Tuesday, November 05, 2019 - Updated: 12:58 pm
Father Jon Brzek has worn a number of different hats in his 38 years as a priest, but the foundation of his ministry has always been in the importance of immersing himself in the lives of the people he meets and serves.
“That never changes,” he said.
Whether it’s been as a parish priest, college chaplain, or Navy chaplain, he follows the words he had inscribed on his ordination invitations — “serve the Lord with gladness.”
“I’m a priest, that’s my motto,” he said. “It gives me joy. It gives me happiness.”
Father Brzek noted that his first glimpse of the priesthood came in the mid-1960s when Father Ken Oldenski — “the cool young priest” — was assigned to his home parish of St. Mary Czestochowa in McKeesport. It led to an “Andrew and the disciples”-like discernment of “Come and See.”
By the 11th grade, Father Brzek said, he felt the call to the priesthood. Without a clear knowledge of how to proceed, he wrote a letter to St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe seeking advice. Following his graduation from Duquesne University, he entered St. Paul Seminary in Crafton, then went on to St. Vincent.
“You really don’t know what you’re getting into,” he said.
He spoke of how seminary life taught him to believe “whole-heartedly” in the fraternity of the priesthood. He described himself as “truly a lump of clay” who grew in faith in little steps.
Father Brzek was ordained by Bishop Vincent Leonard on Sept. 26, 1981, at St. Paul Cathedral. He served as a parochial vicar at Holy Spirit in West Mifflin, before working for seven years in campus ministry at California University of Pennsylvania. He later served as a hospital chaplain at UPMC Passavant in McCandless, and to the Sisters of Divine Providence in Allison Park.
He related that his days as a university chaplain left him with less to do during the summer and so he found himself with an interest in the Navy Reserves. He spent six summers serving in the Navy and Marine Corps reserves before he became a full-time Navy chaplain in 1993. His first assignment was in Okinawa, Japan.
Father Brzek went on to serve as the deputy command chaplain at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. He also served as a chaplain on five ships. He spoke of serving on an aircraft carrier with 6,000 of his “best friends.”
“You share their joys,” he said. “Their sorrows. Their highs. Their lows.”
He retired from the Navy in 2017 with the rank of commander, Chaplain Corps. He returned to the Diocese of Pittsburgh and is a parochial vicar in the South Park/Upper St. Clair grouping that includes St. Joan of Arc and St. Louise de Marrillac.
Father Brzek noted that while he was lying prostrate during his ordination, he thought that he had a notion of what his priesthood would be like, but he has been “amazed” at how different it has turned out. He pointed to a homily that he gives during wedding ceremonies. A wedding is a day, he states, but a marriage is a lifetime. It is the same with the priesthood.
“Daily, you grow in your relationship with God,” he said. There are good days and bad days, he noted. There are many challenges, but also many joys.
He recalled how a priest once instilled in him the importance of preaching and working to let others witness the faith through him. “I’m able to share some of my stories and help people draw closer to Jesus Christ,” he said.