I had never been to Ellicottville before my appointment as pastor of Holy Name of Mary Church by then-Bishop Edward Head in 1994. Filled with apprehension, yet exhilarated, I arrived in the heart and hills of central Cattaraugus County to undertake a new phase in my ministry.
As providence would have it, my first few days as pastor happened to be Fall Festival weekend, when thousands of visitors descended on our village to enjoy the fall foliage, vendors and activities. I was intimidated by the sheer number of people, and the pulsating energy of the festival. There was no way to determine parishioners from the hordes of visitors at Masses that October weekend. What had I gotten myself into?
Yet as the years unrolled, I increasingly felt at home in our rural community, because everyone I encountered was welcoming and fascinating. Immediately immersed into the rhythm of parish life, I discovered a core family of residential parishioners, augmented by numerous visitors who come to Ellicottville to enjoy the varied seasonal activities. Soon enough, the delights of small-town living became apparent. Everyone knew everyone else, and everyone was related to everyone else. I gradually ingratiated myself not only into the parish, but into countless families as well. I was accepted into these families as a trusted friend and role model -- a real father figure. One of the finest tributes I received early on in my career in Ellicottville was to be referred to as "our Father Ron." Of course, no one could pronounce my last name, so the sobriquet has stuck.
One of the greatest gifts of the priesthood is the fact that we become members of various families within the parish family and the extended family of visitors and guests. We truly evolve into "fathers" as we serve our people in the family of God. There is the daily privilege to break open the word of God, the Scriptures, and to break -- and share -- the bread, the body of Christ, at our Eucharistic celebrations, as our heavenly Father nourishes the minds, bodies and spirits of his people.
As a priest, as a spiritual "father," I have rejoiced in the births of children, danced at their weddings and cried at the deaths of beloved family members and friends. Visiting the sick and the home-bound humbles me, as they inspire me with their courage and their faith. I have carried and cared for my family, and in turn, they have carried and cared for me. To touch people at significant moments in their lives -- the birth of a child, the thrill of young love, times of sickness and sadness -- is yet another grace of the priesthood as I express the concern and compassion of our God for them by my words, actions and by my very life. Together we create beautiful memories of the transitions of life as they are impacted by God. Truly an unusual but wonderful way to be a "father."
I pray for my "children" daily, as we are all drawn into the very mystery of life. Daily I pray that I may be a "man of the Kingdom of God," promoting the Gospel vision and exercising Gospel values and behavior. Above all else, I pray for "an understanding heart" as life begins, flows and ebbs for my people. I strive to be accepting and affirming, inviting and inclusive; to be a true father to the people I serve, love and cherish.
Ellicottville and Holy Name of Mary Church have been so good to me and for me, as I grow deeper in my belief and love for our savior, Jesus, and learn the various dimensions in which fatherhood can express itself.
The Rev. Ronald B. Mierzwa is pastor of Holy Name of Mary Catholic Church in Ellicottville.