Hello and welcome!
Each year around this time, I like to give some of our newly ordained priests a chance to share their reflections with you. This week, we will hear from Father Nathaniel Sanders, and next week we will have a guest post by Father Steven Restrepo.
– Cardinal Seán
Hello, my name is Father Nathaniel Sanders. It is an honor to share a bit about my path to priesthood and initial experiences in clerical ministry with you. These reflections will focus mostly on my priestly formation, as I was only ordained this past May. Yet, my current ministry shapes an outlook on my path to the priesthood that helps demonstrate God’s continual providential guidance and grace.
I like to claim that I have all three types of brothers: one older, one twin, and one younger. My twin brother and I were born in Dallas, TX, in August of 1991 and, happily, baptized on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception later that year. My father is a native of San Antonio, TX and my mother is originally from Milton. Growing up, my father was instrumental in passing on the faith: reading the bible and praying with us every evening.
In grade school, we moved to Erie, PA. It was in Erie, at our parish of St. Peter Cathedral, that we received Confession, First Communion, and Confirmation. It was also there that I became an altar boy. The parish helped me to grow to love altar serving and the sacraments, and it was there that I first developed an appreciation for liturgy and worship. In high school, we moved again to Rochester, NY, where I attended a Jesuit school. Upon graduation, I matriculated to Boston College.
While at BC, several priests and friends strengthened me in the faith and led me to consider a priestly vocation. Upon the invitation of a friend, I started attending Mass nearly every Sunday at St. John’s Seminary. The beauty of the Mass there, and the opportunity to meet seminarians and faculty, helped me to begin to desire the priesthood for myself. By God’s grace, the ministry and work of priests appealed to me. God placed a desire in my heart to serve him and his Church through being more closely conformed to him.
Team members of a seminary football team. (I am third from left.)
After graduation, I entered the Dominican Order. The life of study and prayer appealed to me greatly. I am deeply grateful for my time within the Dominicans. It helped me grow and gave me a wonderful seminary education. However, while in temporary vows, I left the Dominicans. Towards the end of my time there, I was also in contact with Father Dan Hennessey, then the Director of Vocations for the Archdiocese of Boston. I had grown to love parish ministry, and missed Boston, and felt that God was leading me back to ministry here.
However, I did not enter seminary here immediately. For a year, I taught at Chavagnes International College, a small Catholic boarding school in Western France. It was a wonderful experience. I taught math and science to high-school-aged boys and theology through a local Catholic university. The life of the faith at the school and within France were greatly formative for me. Seeing how the faith was embraced in a different culture has shaped my understanding of catholicity.
Teaching, wearing a military hat from one of my students
At the end of my year in France, I had considered staying, but on the encouragement of Father Hennessey, I returned to Boston to enter priestly formation at St. John’s Seminary. My time at St. John’s was one of much grace and personal happiness. It is a wonderful place with great faculty and many inspiring seminarians. St. John’s has given me much hope for the future of the Church in New England. As a seminarian, I played on the basketball team, sang in the choir, and participated in numerous other activities. While there, I also studied at the BC School of Theology and Ministry.
Some members of the St. John’s Seminary Basketball Team and Coach Patrick Nee at a tournament in Milwaukee. I am second from right.
In March of 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, I began a pastoral placement at St. Margaret Mary and (later) St. Denis parishes in Westwood. My time there was a gift from God. Through the example of the priests and the generosity and patience of the parishioners, I grew to a greater understanding of the Archdiocese of Boston and to more deeply desire to serve as a priest here. I will miss serving there.
This May, my six classmates and I were ordained priests by Cardinal Seán at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. The ordination rite is remarkable for a number of reasons, but one is that it shows the workings of grace in a profound manner. The man to be ordained simply presents himself for ordination and desires to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders, and God does the rest through the bishop. It shows that it is not our initiative and work, but God’s. We desire to be his instruments of grace to the world, receiving everything from him first. God simply asks for our cooperation to be formed into his beloved sons and coworkers in his vineyard.
Receiving the chalice and paten at ordination
Upon ordination, I was assigned to St. Columbkille Parish in Brighton. It has been a wonderful place to be a new priest. Father Fitzgerald, the pastor, has been a great example and mentor. The parish is quite diverse, including a large Spanish-speaking population. While I had taken Spanish in high school and college, I still need to improve greatly. I’m beginning to take lessons with a tutor twice weekly in order to be of greater service here in the parish.
It has been remarkable to see how people support and trust their priests. Despite being young and inexperienced, new priests are immediately entrusted with great responsibility. While I may personally think that my preaching, confessions, and ministry should come with a “new-priest-warning/disclaimer”, the faithful have confidence in the grace that only comes through a priest. They know that while God’s priestly instruments may be imperfect, the graces are very real.
Blessing a family after my First Mass at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Westwood
As a priest, I have maintained my hobbies of distance-running, golf, and cooking. Although some things must be put aside in taking up priestly ministry, other activities help priests stay grounded and healthy. I am also currently in the doctoral program at the BC STM in historical theology, so studying occupies (or should occupy) much of my time. After comprehensive exams next year, I will begin writing my dissertation. Currently, my focus is on issues of providence and predestination in the work of Bishop Bossuet, a 17th-Century French bishop. Academic work has helped form my understanding of priestly service and will continue to be a large part of my work over the next several years.
At the dawn of my priesthood, I am full of hope for the Church in this archdiocese. While the past several decades have been quite difficult here in New England, God’s grace is still at work. The example of many priests and seminarians, as well as the strength of the faith in many of God’s people, inspire confidence that God continues to bring souls to holiness here in Boston. It is all his work. While I’m sure there are many difficulties ahead, both personally and collectively, God is in control. It is evident how much our culture needs the work and example of holy priests. By God’s grace, I hope to be an effective minister of God’s love and mercy to this local Church.