October 19th, 2006 03:31 EST
Profile of a Priest
He is a man who enjoys everything from skiing at Seven Springs to developing new computer software-- that is, when he not conducting Mass everyday. His name is Mark Eckman and he is a priest at Saint Sylvester’s Church in Brentwood, Pennsylvania.
Father Mark was born in 1959 in Bethel Park, a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA. His childhood was not unlike many who grow up in a suburban community: relatively homogenous and safe from major crime. He remembers his childhood as being nothing extraordinary; growing up as the youngest of three siblings and of attending Mass every Sunday morning. If you think that he knew from the beginning that he was destined to become a priest, think again.
“We were just normal, go to church and pray. And if the priest was too long, you’d look at your watch the whole time.”, said Father Mark laughing.
It seems ironic that a man who islooked up to by so many in the Catholic faith didn’t consider himself a “holy roly” or have a favorite Bible story growing up.
Father Mark attended St. Valentines Catholic School and it was during his time there that he considered becoming a part of the priesthood.
“When I was in the 8th grade a new assistant came in, Father Stoney, and he had a real easy feel about him. I decided that it was something I wanted to imitate.”, he comments.
Sometime in high school, Father Mark decided to enter a program with students from across South Western Pennsylvania. He remembers other priests talking to him about what they do, about their responsibilities and such. It was then that he decided to try to enter the seminary for one year.
“My parents told all of us as kids growing up that we could do whatever we wanted, but they wanted to make sure that all of us had a college education, that was a primary for them.”, Father Mark recalls.
It seems that many people would have concerns or doubts about devoting themselves to religion, possibly for the rest of their lives. During the entire seminary process, Father Mark recalls that it was “a time of discernment.”
“You have a lot of time to pray about it and to figure out that that’s what you want to do. So I never had any doubts.” he said.
From the exterior, Father Mark looks like a regular man, dressed in a t-shirt, jeans, and a digital watch. When he is not conducting mass or fulfilling a laundry list of numerous responsibilities, he enjoys activities that are not unlike the rest of us. He enjoys spending time with friends on their boat, hiking, pleasure reading, and listening to music.
“A lot of people, if they’re looking at you, think of you as a priest and don’t realize that you have activities that you do outside.” he said. “So there are things that sometimes take people aback.”
Funeral masses are difficult for just about everyone, and to conduct a funeral mass would be hard. It was when both Father Mark’s mother and father passed away that he began to appreciate and empathize with the people.
“When you’re brand new, you didn’t understand and you didn’t even know the people and your preaching was very awkward.”, he said. “As you mature in the ministry, you become more comfortable with preaching and also with people and how to deal with them and their grieving.”
The religious holidays are times when Catholics flock to their church to hear the Scriptures being read and to sing hymns with other members of the church. For Christmas and Easter masses, the pews are filled with people and some can even be found lining the church walls. Why is it then that only about 1/3 of Catholics attend mass on a regular basis?
“For the folks that only come only once or twice a year, they want to see the nice, pretty decorations.”, he said. “So for them it’s just a service; you could have a drive through window and they would be content.”
Among Father Mark’s responsibility of conducting Mass everyday, there are various other duties within the church. He visits the elderly in nursing homes and the children attending CCD classes, to things such as, overseeing the yearly budget and educating people who wish to become a Catholic.
“In a way I am like the branch manager in a bank, making sure that the whole place runs properly. We have a wonderful staff that takes care of their own little departments. There is a lot to it.” Father Mark comments.
As far as future plans, Father Mark doesn’t know where he will be in the years to come because of the shortage of priests. He plans to continue to ski, bake, and keep his health up.
“My plan would be to serve the best way that I can, no matter what parishes you go to the people are wonderful.”, he said. “The people have the same needs and you just address them.”
From small beginnings come great things. Where Father Mark decides to go in the future is a mystery, but you can rest assured that he will continue to devote himself to helping people in need and follow the teachings of Christ: with time saved for hitting the ski slopes.