By Jeff Grant, The Catholic Sun
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – About a half dozen individuals, including family, friends and Franciscan colleagues were asked to describe Father James Seiffert, OFM, prior to his ordination to the priesthood Friday at the Franciscan Renewal Center’s Our Lady of the Angels Church.
The answers were nearly identical.
“He’s very welcoming…engaging, friendly, personable,” offered Suzanne DiGiovanni-Smith, who with her husband has attended church there close to 30 years.
“He is naturally a cheerful person. He has genuine joy. This is a Franciscan value,” added Very Rev. David Gaa, OFM, provincial minister, Order of Franciscans Minor, Province of Saint Barbara, and one of five concelebrants.
The Saint Barbara Province and six other provinces make up the Order of Friars Minor in the United States. The OFM is the first of three main branches of the Franciscans, the order of the Catholic Church founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209.
“He just has a very good way about him; very kind, gentle, good-natured,” said Linda Causee, who traveled from Oceanside, Calif., in northern San Diego County, where she first met a then-discerning Seiffert as a volunteer at Mission San Luis Rey, where Causee works.
“People find it easy to approach James and spend time with him,” said his brother, Barry, of West Palm Beach, Fla. “[Ministry] just comes naturally to him.”
The Mass that culminated Seiffert’s journey came as no surprise to those there.
Even as a boy of 7 in his childhood home in New York City, he demonstrated a special affinity for drawing others toward God, according to his brother.
“He would hold ‘Mass’ for all the kids in the neighborhood,” Barry Seiffert recalled. “He would give ‘em candy, so they would come to his services. He would give them a ride on his bicycle and in a wagon.”
But, as Diocese of Phoenix Bishop John P. Dolan, the Mass’ principal celebrant, said in his homily, “James, you’re a long way from the Bronx,” eliciting scattered laughter and smiles throughout the 300-member congregation.
A JOB IN AIRLINES SALES
Born in 1958, Seiffert is one of three children, including his brother, and a sister who also attended the Mass. His mother, Elizabeth, was there as well. His father passed away several years ago.
As a boy, Seiffert had an interest in geography and world travel, even taking the name of St. Christopher – the patron of travelers – at his confirmation. While his early career took him into secular employment, it reflected an interest in serving others and his love of travel. In his early 20s, he worked at Walt Disney World before taking a job with United Airlines, where he helped the public “Fly the Friendly Skies” as a sales and reservation agent. He worked 22 years for United, taking early retirement.
In 2010, he began discerning a call to the priesthood, joining the Province of St. Barbara’s Covenant program. Covenant allows laypeople to live in community with friars, share meals, and carry out ministry alongside them and fellow Covenant participants, learning the Franciscans’ charism in the process.
“I was touched by the camaraderie, the joy of being with the friars. They were very real and down-to-earth,” he recalled. “I never expected religious life to be like that.”
‘A FRANCISCAN AT HEART’
Seiffert served in the program at Mission San Luis Rey for two years, and Bishop Dolan said it was during that period that James discovered “all along, you were a Franciscan at heart. Because your heart was the heart of Jesus.”
Seiffert proceeded toward the priesthood, entering postulancy in 2012, and the novitiate in 2013. He made his first temporary vows a year later. He served as a chaplain, assisted those in grief, brought communion to the sick in hospitals, ministered to the homeless, performed elder care for friars, and traveled to Vietnam, where about 7 percent of the population — roughly 7 million people — are Catholic. He immersed himself in the culture and a variety of ministries, often visiting parishes where he could speak about his faith.
“In Vietnam, it is forbidden to have any kind of [public] discussion about religion, so I would meet with university students at parishes,” he explained.
He also taught English to Vietnamese seminarians.
In one of the ordination’s more poignant moments, a few of Seiffert’s former Vietnamese students, who are now continuing religious studies near San Diego, took part in the laying on of hands, moments before the prayer of ordination.
Father Joseph Tuan Nguyen, OFM, was among them.
Father Nguyen later recalled his conversations with Seiffert in Vietnam and reflected on his ordination.
“He told me he was discerning to become a priest in the Franciscan order. I told him it depends on God’s will. It’s amazing I had the opportunity to attend the Mass to consecrate him,” Father Nguyen said. ”It was good to be with him today.”
FORMED BY RELATIONSHIPS, COMMUNITY
Father Seiffert, who was assigned to the Franciscan Renewal Center, also known as The Casa, has spent nearly 2 years there. In addition to his priestly roles celebrating Mass and administering the sacraments, he hopes to do retreat work, as well as outreach to the ill and grieving.
“I have a special heart for the sick and dying,” he said. “At one time, I felt I might become a hospital chaplain, but God had other plans.”
“I also have an interest in ecumenical Christian traditions; reaching out to brothers and sisters, working with social justice ministries, the homeless, the poor, and marginalized groups, including LGBTQ and migrants.”
“My journey has been formed by relationships — family, friends and co-workers. The Casa community formed me into service as a priest, and I am truly grateful for that. They have been a very welcoming, supporting and generous people of God with their time, talents and treasure.”
He will remain at the Renewal Center unless assigned elsewhere by the Order’s provincial minister.
Father Gaa said that Father Seiffert will be an asset to the Casa, not only for his ministerial experience but his gifts and talents.
“He adds a positive spirit by his personality. He can witness to people, particularly those without an affiliation to a church. He can witness to God’s love to all people.”
“I asked him many years ago, ‘Have you thought about being a Franciscan?’ I saw the promise of a vocation in James then.”
Bishop Dolan, in his message, said Father Seiffert is continuing a centuries-old commission.
“The apostles were sent into the world so they might continue to exercise Christ’s office as teacher, priest, and shepherd. Priests are established co-workers of the order bishops with whom they are joined and with whom they are called to the service of the people of God,” the bishop said.
He described Seiffert’s formation as a “conforming to the heart of Jesus, the Good Shepherd,” and exhorted him to “See that you believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach. Let the holiness of your life be a delightful fragrance to Christ’s faithful, so that by word and example, you may build up the Church, which is God’s Church,” he continued.
“You were not set above, you were set apart,” he said.
It was a truth driven home by an unplanned moment early in the Mass, when one of the deacons introduced Seiffert as “John.” A number of congregants quickly spoke up. “James,” they corrected the director. Bishop Dolan – with a smile on his face and in his voice – repeated the correct name, “James.” To which Seiffert smiled and said, “Present!”
“I think that was the Holy Spirit,” Fr. Seiffert said. “It was a reminder that God called me through the community. I have always felt like that — that the people of God called me to this.”