Peter’s Corner: Father Peter reflects on his path to St. Stephen’s

When Ash Wednesday for 2019 comes on March 6, that day will mark the end of my second year as Vicar of Saint Stephen’s, for it was on Ash Wednesday (March 1, 2017) that I began my work, having served as a Curate at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square after my ordination in June of 2015.

In beginning this blog, I had several thoughts about how to share the story of my journey to Saint Stephen’s and the Episcopal priesthood but now, at the keyboard, I am not sure how to proceed. On the other hand, maybe the first sentence above is enough to get me started…or maybe not. After all, I’ve never authored a blog…How about if I just start writing? Here we go…..

I was raised a Roman Catholic in an environment that was often called the “American Catholic Bubble,” in which the Church, School, and Home were the core elements. Growing up, I had the best of all three elements for many years: I happily went to Catholic schools from kindergarten on and learned a great deal. I attended choir school and excelled there and, in fact, learned to play the organ. During that time I served Mass, and assisted at funerals and weddings. My grammar school was the school of the Cathedral in the Ohio city in which I lived, so I had many opportunities to participate fully in the liturgical life. I also had many friends.  What’s more, I had a life in music outside of my school life, a life enriched by my mother a concert pianist and my father a music critic. I played in the City-Wide Youth Orchestra and in an 15 piece multi-school jazz ensemble. I sang in many boys’ choirs throughout the city, one of which was the choir of the principal Episcopal Church in the city. As I look back now, after many decades, I realize that I used to wonder about the Episcopal church because it seemed more real to me, more immediately enriching and satisfying. And, still looking back, I believe that even then, I may have had some sense that worship was more engaging and that God was more present. I’m not sure, though, that I fully realized any of this at the time. [I’ll return to this in my next blog entries…]

Early on at home came the death of my sister in 1948 and then my brother in 1957. My parents bore the brunt of my sister’s death and, in my own way, I bore the brunt of my brother’s death. After the death of my brother, it was all downhill for me.  The “Bubble” broke open: high school was a disaster, as was my home life, having become the “only child.” In some respects, I went underground. Again, however, and mysteriously, my church life was enriching and satisfying and, to a certain degree, stabilizing. For reasons that I still cannot fathom, except to recognize the hand of God somewhere in the mix, I decided to apply to a Benedictine College in Southern Indiana, Saint Meinrad, which happened also to be a Catholic Seminary. And what is this all about, you ask? I had decided to become a Catholic priest, studying for my home Diocese. What I now understand after many years and the work of discernment and therapy, is that I ran to the seminary college rather than running away from my mostly miserable high school experience. The five years with the Benedictines and my classmates, gave me my life and the gifts I did not know I had: I became a serious student, a composer of liturgical music, a serious trumpet player and a member of a blue grass group  playing the bass and singing; I created a jazz ensemble and became a published composer of liturgical choral music, and the music director for a college-seminary of 300 students.  And I became a bus and truck driver (no kidding). But of greatest importance is the fact that the Benedictines taught me the Rule of Benedict and so I learned how to pray, how to practice silence, solitude, and Lectio Divina and, as Thomas Merton would put it, how to be a “contemplative in a world of action.”

At graduation in 1967, however, came the moment of truth as I had to make a decision about whether to continue my Theological studies.  My Bishop wanted to send me to Rome or to Louvain (Belgium) for my Theological study, my choice. Tempting though this was, after thoughtful prayer and conversation, and with no small degree of sadness since he was always so supportive of me, I told the Bishop that I wanted to leave the seminary and my priestly studies and go into the world, a world I believed would not be as confining as the priesthood, pursue an academic life and perhaps earn a Ph.D. I should say here that what I believed was that the Catholic priesthood, though perhaps a noble calling, was not, in the end, a calling that could satisfy me. I was not angry, confused, or uncertain. I did, though, not know specifically, what my next step would be. I did know, however, that God was calling me to a different path, one that I was willing to follow though, at the moment, I was not sure where it would lead me.

All this was long ago. Since then, I received my M.A., and Ph.D from The University of Chicago, married and became a father of three children and the grandfather of three grandchildren, served three universities as a member of the faculty, an academic and student life administrator, a baseball coach, a manager/program director of a University radio station, an arts commentator and critic on CBS radio in Chicago, and a number of other things. And then, after all of this and still in search of the right context and maybe the right “place,” and with my continuing experience teaching undergraduates and graduate students, I decided I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. This was in 1988. So, I became what is called a “school person” and for the next 16 years of my professional life, ended up running two large independent schools, one in Pittsburgh and `the other in Park Slope Brooklyn.

My last experience, in the second of two schools, was very difficult and, ultimately, the greatest of mis-matches. The clue should have been that for the first time in my life I signed a multi-year contract and so the problems of the institution, which the institution never took responsibility for because I did not have one-year reviews, and this allowed the board to keep putting off problems in the school that needed to be addressed. As a result, at the end of three years, I was more than ready to leave the school. Bruised and disillusioned, I left the school in 2004, having decided to take a self-imposed sabbatical year. As always, my family was very supportive, though not unaffected by my unhappiness and frustration. As I look back at that “self-imposed sabbatical year,” I have realized how important and illuminative it was, even when I was convinced at the time that it didn’t amount to much of anything. Oh, I did this and did that, consulted here and there, read a lot and wrote a little, but the most significant thing that happened required what the Rule of Benedict called “listening with the ear of the heart” and, as things turned out, I was able to do this.

And this is a major moment in my journey to the Episcopal priesthood because the listening I was doing was all about calling. One of my favorite thinkers and writers is Parker Palmer, someone who has been awakening me for years. Here is what he says about calling (or what is often termed, “vocation.”) Vocation means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.

What came next was a palpable “call” via the telephone, asking me if I would be willing to serve as an Interim Head of School for a public charter school in Philadelphia, The Charter High School for Architecture + Design. This, too, was a call that required listening with the ear of my heart, as CHAD (as it was called) was an inner-city high school that served educationally and economically disadvantaged students and their families. It was a “call” to service, the kind of which I had little or no experience in. Yet, not only did I accept this “call” in the Spring of 2005, but I ended up staying at CHAD until July, 2015, when I “retired.” To end this, my first blog entry ever, “Father Peter’s Corner #1,” I would say two things: first, that my time at CHAD changed my life and second, that “doing good work” and “doing good” are not the same thing. I will pick up this thread next time. Stay tuned.

Father Peter Kountz


March 2019