father Servatius’ brother Dan and sister-in-law Carol took part in the presentation of the gifts. Brother priests then gave Father Servatius the kiss of peace with hugs of congratulations. Father Servatius hoped the Mass would cause all people to re-examine their own call to vocation, whether single, married or religious life. “We are all the Body of Christ. I think the service makes everyone reflect on their own baptismal call and where God is calling them,” said Father Servatius. “To be themselves is what God is calling them to be and do.”
Father Servatius said he is grateful to all of the people who have helped shape him, along with his home parish of St. Mary of Mount Carmel. “They have adopted me as a native son of this parish. They have always supported me and I’ll be forever grateful for that,” he said. Father Servatius has been appointed parochial vicar of St. James Church in Johnson City. One comment by the late Bishop Joseph O’Keefe has remained with him for many years. Father Servatius said he is honored and humbled to serve the church as a priest. “Bishop O’Keefe once said too often people are looking around for the burning bush and it’s often within them. We must listen closely to Him — God is speaking to us in our hearts,” Father Servatius said. “The burning bush was always there, it was just a question of when. It took some work, but I got past whether I’m good enough to be a priest. God makes us good enough.”