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New pastor connecting with people through his authenticity

 101321burton priest appreciation

A student receives a blessing from Father Jeff Burton during the distribution of the Eucharistic at a school Mass on Oct. 1 at St. John Bosco in Hammond. Named administrator of the parish on July 1, he enjoys sharing the Catholic faith with the schoolchildren. (Marlene A. Zloza photo)

 

BY MARLENE A. ZLOZA

Northwest Indiana Catholic

 

      HAMMOND – Three years and one pandemic after his priestly ordination, Father Jeff Burton is heading his first parish, and the former cantor is using his voice in a new way.

      “The priest sets the tone for the parish, and for me that will be positive, encouraging, enlivening and empowering,” said the new administrator at St. John Bosco. “Each of us has our own talents and gifts, and being able to offer them freely is one of the blessings of leading a parish.”

      There’s no doubt Father Burton brings a multitude of talents and experiences to his pastoral role. In addition to being a singer, baritone horn player and longtime member of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, he is known for his cooking skills, having worked in the banquet hall at his original parish, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in New Chicago, and volunteered at fish frys.

      Born in Valparaiso and raised in Portage, he graduated from Portage High School in 2002 and Valparaiso University in 2006, majoring in new media/journalism and political science.

      After six years as a newspaper reporter, he left crime and politics behind to enter the seminary, earning degrees from Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Ill., where he sang in the Spanish choir, Polish choir and African choir.

      “I had a very good mentor, Father Jon Plavcan,” noted Father Burton. “I’m so appreciative of the role he played in my life. He was really ‘real,’ and because of him, I know the joys and the challenges of the priesthood and didn’t go into it with rose-colored glasses.”

      As a seminarian, he served at Holy Spirit in Winfield, Sharing Meadows in Rolling Prairie, St. Andrew the Apostle in Merrillville, the diocesan marriage tribunal and St. Michael the Archangel in Schererville. He spent two Christmas breaks at St. Mary of the Lake in Gary and did a pastoral internship at St. Mary in Griffith. He also studied Spanish in Quito, Ecuador, and completed a clinical pastoral internship at St. Joseph Mercy Health Care System in Ann Arbor, Mich.

      He found “a healthy camaraderie” with Father Martin Dobrzynski at St. Michael in Schererville, where he was also introduced to religion classes in the parish school.

      When he later arrived on a Friday to begin a one-semester internship at St. Mary in Griffith, “On Saturday Father (Theodore) Mens explained to me that I’d be teaching four sections of religion (in the parish school), and I became a student teacher (on the spot).”

      There were no complaints, however, since Father Burton soon realized, “I loved it and I loved St. Mary’s, so much so that I stayed an extra year (as a teacher). Father Mens became one of my best friends, and I still keep in touch with some of my students, who are in college now.”

      Kindergartners “hang on your every word,” Father Burton explained, “but I really liked teaching junior high, because you have to earn their trust and earn their respect. I like that challenge.”

      As a transitional deacon, he served at St. Mary in Crown Point, where longtime pastor Father Patrick Kalich, recently retired, expressed confidence in Father Burton’s readiness for the priesthood – “He knows his stuff, and he knows it well.”

      His first priestly assignment as associate pastor at St. Paul in Valparaiso began just weeks after his ordination. There he joined a new pastor, Father Doug Mayer, “and we got to know the community together.”

      At St. John Bosco, where enrollment is 198 in preschool through eighth grade, Father Burton makes sure to connect with each student at weekly Mass. “I’m intentional about telling every student to have a good day (usually with an elbow bump). That one second of connection is important. I have come to respect the role that Catholic education plays in raising the next generation of disciples,” he said.

      That respect also feeds Father Burton’s gratitude for his other new assignment – serving as chaplain at Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond, following three years as the Andrean High School chaplain.

      “I spend Tuesdays at BNI and celebrate an optional Mass in the school chapel. During lunch periods, I’m in the chapel if any student needs someone to talk to or wants to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. I’ll be with them for all retreats, too. In fact, I spent a day with juniors and seniors in Plano, Ill. for their Kairos retreat last weekend.”

      Father Burton said he most enjoys the chaplaincy because, “I get to (just) be a priest. I have no administrative responsibilities, and that’s awesome.”

      Father Burton intends to have a theme each year at his parish, starting with ‘Authentically Catholic.’ “The Church has been polarized, but putting aside all the labels, let’s just concentrate on one label – Catholic. We are going to think through it and eventually, it will make its way to our hearts,” he said.  

      “We are going to reignite our faith and our prayer life with two Holy Hours of Adoration each week (4-5 p.m. Tuesdays and 7-8 a.m. Saturdays with reconciliation, and the anointing of the sick every first Saturday of the month), more time for reconciliation and by shifting Mass times to meet the needs of the people,” Father Burton said. Weekday Mass times are 8:15 a.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, with weekend Masses at 5 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Sunday.

      “I haven’t seen the need for a Spanish-language Mass at this time (other area parishes offer them), but we will hold a Mass for Our Lady of Guadalupe’s feast, probably in Spanish, at 7 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 10,” he added.

      “We can’t lament that we don’t see as many people on Sunday as we could; that just sucks the joy out of being a priest,” Father Burton explained. “We need to keep being encouragers and maybe the seeds (of the faith) will take hold.”

      When it came to summer seminarian assignments, Father Burton admits, “I always asked to be assigned to a parish. As a priest of the Gary diocese, you know you are going to be a parish priest, so if God isn’t calling you to be a parish priest while in seminary, you need to make a change.”

      No change was necessary for Father Burton, who remembers, “I felt energized in a parish setting. I knew it was the right thing for me. The Diocese of Gary is my home, and this is where I belong.”

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