Father of Five Becomes Shepherd to Many

Interview With Father Jerry Wetovick

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By Traci Osuna

GRAND ISLAND, Nebraska, JUNE 10, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Last Friday, Jerry Wetovick was ordained a Catholic priest. On Nov. 23, he will celebrate his 75th birthday. “I’m already 10 years past retirement age for priests in my diocese,” he remarks. 

For all of his life, Father Wetovick loved his Catholic faith and has always felt exceptionally close to God. It wasn’t until he experienced the sudden loss of his wife of nearly 46 years that he realized he still had another vocation to fulfill. While working through his grief, he was able to hear God calling him to the priesthood. 

“It isn’t that I made the wrong decisions,” he says. “God blessed every decision I made. Basically God has been with me and still is. I can feel him.” 

ZENIT: At age 74, you are starting down a brand new path in your life. Please tell us how you came to the decision to become a priest. 

Father Wetovick: On Jan. 13, 2007, my wife died of an aortic aneurism. Nobody knew she was dying. She was still alive when she left the house in the ambulance. She just waved at me and said “I’ll see you at the hospital, Jerry,” and I said “I’ll see you there, Pat.” That’s the last time I saw her alive.

That was the lowest point in my life. Now, three and a half years later, I will become a priest. And I can honestly tell you I’m very happy. There was a period of time just after she died that I was very unhappy. I was in a bottomless pit and I just couldn’t get out. 

My five kids knew that dentists hold the record for highest suicide rate of any profession. They were a little bit worried because I was a dentist and I had just lost my wife. So, I had five children and they stayed with me for five nights … each child took a different night. But after they left, I was living in my dream home with nobody in it but me. 

After the kids left, I just started praying to God. And as I prayed to him, I got mad at him. I got so mad at God that I hollered and I yelled at him. I hadn’t slept for nights. I told him I’d just wanted to sleep for a little bit. Normally, nothing would happen, but this time God said “Yes.” I slept a peaceful sleep. I could not believe it. I just thought, “If God has that kind of power, I’d like to go to work for him.”

When I first arrived [at the seminary] on Aug. 19, it would have been our 46th [wedding] anniversary. It was on a Sunday night, and I couldn’t get into my room until Monday morning. So I went into the chapel. It was dark and there was a light coming in behind the Sacred Heart stained glass window. It was so beautiful, I couldn’t believe it. 

I just stood there and I talked to God. I said “You know, God, I’m mad at you again.” Of course, I don’t have to tell him why I’m mad, he already knows … but I have to know. So I said, “I’m mad at you because you knew before I was ever born, probably for centuries before I was born, that I would be here at this time and you didn’t tell me. Why didn’t you tell me?” 

His answer to me was, “Jerry, you weren’t ready. Now you are.” 

ZENIT: How have your children reacted to your decision to become a priest?

Father Wetovick: When I left [for the seminary] only six months after my wife died, my children were vehemently mad. Not just a little bit, they were definitely mad. All five had a different excuse why I should not be going. But I didn’t find out what was wrong until I got [to the seminary] and talked to my vocation director. 

He said “Jerry, your children realize that they just lost their mother six months ago and now they’re losing their father. They’ve lost both parents within six months.” I hadn’t thought about that. And they hadn’t either. 

But it couldn’t be better now. When I went home over that Christmas, everything was resolved. My children have been great since we all mutually agreed that we weren’t losing each other. In fact, all five of my children came up [to Hales Corners, Wisconsin] and surprised me for my graduation.

ZENIT: How do you think the experience of being a husband, a father and a grandfather will impact your new vocation as a priest?

Father Wetovick: The very fact that I’ve been a husband, that I have five children and 14 grandchildren will definitely impact my vocation as a priest. Having lived 74 years on this earth and having experienced all that I have will definitely be to my benefit.

It was very hard for me the first year; I didn’t know if I’d stay with it. I practiced dentistry for 45 years. Ministry and dentistry do not mix. I had nothing to associate this new life with, but I was able to make the transition. The last year I did very well. 

At the Sacred Heart School of Theology, they take only second-career vocations. They don’t take real young [seminarians]. The youngest one was 33. I was the oldest and I was given the title of “Patriarch.» All the seminarians have a four-year college degree. The program at Sacred Heart is called the “Fast Track” because it’s three years long. 

The neat thing is I will have personal experiences about everything in the Gospel and I can relate that to the congregation. I have to be able to pull stuff out of my life and put it into the [homilies]. I just need to take those experiences and apply them to the Gospel, which I’ve been able to do [at the seminary]. If I can continue to do that, I’ll be fine. 

ZENIT: What do you feel is the role of a Catholic priest in today’s society? What will your role be in your community?

Father Wetovick: I think Catholic priests today should be sacramental priests, performing baptisms, marriages and funerals. The most important thing a priest does is say Mass, which is the Eucharistic celebration of the sacrifice Jesus made; only an ordained priest can do that. The second is administering the sacrament of reconciliation; only a priest can hear confessions. And to give the last rites. 

I think the Catholic priests today get overloaded and are spread so thin. Not because they can’t be sacramental priests; they can very easily. But the problem today is that the priests are worked to death. They have to be present at all these meetings. They teach school, work on budgets, oversee parish counsel meetings, etc. I think they often hesitate to [get help from] people and should delegate more. Preaching and teaching, deacons can help with that. 

Where I’m going, Sacred Heart Parish in Sutherland, Nebraska, they’re going to be very easy on me. I’ll mainly be a sacramental priest. I’ll also act as a spiritual leader, the shepherd. I’m guest in their community. I’m not the boss, but they have trained me well enough to be that spiritual leader. 

A priest’s life is lonely, basically, and that’s why it’s so important to go to the seminary because you don’t realize something until you live it. I never learned so much about my Catholic faith as I did there and I appreciate it so much more. I have never met a finer group of people in my whole life than the seminarians. 

Future priests are sinners just like everyone else and there are no exceptions. I’m sure we’re not going to stop sinning completely by becoming a priest. But at the same time, we should be holier than we were. Just like everyone is called to holiness. 

[This article is part of the column God’s Men — a series of reflections on the priesthood that ZENIT is offering its readers during this Year for Priests, which ends Friday.]
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