A Young Priest Plunges into Thick of Parish Life

By David Briggs
Plain Dealer [Cleveland OH]
April 22, 2003

Father Mark Ott slips out of his shoes, steps over dozens of sneakers and scattered bodies, puts on his green-and-white stole and green liturgical robe and begins to celebrate Mass for 50 teenagers in a suburban living room.

As teens read from Scripture, Ott takes a seat on the living room floor, closes his eyes and clasps his hands in prayer. Then he stands like Jesus in the center of his young disciples and delivers his sermon from memory, holding their attention by comparing Father Damien's work with lepers to the modern call for the faithful to minister to people with AIDS.

All hold hands during the Our Father, with Ott in the center of a labyrinthine weave that stretches into the dining room of the Olmsted Falls home. At the sign of peace, the room erupts into hugs for some five minutes. Ott embraces most of the teens.

Afterward, standing in the back of the kitchen with a soda and a cookie, Ott smiles at the cacophony before him Sunday night. Teens approach him about his request for volunteers to bring handicapped parishioners to Mass. Mostly, he hears just the low roar of a group of young people checking one another out or making plans for fast food after a locustlike sweep through the snacks after Mass.

This was the way he imagined life as a priest, leading the type of personal youth ministry that got him excited about the church and put him on a path to the priesthood.

It is a gift he wants to pass on, as generations of priests have done before him. But for Ott and the Catholic church, nothing is simple these days. Where once there might have been four priests in a parish, with the new guy given primary responsibility for youth ministry, the clergy shortage has shrunk the ranks so thin that even the largest parishes today are lucky to have a single associate pastor.

Only two others were ordained with Ott in his class of 2001 - and everyone must make sacrifices.

Men like the 30-year-old priest are needed more than ever to show a youthful face to the church around the Cleveland diocese, where only 6 percent of priests are under age 40. Yet they find themselves running the same endless race as their pastors to meet the demands of thousands in their own churches.

Many burn out. A Catholic University of America study found one in seven newly ordained men resigns in the first five years.

For the newest priests, the winds blowing in their faces are even stronger these days. Shortly after they were ordained, the sins of the fathers were visited on the younger fathers as the scandal of clergy sex abuse drew national attention.

For Ott, that means not only squeezing in youth ministry as the last job in a full week, but also worrying about arriving early at a youth gathering outside the church, lest he draw stares as a priest sitting alone with one or two youths.

It is OK to hug teens at a public Mass, but he is careful to draw boundaries on personal contact. "You can just kind of tell when it means one thing, and when it means something else," he says.

ST. MARY of the Falls is what is called a "bowling-alley church," with the priest up front, no one on the sides, and the church members set far back from the altar in two rows of pews stretching back to the point where the cleric becomes a tiny figure. The old altar, built back in the days when priests faced away from their congregations, was never taken out but is embedded in the front of the sanctuary.

It is an architecture that in some way suits the newest, more traditional generation of priests such as Ott. Raised really knowing only one pope, the charismatic traditionalist John Paul II, they are far more conservative than the guys before them.

Ott rarely ministers without a black shirt and white collar. And don't call him Mark, or even Father Mark. He prefers Father Ott, a more formal sounding name that stands out as a sign of his priestly status even to older members who say he looks a lot like their grandchildren.

The congregation at Mass this Monday morning resembles a ship listing to one side as the 30 or so people all sit in the left pews. Few sit together, but rather go back about 15 rows.

Before Mass, Ott sits alone praying in the front pew on the opposite side.

Unlike many middle-aged priests, who come down during daily Mass to shake hands with members during the exchange of peace, Ott stays on the altar, arms raised up, far away from the congregation.

Later Monday morning, during a funeral Mass, he stops the service to inform mourners before Communion that the Eucharist is only for Catholics. Non-Catholics may receive a blessing if they come up with their arms folded across their chest.

Ott is less worried about offending non-Catholics or church liberals than he is about trying to uphold church law and the unique identity of a priest. He compares priests to doctors, who set themselves apart in dress and demeanor to most effectively do their work.

It is a delicate balancing act - one which if done to any extreme can separate him from church members and make a lonely profession even more solitary.

At the funeral, Ott makes one compromise. The family is allowed to play a piece of popular music that was a favorite of the deceased, but only before Ott enters the sanctuary and the service begins.

After the burial, in a reception back at the church, a middle-aged man approaches Ott. The man, with some embarrassment, confesses he has not been to church much in recent years.

"Father, what do I have to do for Communion?" he asks Ott.

Ott smiles and encourages him to come back to church. No lectures, no rules for returning.

As they wait in line for lunch, the priest places his hand on the man's forearm.

"We'd love to have you back," he assures him. "We'd love to have you back."

WHAT HAS STRUCK Ott from the day he was ordained a deacon is how putting on a black shirt and collar immediately changes people's expectations. People on their deathbeds and their family members will share the most intimate secrets of their lives within minutes of meeting a clergyman, even one in his 20s with little experience.

His ability to walk up to the dying and hold their hands or preach before a thousand people on Sunday is a neon sign that God is working through him, Ott believes. As a child, he was so quiet his family nicknamed him "Mr. Whispers." At picnics, in outdoor gatherings, he would hang around the edge of the group, always observing but rarely entering into the conversation. Even today, he must make a special effort to be outgoing at parish functions.

Those who know Ott well say the 6-foot, 200-pound priest with a shy smile was destined to become a priest. As early as second grade, Ott was the kid who would be put in charge of the parochial school class when the teacher left. He has only missed Sunday Mass once in his life, and that was in high school, when a major storm flooded the roads while his family was vacationing in Myrtle Beach.

But Ott was never that sure. The sixth of seven siblings, he assumed he would get married and have a family like his brothers and sisters.

In high school, he listened to Van Halen and Rush and dated different girls. He went to the University of Dayton, then to the University of Akron to study engineering. As the call to the priesthood grew stronger, he stopped dating and transferred to the Franciscan University of Steubenville to test it out. But even after entering St. Mary Seminary, he vowed to take it a year at a time.

Up to the day he was ordained a deacon, when seminarians make their lifetime vows of celibacy and obedience, Ott was continuing his conversation with God. He went for a walk that fall morning in 2000 with a classmate, the Rev. Joe Koopman.

Shuffling through the leaves of the North Chagrin Reservation, he and Koopman talked about giving up marriage and a family. After a while, the two separated, and Ott hiked on, doing a personal inventory before God about whether he was ready to make his leap of faith.

"Am I going to be able to do this? Is there happiness on the other side?" he asked God. In his heart, the answer was yes.

IN THE FOYER of St. Mary of the Falls is a huge organizational chart. Off to one side are the two priests, but surrounding the chart are some 40 circles listing all the various ministries of the church from liturgy committees to religious education. In all, the chart touches 2,400 families with some 6,000 parishioners.

What makes this organization run are hundreds of volunteers. What makes the volunteers run in large part is the spiritual and pastoral nurture of the priests.

But even with so much activity, it can be a lonely life. The only other person Ott lives with is a workaholic pastor 27 years his senior. In the Catholic University study, half of the new priests who left said loneliness was a great problem.

On Tuesday, his day off, Ott goes skiing with another young priest. He squeezes every last minute out of his day off, arriving back in the rectory close to midnight.

The pastor, the Rev. Robert Cole, celebrated both morning Masses on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Cole's day off, Ott gets up at 5:30 a.m. to celebrate the first of two Masses.

In between the two services, he returns to the small rectory kitchen for a breakfast of cereal and a banana. He reads the newspaper, saving the comics - his favorite is the irreverent strip Speed Bump - for last. Then he cleans up after himself and unloads the dishwasher from the night before.

In his office, where lectionaries and Bibles are side by side with humor books such as "The Far Side Gallery," Ott spends Wednesday morning mixing appointments with parishioners with office work. In the afternoon, he meets with a couple to discuss their upcoming wedding and gives someone else spiritual direction. That evening, he celebrates Mass for fifth-graders in the religious education program.

Thursday is more of the same. Morning Mass at St. Mary, then a special Mass at Kemper House, where many of the patients have Alzheimer's disease. Later that afternoon he hears confessions.

The one break in his pastoral work is a two-hour dentist appointment to have a crown put on.

Church officials know the emotional and physical toll the clergy shortage is taking on older priests. In seminaries, professors drill into their students the need to take time off each day to care for themselves.

But the reality is more complicated. In Ott's case, when an older pastor is working on his day off and well into the night each day, it's hard to take that time off for an afternoon movie, or just stay in and read or watch television at night.

It's difficult enough some days even sticking to his schedule of saying the prayer of the hours five times a day.

On this Thursday evening, after a simple dinner of chili and bread, Ott takes his collar off and goes to his room to say his early evening prayers.

But in the middle of the prayer, the intercom buzzes. Cole says he may be late for some of the parish meetings because he has to go to a funeral home. Four parish meetings are scheduled that night.

At the meetings, Ott is largely silent. It is enough that the priest is there.

That night, after the third meeting, he goes back to his office to prepare his sermon for the next day and to think some more about his Sunday sermon.

The ideas swirling around in his mind this week have to do with the connection of mind, body and spirit. Technology and psychology can carry human beings only so far. The rest is left to faith.

Ott remembers a visit to a doctor during his college days. He thought he might have mono or some kind of blood problem because he was always tired.

But when his tests came back normal, it was the doctor who explored other causes, asking him if was undergoing stress.

It turned out the cause of his fatigue was the emotional and spiritual struggle of deciding whether to leave engineering school to pursue the priesthood.

The experience would be perfect for his sermon.

"GOOD MORNING, seventh grade."

"Good morning, Father Ott."

If Ott is somewhat reserved around older folks, he is at ease in youth ministry.

This Friday morning, as he talks to a seventh-grade class about their new responsibilities in the church, he recalls his own childhood. He tells them how when he was young, his parents would bring Cheerios or Hot Wheels to Mass to keep him still.

To the amusement of the kids, he re-enacts the song he sang as a second-grader for his First Communion, down to the point of putting his hands up to his eyes at the line, "Oh, Lord, I see."

He asks how many of them will be attending the father-daughter dance that evening. One girl raises her hand. When she realizes she is the only one, and that most of those at the dance will be younger girls with their dads, she blurts out, "Omigod! I'm gonna die."

This is the fun stuff. And with it he leads the children into a more serious conversation about how their responsibility increases as they grow older. He asks them to think about how where they sit in church and what they wear reflect their commitment to God.

Youth ministry is his favorite part of being a priest. He visits each class in St. Mary School twice a year and all parish religious education classes at least that often.

He would like to do more.

On a recent weekend, he led a youth retreat in Akron. By the time he finished confessions, it was past midnight. And he still had not celebrated a planned Mass.

The retreat director said Mass was his call. Everyone would understand if he did not want to stay any later. But Ott asked the kids, "Do we want Jesus or do we want sleep?" They wanted the Mass, so he stayed.

It is this vital presence of a happy young priest working with youth that gave Ott and thousands of other young boys the ability to envision themselves doing this kind of work. But today the Cleveland diocese has 28 priests under 40 to serve 234 parishes. Any time Ott spends with kids at other churches means time away from St. Mary in Olmsted Falls.

And parish work calls this Friday afternoon.

In between meeting with a deacon and attending the father-daughter dance, he finds time to work on his homily. He writes the first draft, then goes to work refining it in periods of prayer and reflection. On Saturday, he continues to work on his sermon, rehearsing it over and over before afternoon confessions. Sometimes he will rewrite his entire homily as late as Saturday afternoon.

APARISH PRIEST on Sunday morning has to be a lot like a traffic cop during rush hour. As Ott leans back on the sink in the sacristy, trying to collect himself before the early morning service, ushers, lectors, deacons and Eucharistic ministers are busy around him.

On this Sunday, there are no altar servers, so he has to stand by the door and recruit a couple of last-minute replacements, neither of whom is too happy with the extra work. They resign themselves when plaintive silent appeals to their parents are rejected. Ott tells the boy to put his shirt with a rock band on inside-out so it will not show through the white robes.

He opens the sermon with his own confession that he is a technology geek. He loves car shows and reading Popular Science magazine.

Ott tells the story of the college doctor exploring stresses in his life as part of the sermon expressing appreciation for the field of psychology.

What he worries about, Ott tells the congregation, is that spirituality sometimes takes too much of a back seat in the modern world. With the threat of war not far off, both individuals and the world need a "holistic" approach to healing.

"We need to treat the physical part of the problem by working to change unjust structures that perpetuate poverty and oppression," he says. "We need to work on the psychological, by keeping the conversation going at the table of diplomacy. And we need to seek the spiritual, by praying for wisdom and peace."

In the foyer after Mass, he greets worshippers with a smile. An older woman gives him a thumbs up for the sermon, while others tell him "that homily was excellent" or "that's a keeper." Inside the church, he makes small talk with a young woman whose mother is dying of cancer.

Between Masses, much of the parish staff will gather for Sunday breakfast, a heart-stopping plateful of sausage and eggs. The meal begins with a prayer for those who did not feel the need to come to church that Sunday. For those who do come, Cole and Ott will be at every Mass, either as the main celebrant or as greeters before and after the service.

After Mass, Ott drives down to Akron to spend some time at his godson's symphony recital. While the rest of the family goes back to his sister's house for supper, Ott races back to the church.

On Sunday night, with an exhausting week coming to an end, Ott re-energizes himself at a home Mass for teens. Behind him, six, sometimes seven giggling youngsters pile themselves on or over the sides and back of a small couch. Ott is lost in the moment.

"Lord, I lift your name on high," he sings loudly, lifting his arms upward.

The kids sing and lift their arms along with him.

Ott breaks out of his reveries and into a big grin. "You guys rock," he tells them.


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