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Forming a priest

Priests “called to bear fruit that will last” says seminarian.

Following is the last in a series of three profiles of seminarians to be ordained June 20 at St. Mary's Cathedral to serve as priests in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Catholic San Francisco interviewed by e-mail San Francisco native Joseph Previtali, 26, who is in Rome studying at the Pontifical North American College.

CSF: Describe your experience at St. Anne of the Sunset, where you spent your pastoral year. What is the parish like? What do you think of priests who serve there? What did you do while you were there?

Previtali: My experience during my pastoral year at St. Anne's was one of rich spiritual and pastoral formation and preparation. Fathers (Raymund) Reyes, (Daniel) Nascimento, (John) Cloherty, (Frank) Bagadiong and Msgr. (Juan) Alarcon provided for me wonderful models of priestly service, rooted in a deep and living relationship with the Lord. While I was there, I was engaged in many pastoral activities including serving at Mass, forming the altar servers, teaching adult education, visiting the school, visiting the sick, and immersing myself in the daily life of the parish.

CSF: Tell me about your grandfather, Father Frank Filice. What was it like having a priest for a grandfather? In what ways, if any, did he influence your decision to become a priest?

Previtali: My grandfather is that unique combination of both goodness and greatness found in few men. After receiving his doctorate from Berkeley in biology, he was a professor at the University of San Francisco for 30 years, during which time he was involved in the beginning of the pro-life movement in the Bay Area and the founding of the St. Ignatius Institute. After my grandmother died, he entered the seminary and he was ordained by Archbishop Quinn in 1979. Since then, he has dedicated his life to the priestly ministry radically and totally. He is an incredible example for me of Christian and priestly holiness and he has had a tremendous influence on my life. He has been supportive of me from the beginning of my vocational discernment, always making very clear that it is most important to do the will of God, wherever that may lead.

CSF: You have said that your vocation took hold when "the Lord began to work in marvelous ways" during your first year at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. What specifically happened in your life at that time that led to your becoming a priest?

Previtali: Simply, I was moved by the grace of Christ to accept Him fully into my life. It was a wonderful gift, which I am continually striving to preserve and maintain as I move toward ordination. My time at Gonzaga was a time of deep personal appropriation of the faith handed on to me by my wonderful parents. During that time, I had the support of a community of Catholic students who were equally committed to the Lord and His Church. This helped me to grow in so many ways that I cannot imagine my life without those four years in Spokane.

CSF: How did you wind up at the Pontifical North American College in Rome?

Previtali: Then-Archbishop (William) Levada kindly invited me to study at the North American College. It has been a great blessing in my life, for which I am grateful to the Lord and to Cardinal Levada and Archbishop Niederauer.

CSF: Tell me about your experience at the college.

Previtali: My time at the North American College has been similar to my time at Gonzaga in that it has occasioned deep growth and maturation in my spiritual, intellectual, and personal life. The College is located on the Janiculum Hill on extra-territorial Vatican property. While the College is an American seminary, our classes are at the international pontifical universities in Rome. I study at the Dominican university, the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, known as the Angelicum. Most of my classes have been in English, but Italian is the general working language of the Church and universities of Rome. I am at the Angelicum because of my great love for St. Thomas Aquinas, whose theology is given pride of place at the university. My professors have been from all over the world.

CSF: Describe your experiences at the Vatican, in Rome and in the rest of Italy.

Previtali: Well, St. Peter's is so close that it is like our parish church. We go there for Mass on days off, for confession or adoration, with friends or by ourselves. It's a wonderful opportunity to be close to Peter and his successor, the pope, whom we see weekly at the Sunday Angelus. Travel is also a large part of human formation at the College, and we are given the opportunity to travel during breaks and on certain designated weekends. I have been particularly fond of traveling to the small medieval towns of Italy, enjoying there the wonderful mix of a culture steeped both with an easy familiarity and venerable historical significance.

CSF: Do you speak Italian? Have you had the opportunity to interact much with locals while at the seminary?

Previtali: Yes and yes. This is a wonderful aspect of life in Rome. It's a great challenge to relate to a new culture but it is deeply formative and mind-expanding.

CSF: When you return home, will it be difficult to adjust to being back in the United States? Do you think you'll miss Rome when you leave?

Previtali: I am sure I will miss Rome dearly, but San Francisco is home. It is very good for home to be home.

CSF: Would you ever consider staying in Rome, or do you want to return full-time to America?

Previtali: My vocation is to be a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco and that is very much tied up with the geographical reality of the Archdiocese. So, ordinarily, a priest of the Archdiocese would spend his days working for the salvation of souls in Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties.

CSF: What has been the most difficult adjustment you've had to make in your life since deciding to become a priest?

Previtali: My generation struggles very much with commitment because it is so difficult for us to say "no" to all the other options. I think the renunciation of those good alternative paths has been the greatest struggle.

CSF: What has been your greatest joy since discerning your vocation?

Previtali: The life of a priest is so beautiful because he is constantly dwelling on the eternal things. From his morning meditation and celebration of Holy Mass to his visit to the school to his visit to the hospital or the jail to his meeting with the engaged couple to his pastoral council meeting, he is always seeking to bring others to a deeper communion with Jesus Christ and His Church, so that they may live forever in Heaven. It is a great blessing to be engaged in a work that has such a far-reaching effect: we are called to bear fruit that will last. The marvel of it all is that we have not chosen the Lord, but He has chosen us.

By Michael Vick
From June 12, 2009 issue of Catholic San Francisco.