QWhat are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your 25 years a priest?

AOn May 18 of this year I will be celebrating 25 years as a priest. For the most part it has been a great joy to serve God and to serve the church of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. I was richly blessed to have worked in excellent assignments and to have worked with wonderful people. But just as in all things in life, there have been challenges along the way.

When I was first ordained in the 1990s, the clergy sexual abuse scandal was just beginning to gain attention in the media. I remember Channel 6 news coming to St. Alphonsus in Greendale, my first assignment, and interviewing the priests, asking for our opinion on the scandal. That was a great challenge because all priests were suddenly being viewed with the questions of guilt before innocence. 

Fr. Jerry Herda stands at a waterfall on the Road to Hana, in Maui, Hawaii, during his family trip Feb. 20-28, to celebrate his silver jubilee. (Submitted photo courtesy Fr. Herda)


Tracy Rusch
Catholic Herald myFaith Staff

     Fr. Jerry Herda, pastor at St. Monica Parish in Whitefish Bay and St. Eugene Parish in Fox Point, joked with his family years ago that if he never made it to Hawaii by his 25th anniversary as a priest, he would go.
     “I’ve never been there, so it was always just a dream to go to experience Hawaii,” he said in a phone interview with Catholic Herald myFaith.
     And his family held him to it.
     Fr. Herda and his entire family, a party of 14 including his four siblings and their spouses, and his nieces and nephews, traveled to Maui, Feb. 20-28.
     They rented a house with a pool, which Fr. Herda said was great in the heat – a big change from what Wisconsin was experiencing at the time.
     “The night before we left was minus 10 degrees in Milwaukee and we landed in Hawaii to 80 degrees, so it was a 90-degree change in temperature,” he said. 
     Fr. Herda and his family drove around and did some sightseeing on the trip, including the Road to Hana, which takes visitors on a drive through a beautiful area of Maui that shares its history and the legends of the area.
     “The biggest highlight was we did a whale-watching trip, so we took a boat out onto the ocean and we probably saw 30 or 40 whales,” he said. “It was just amazing.”
     He said they could have spent more time there, because there was so much they didn’t see. 
     And if he doesn’t make it back before his golden jubilee, Fr. Herda said the family joked they’d have to make a return visit at that time.
     Fr. Herda, who has been answering young adults’ questions in myFaith since its inaugural issue, January 2008, celebrates his 25th anniversary as a priest May 18. 
     Gatherings will be held at St. Monica Church, 160 E. Silver Spring Drive, Whitefish Bay, following the 10:15 a.m. Mass, Sunday, May 17, and at St. Eugene Church, 7600 N. Port Washington Road, Fox Point, following the 11 a.m. Mass, Sunday, May 24. 

During that time I was even reluctant to wear my priest collar out into public for fear of being chastised by strangers who only saw me as “one of those priests.” For the vast majority of priests who have tried to live lives of holiness, this was a cross to carry.

Another challenge has been to see the decline of involvement in the faith in the lives of so many Catholics. During the past 25 years, there has been a steady decline in Catholics receiving the sacraments, a decline in Sunday Mass attendance, a decline in the number of Catholic weddings, a decline in the number of people receiving the sacrament of reconciliation; the list could go on and on. 

The Catholic Church is no longer the center of people’s lives. When I was first ordained, the parish was scheduling three weddings each Saturday during the summer; during Advent of my first year, I presided at a penance service with over 1,000 people in attendance; at that time our grade school had a waiting list. 

Times have changed. In our society, God is no longer a priority. Sunday morning has moved from being the time to attend church to a time of involvement with other activities, such as sporting events, or runs/walks to raise money for worthy causes.

The Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is waking up to this realization and realizing that we need to overcome these challenges. The work of evangelization is crucial to who we are as a church. There is hope, for as people of faith we know that light always wins out over darkness.

But we can’t just sit back and do nothing. As a priest faced with the reality that clergy abuse did take place, I had a choice: go into hiding or try to live a life of holiness and integrity. As a church faced with the reality of declining numbers, we have a choice to do nothing or to do as Jesus did and tell the Good News. God will help us through all our challenges; he certainly has been with me on my 25-year journey of priesthood.  

Q: From your experience, what are the best ways my parish can be more welcoming of and reach out to people who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, etc.?

A: What would Jesus do? Anytime we are faced with a difficult situation, it is good to look at Scripture. In the Gospels we hear that Jesus interacted with all sorts of people; he welcomed sinners, he associated with the tax collectors and prostitutes, he invited those who were uneducated, simple fishermen, to be his disciples. He didn’t shy away from those who may seem different from others in society; he welcomed and embraced them.  

So the first thing your parish can do is to be more welcoming to all people. No one should ever feel isolated, no one should ever feel they do not belong. In the Catholic Church all are welcome. In the assembly of any given church you will find people of different ethnic backgrounds, economic levels, educational levels, and sexual orientation — all sitting side by side, all participating in the liturgy and all being the Body of Christ. 

At the same time, when Jesus welcomed sinners, he also challenged them to turn away from sin and to be his followers. We all need to hear that message. My hope would be that anyone struggling with his/her sexual orientation would be welcomed to talk to the priest or another staff person at his/her parish about those struggles. 

As we know, that has not always been the case. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, recently gave an address in London in which he said “it was clear that the tone taken toward gay people, divorcees who remarried against Catholic teaching and unmarried mothers had left many feeling ‘branded’ and socially ostracized … the harsh words used in the past to refer to gays and divorced and separated people, the unwed mothers etc., in the past were quite severe.… Many people who belonged to those groups were branded and that led to their isolation from the wider society.”

No one should feel ostracized. During my time as a priest, I have met with a number of individuals who have struggled to find their place in the church because of their sexual orientation; they weren’t sure they belonged. All people want to be loved – loved by God and loved by others. God loves each and every one of us, for we are all children of God

Pope Francis recently announced an extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy, Dec. 8, 2015 – Nov. 20, 2016. In his announcement he stated, “I am convinced that the whole church — which has much need to receive mercy, because we are sinners — will find in this jubilee the joy to rediscover and render fruitful the mercy of God, with which we are all called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time.” 

The best way to welcome others is with mercy.

(Fr. Herda, ordained in 1990, is pastor of St. Monica Parish, Whitefish Bay, and St. Eugene Parish, Fox Point. If you have a question you’ve always wanted to ask a priest, email it to ruscht@archmil.org and place “Ask Fr. Jerry” in the subject line.)