By Debora Shaulis Flora
Special to the Catholic Exponent
YOUNGSTOWN – When asked about his favorite Bible passage, Father Peter Haladej of Youngstown St. Christine Parish chose Psalm 8, a song of praise about God’s divine majesty and the dignity of humans:
“When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place – What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?”
“It’s a very beautiful way of saying how highly God thinks of us as human beings, which is nothing but humbling in a sense,” said Father Haladej (pronounced “holiday”). Psalm 8 also seems to inspire Father Haladej at work, whether he is comforting a critically ill person or preparing dinner for a group of friends.
Father Haladej, 34, originally from Kosice, Slovakia, was called to serve the Catholic Church in the United States. An abundance of newly-ordained priests in his home diocese made it possible for him to be assigned to the Diocese of Youngstown for five years, with his bishop’s permission.
That was seven years ago. Today, Father Haladej is a priest of the Diocese of Youngstown, at his request. His wish was granted in 2007 by his bishop in Slovakia as well as Bishop George V. Murry, S.J.
“I kind of became very much at home with people in the Diocese [of Youngstown],” he said.
Father Haladej is one of 40 priests from the Diocese of Kosice who are serving abroad. Fellow priests are serving in Australia, Czech Republic, England, Germany, France and the United States, he said.
Father Haladej began to attend St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Kosice, Slovakia in 1994. After three years of studies, Father Haladej spent his pastoral year at St. Patrick Church in Anchorage, Alaska, an assignment that he says solidified his desire to perform pastoral work in the United States. He liked being able to work with a variety of parish groups, including the CCD program. He doubted he would have similar opportunities in the Diocese of Kosice, where so many parishes are fully staffed that many priests teach religion in public schools. There is no separation of church and state in Slovakia. He also was fluent in English after spending some summers in England. “I often thought about helping out somewhere else” other than Kosice, he said.
Seminarians at St. Charles Borromeo were visited five to seven times a year by representatives who would invite them to complete their studies and serve in other dioceses, Father Haladej said. Msgr. Peter Polando of Youngstown St. Matthias Parish and Youngstown Holy Name Parish was one of those visitors, in February 1999. Later that year, Father Haladej arrived in the Diocese of Youngstown and began to study at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pa., south of Pittsburgh. There he earned a Master of Divinity degree. He was ordained as a transitional deacon in August 2001 in Slovakia, where he returned in 2002 for his ordination to the priesthood.
In the Diocese of Youngstown, Father Haladej has served internships at Massillon St. Mary and East Liverpool St. Aloysius parishes. His first assignment as a priest was as associate pastor of Girard St. Rose Parish.
St. Christine is a large parish with nearly 50 active ministries, Father Haladej said. He works with many of those groups, including the Family Life Committee, he noted. St. Christine also average about 90 funerals per year, which involves Father Haladej, “not just to say Mass but to pay attention to the people who have experienced loss,” he said.
Father Haladej enjoys the time he spends interacting with the parish’s children and saying Mass for students of St. Christine School. He is especially passionate about visiting critically or terminally ill persons.
“I do find it very fulfilling,” he said. “In my experience, it’s a time when people are very open.” At times, they ask him for advice on methods of medical care. “Sometimes those decisions are every difficult. I just need to reassure them that what they are doing is the right thing,” he added.
Opportunities to provide one-on-one counseling can occur almost anywhere – in church hallways, or at an event. “My approach is not office-oriented,” Father Haladej said.
The priest’s message to the faithful is, don’t wait for a crisis to talk to a priest. “It is just as, if not more important, to share beautiful, life-giving events – not just trauma,” he said. “There is so much more in life than celebrating the sacraments. The presence of a priest in normal day-to-day [settings] makes people more comfortable.”
Relationships between priests and lay people have been changing for at least the past decade, resulting in both positive impact and challenges, Father Haladej said. Churchgoers know more today abut their priests as individuals than they did 20 or more years ago, he noted. The question is, should there be any boundaries between sports, although he doesn’t play them as much as he used to, he said. He went skiing six or seven times this winter and wants to get back into biking this spring and summer, he added.
Whether he’s at work or play, Father Haladej hopes people will view him as someone whose knowledge, skills and way of thinking can benefit others. “I like to think of priests as rooted in the life of the people,” he said.