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Year for Priests: West Chester pastor helps others hear God’s voice

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

By Eileen Connelly, OSU

ST. ANDREW DEANERY — Drawing people closer to God is at the heart of any priest’s ministry and, in a new book, Father Mark Burger, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in West Chester, strives to do just that.

Hearing God’s Voice, self-published in 2009, is written as a series of daily reflections, many of which were originally penned for Father Burger’s parishioners and are drawn from his vast reading and life experiences. The inspiration for the book came “out of prayer,” explained Father Burger, while he was on sabbatical in 1996, living the life of a hermit in the Israeli desert. Amid the silence Father Burger grew closer to God as he discerned the Father’s will for him.

Father Mark Burger, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in West Chester, is dedicated to helping others hear God’s voice. (CT/Eileen Connelly, OSU)

It was a pivotal experience, and he felt called to share that “God speaks to everybody and when you believe that, you’ll be begging to hear Him in ways you never thought you would.”

The reflections in the book are short, yet meaningful, and geared toward giving readers the opportunity to receive three graces, Father Burger said, “silence, solitude and the grace to hear God’s voice.”

“There is a need, a hunger, for people to come to God in simple ways,” he explained. “They don’t want long-winded stuff. They want something they can take with them and chew on.”

“Since nobody has a corner on faith,” Father Burger said he has found that Hearing God’s Voice is appealing to people of various religious denominations. He has heard from readers that they are using the book for morning and evening prayer and that some of his fellow priests have incorporated the material into their homilies. One couple he knows takes turns reading and discussing the reflections each night.

“I think God is really using the book to draw people to Him,” Father Burger said.

While writing Hearing God’s Voice was an opportunity to help others discover how God is speaking to them, there is much more to his vocation and ministry. Growing up in North College Hill as one of five children, Father Burger said he was first drawn to the priesthood through contact with the Franciscan friars he met at St. Margaret Mary Parish and Roger Bacon High School.

“My family has long had a great deal of respect for the Franciscans,” Father Burger said, and he was inspired by the friars’ faith and enthusiasm for their ministry.

“I wanted to be happy like them,” he said.

Although the Franciscan charism appealed to the young man, God had other plans for him, and he was ordained a diocesan priest in 1980. His parents, Ray and Mary Lou, and siblings have always been very supportive of his call to the priesthood, although he joking admits that “my brothers have taken bets on how long I’d last. They’ve always kept my feet on the ground.”

Father Burger’s first assignment was as associate pastor at St. William Parish in Price Hill. He went on to serve at St. Jude in Bridgetown; Good Shepherd in Montgomery; and Incarnation in Centerville. In 1991 he was named pastor of Holy Family Parish in Price Hill, where he spent the next 11 years, along with serving as pastor of St. Michael Parish in Lower Price Hill from 1992 until its closure in 1998. Father Burger became pastor of St. John the Evangelist in 2002. He also serves as dean of the St. Andrew Deanery.

“All of my assignments have been wonderful,” he said. “Being pastor of a poorer parish in the inner city was especially good for me. Growing up, you’re taught to be afraid of poor people, to lock your doors when driving through a poor neighborhood. But I’ve found the poorer people are, the more generous they are. Being with the poor is being close, close, close to God.”

“I consider myself to be a parish priest first and foremost,” Father Burger added. “My first responsibility is prayer, followed by preaching. For me that means not just giving sermons, but really listening to God’s voice and being willing to step out on a limb with my homilies. Often, I’ll have my homily ready, but something will change at the last minute when I get the strong sense that there is something the people need to hear.”

In addition to his homilies, Father Burger also strives to help others hear God’s voice through his ministries as a retreat master and spiritual director. He gives two retreats annually during Advent and Lent, either at St. John or another area parish.

He also facilitates the “Lunch with the Lord” series at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains each Lent and leads a spiritual program for men with all types of addictions two Saturdays a month at his parish.

An avid reader, Father Burger spends an hour a day with a book. “I like to read everything and believe that all reading is spiritual. All of it, even novels, touches on humanity. Any time you have that human story, you’re going to find God,” he said.

Father Burger said the most rewarding aspect of his ministry is “being with people during the important times.” He recalled being present to one elderly gentleman on his deathbed at an area nursing home. As Father Burger anointed him, the man began to cry, and the priest held his hand as he died.

“That’s what the priesthood is — holding someone’s hand as they meet Jesus,” he said.

In reflecting on his priestly vocation, Father Burger said he is indeed, “very happy. I can’t imagine doing anything else.” 

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