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Cincinnati priests compete to meet parishioners in home blessing challenge

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Among the sometimes daunting tasks facing newly ordained priests is that of getting to know a church full of unfamiliar faces.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s newest shepherds have found a way to bring a spirit of fun to their efforts: The priests ordained in 2022 are competing with those ordained in 2023 to see who can bless the most parishioners’ houses during the Easter season.

Fr. Jonathan Jergens and the Eshman family.  Credit: Fr. Jergens.

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House blessings include praying for the home and its occupants, reading from Scripture and sprinkling holy water.

Catholics sometimes request a house blessing upon moving to a new home, an occasion that the Church recognizes with a specific prayer.

But both the Christmas and Easter seasons are also traditional times to bless houses, said Fr. Michael Willig, parochial vicar of the Petersburg pastoral region and the organizer of the competition.

Spending time with parishioners in their homes is very different than crossing paths at church, Willig said.

“I have found it very helpful to have something like [house blessings] simply to offer a way to get to know them on a more personal level,” he told The Pillar.

“It’s easy to see your people at Mass, but oftentimes, you don’t get the opportunity to really have a conversation with them.”

Lasting 50 days, the Easter season provides a convenient timeline for the competition.

The rules: in addition to a blessing, the priests must also have food or drink in the house — “so that it wouldn’t be just a numbers game,” said Willig, but a real opportunity for connection — and take a photo with its residents. Priests report their own blessings to each other in a group chat.

Many parishioners likewise appreciate the communal prayer and fellowship. Maria Eshman, a parishioner at St. Susanna in Mason, Ohio, invited parochial vicar Fr. Jonathan Jergens to bless her home.

Eshman sees her family’s relationship with Jergens as part of her and her husband’s efforts to pass down their faith to their three teenage daughters.

“When they have questions, they’ll be able to have somebody to go to for answers — because sometimes they don’t want to ask their mom or their dad,” Eshman told The Pillar.

Some parishioners have thrown parties to mark the occasion, inviting friends and family. Fr. Jacob Lindle, ordained in 2022 and parochial vicar of the Mary, Queen of Angels family of parishes, blessed several houses in succession while the group enjoyed a progressive dinner: appetizers at one house, a meal at the second and dessert at the third.

“It’s amazing,” Lindle told The Pillar. “It’s like a mutual gift.”


Priestly fraternity

The idea of the competition emerged from the friendships formed among the priests ordained in 2022.

After receiving their parish assignments, several of the priests began meeting weekly for fellowship and faith sharing, said Willig. In one of their discussions, the group reflected on the prescription of Canon 529, which in part states that a pastor is “to strive to know the faithful entrusted to his care” and therefore “to visit families.”

“Basically as a way to motivate ourselves and also our parishioners to invite us over, we decided to have a competition,” said Lindle.

“We would just announce it in the announcement periods after Mass — ‘Hey, I'm trying to take down my classmates in this house blessing competition. Please have me over to your house.’ And it’s just a funny but also very effective way to get into people’s homes.”

Last Easter, the group competed among themselves. Lindle recalled that Willig had him beat by the end of the season: “I started out strong, but he had much more stamina.”

This year, Fr. Willig had the idea to include the priests ordained in 2023. And because there is an equal number of priests in each ordination year — seven versus seven — the competition became not between individual priests but between the two classes.

Not all of the last two years’ priests have taken up the challenge. But among those who have, some are advertising the competition in their parish bulletins or on flyers. Others are announcing it after Masses and leaving out signup sheets.

Jergens, class of 2023, is setting aside his evenings from now until Pentecost.

“I call it ‘plumber’s hours,’” said Jergens, who had blessed 12 houses the night before he spoke to The Pillar

“Basically, ‘Fr. Jergens is going to call or text you when he’s on his way, and he can come anytime between five and nine.’”

Fr. Lindle noted that before the Easter season he had not gotten to know the more recently ordained priests, but the competition has offered a regular touchpoint for communication.

“Now I’m getting messages [from other priests] — ‘Blessing this house,’ or, you know, some holy trash talk,” said Lindle. “That part with the newly ordained has been so good.”

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Open doors

Eshman said that her family never had priests over for dinner when she was a child. And before getting to know Jergens, she and her husband had never invited a priest to their house.

“This is new territory for all of us,” she said.

Eshman is not alone. It can feel difficult for parishioners to invite priests over, said Lindle, particularly when they have inherited a culture of keeping them at arm’s length for a number of reasons.

“This [competition] gives a script for people,” said Lindle. “And, you know, as Catholics, we love that.”

Catholics in the archdiocese are indeed responding. As of this writing, the ordination class of 2022 has blessed 68 houses, and the class of 2023 has blessed 62. (There is an open question, the priests noted, about what to do with some “yet to be verified” blessings that are not part of the current count.)

Who do they think will win?

“You know,” said Jergens, “I think, in this kind of a competition, everybody wins.”

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