HOLYOKE – Rev. Robert Gentile, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church on Northampton Street, has often joked that he likes to keep a healthy distance between himself and higher authorities in the Diocese of Springfield.
The reason? He fears they might not appreciate his sense of humor.
But in fact Gentile’s humor, matter-of-fact way of speaking and compassion have made him a beloved figure in the more than 100-year-old parish, and now, obviously well respected among his peers.
On July 3, Bishop Mitchell Rozanski officially announced in a letter to the diocese Gentile would serve a five-year term as co-vicar for clergy, along with Rev. Christopher Waitekus, pastor of St. Ann in Lenox, St. Vincent de Paul in Lenoxdale and St. Patrick in West Stockbridge. The public was later notified on July 6.
Gentile’s appointment is in response to the retirement of previous co-vicars for clergy Msgrs. David Joyce and George Farland.
“Both bring a wealth of experience to their new ministries as co-vicars, a concern for their brother priests and a joy in serving God’s people,” Rozanski said of the appointed.
Gentile, a Ludlow native, was ordained in 2003 after he completed his graduate studies at St. John Paul 23rd Seminary in Boston and became pastor at Blessed Sacrament in 2006.
He attended Cathedral High School and holds an undergraduate degree from American International College. In addition to his work at Blessed Sacrament, he also served as parochial vicar at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in West Springfield.
Gentile explained with his new title comes the responsibility of ensuring the wellbeing of his fellow priests and the communities they serve.
“Vicar is another name for a priest, so I’m a priest for the priests,” Gentile said. “Essentially my job is to ensure they are healthy and happy and that they’re serving the people of God and meeting the challenges.”
Vicars for clergy also assist the Bishop in placing priests in parishes with vacancies.
Prior to making his decision, the bishop sent a letter to clergy across the diocese seeking input on their replacements. It was from those suggestions that Rozanski made the appointments.
“Apparently my name surfaced a couple of times,” Gentile said. “Obviously when you get the respect of your peers, it’s a nice accolade and I’m happy they think well of me. It’s a nice thing, but ultimately it comes down to what I thought God’s will was.”
Gentile admitted he hesitated before agreeing to accept the assignment, but after a period of reflection, told Rozanski he would.
“I took probably a couple of days to think about it, but more importantly, I prayed over it and it was in my prayers that I really got a sense that this is really what God is asking me and calling me to do,” he said. “To be perfectly candid, I would just as soon just be a parish priest, but I really do feel that is what God is asking of me and when I put my trust in Him, things go well.”
The position allows Gentile to continue as pastor at Blessed Sacrament and achieving balance in the two roles is a challenging task he identified.
“That’s a challenge – How do you walk that line between serving a community I have come to know and come to love and who I want to be with and having to sometimes be pulled away from that to help my brother priests who also need some help periodically?” he said.
Gentile said the decreasing population of priests has created trials for the church, explaining that for every four priests retiring, only one is ordained. He said there were 94 active priests in the diocese and said at one time there were between 300 and 350.
“The challenge in this area is filling those parishes and ensuring those communities are being served by guys who want to be here and enjoy what they are doing and want to give themselves to their parishes and the people,” he said.
In addition to Gentile, Rev. Matthew Guidi was recently assigned to Blessed Sacrament. To have two priests in one parish is “very rare,” Gentile pointed out, adding the rectory at Blessed Sacrament once housed three or four priests.
While there is concern, he also noted the numbers seen now are not unique.
“If you looked at the history of our priesthood, today is more the rule than the exception,” he said. “There was a period after the Second World War when there was an influx of priests, but that was the exception.
“The numbers of priests swelled and grew and our church tried to accommodate them by building churches so they’d have someplace to go,” he continued, pointing out Holyoke at one time had seven churches.
Five churches – Blessed Sacrament, Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of the Cross and St. Jerome – remain today.
While concerns about the number of priests will persist, Gentile said he has faith in the church’s resilience so long as it continues receiving quality candidates for the priesthood.
“Ultimately you’d rather have good priests than a quantity of priests,” he said. “That’s not to say the old ones were not good priests, but we need to focus on ensuring the men we do have are devoted to the work of God and their communities.”