A conversation with the Rev. Scott Vanderveer

Last Updated on December 22, 2021 by Editor

An interview with the Rev. Scott Vanderveer, a former parishioner and now pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Glens Falls.

When you were growing up, did you have any inclination you wanted to be a priest?

No, no I did not, not in the early days, I always had a very strong relationship with God, but I never liked going to Mass. My relationship with God was very strong in that I kind of talked to God like an imaginary friend. I was always speaking to God, and I would say, “What a beautiful day it is,” “I wonder what I want to eat later,” “Why are caterpillars fuzzy.” I would say all of those things to God and have an ongoing dialogue with God during the day. I really missed that, and I missed missing it, too, if you can know what I mean.

There I am. I was sorry to have entered a phase of life where God didn’t matter to me as much and my joy level went down. It was only in reclaiming that sense of talking to God more in the day that happened later in my life that I was able to reclaim some of the joy that was missing in those young adult years — not completely; no I was not a joyless person, but I was a person who was not taking advantage of all the joy that was available to me through my relationship with God.

I realized when I was 18 years old that my calling was not what I thought it was. I thought I was called to be a journalist and I was attracted to that because I always wanted to be the one to inform people of what was happening; let me be the one that informs them the way Walter Cronkite did at the time of President Kennedy’s assassination, but then I realized informing people is not my calling — it’s related to my calling, but my calling is more precise.

I am not called to inform people. I am called to inspire people, not to inform them, but inspire them. So, yeah, that was that hit me like a like a bolt of lightning, but I didn’t want to be a priest even though I knew it was my calling because I thought it was too extreme of life. I thought it was too odd. I thought it required way too much having to twist myself into a mold that didn’t fit me — you know taking vows of obedience and chastity, celibacy and living a simple life, being told where to live, where to go, what your life would be having to take the entire role on not just the parts you like but all of it, which is so all-encompassing. So, I fought being a priest for 20 years, including those years that I lived in Utica in 1999 to 2001. I fought being a priest. I wanted to put it off put it off, put it off, but eventually after 20 years I gave in. I was too tired to keep running and I became a priest.

Is there any one priest or person who influenced you the most?

That would be Father Jerry Appleby, the priest who was preaching at the moment I realized. He inspires people as his calling. I am supposed to do that. I’m not supposed to inform people. I had looked at people like Walter Cronkite and Peter Jennings and Jane Pauley and Barbara Walters and I thought, “Oh that’s what I’m called to do. I’m called to inform people.” No, Father Jerry was truly doing what I was called to do. He was inspiring people, and he used his skills of communication and public speaking and writing and studying and thinking in a way that inspired the masses, and it wasn’t about him. He wasn’t inspiring them to follow him. He was inspiring them to follow God and the gospel of Christ, so I was so influenced by him.

 I was also influenced by Father Jim (Callan) during my college years who was the pastor of a thriving inner-city parish in Rochester, and that’s where I got exposed to seeing all of those ministries that a parish can have when they really pull together. Father Jim Callan was actually the inspiration for Father Fred Daley and the wonderful ministries of St. Francis deSales Parish in Cornhill, many of which are still going — places like Hope House, Abraham House, New Horizons — all of those different ministries that happened there helped friends that were part of Hospitality Row.

So, one of the reasons I came to Utica is because I was inspired by what Father Jim was doing in Rochester, and an AmeriCorps Vista position opened at Abraham House, which allowed me to work with the director there as a grant writer using my college degree and allowed me to be supervised by Sister Betty Girusso, who also has been on the staff of St. Mary of Carmel / Blessed Sacrament Parish. So those priests inspired me very much.

I was also inspired by my great aunt, who was my grandmother’s sister who was a nun. Her holiness was incredible, and I knew she was different than other adults. I wouldn’t be able to put my finger on exactly what made her different, but I knew that there was something different about her quality of presence. I knew that when I was talking, she was really listening, and she wasn’t thinking about her own thing or patronizing me. And who can blame any adult who you know tires of baby talk all day; she never tired of it. Now she didn’t spend all day doing that, her calling was to be a sister — she was an educator — but her belief in the beauty of the human person and of all of creation was just part of everything she did. So, I was very drawn by that.

When and/or how did you determine the priesthood was for you?

I was putting God off, as I told you, over and over again, so that’s part of what brought me to Utica. I knew that I was called to the priesthood, but I wanted to study journalism anyway. So then after four years of studying journalism, I felt God nudging, “Is it time for you to go to the priesthood now?” and I said, “No God, I’ve never traveled. I want to travel the world. So, I did, with “Up with People” for two years and traveled to nine different countries and lived with 150 host families and performed a musical show and did community service work all over, so that was something that was so fulfilling, and I was glad I did it.

When I came back from “Up with People,” I felt God nudging now and I said, “No I’ve never, I’ve never gotten to experience doing the thing that I loved to do as a child. I need to have my bucket list experience.” So, I got a degree — no, not a degree — a license as a school bus driver. I got a commercial driver’s license and drove school bus from my home district and then later drove for New Hartford Central Schools when I was living at St. Mary Mount Carmel / Blessed Sacrament Parish rectory with Father Joe Salerno. Don’t mean to jump ahead, so I came to Utica because I wanted to experience working for hospice. I discovered hospice … and I said I think I want to do that. I got a position through the AmeriCorps program to write grants and do community outreach for Abraham House, so I moved to Utica.

At the end of that year God said, “Now,” and I said, “Well, well, no. I maybe, I want to experience something else. Maybe I need to go to a big city, so after living for a year at the rectory at St. Mary of Mount Carmel, the year previous living at the former convent of St. Francis de Sales parish in Cornhill, I got a job online through monster.com of happy memory, the predecessor of indeed.com. I went and got a job in Boston at a travel educational travel company E.F. Education. That was the first time that I realized this is not the right path. I’m not supposed to be in a corporate job. But I learned a lot there.

After a year of that, I felt myself asking, “When is the last time I was really happy doing what I was doing, and I realized that that was when I was a catechist at Mount Carmel. I was a catechist at the parish because while I was living with Father Joe. The catechist at the time wound up having a family emergency and couldn’t complete the year and so I was asked to step in as the catechist and I absolutely loved it.

In 2001, and so I thought that was what I loved doing, so I applied to every Catholic high school in the Boston archdiocese — 55 schools in total — with my resume explaining that I had experience working with educational travel, with journalism, writing with grants and community outreach, with public speaking. I thought can I prove to them that I would be a good religion teacher even though I don’t yet have a degree in education.

Well, I got a job at North Cambridge Catholic High School — an inner city Catholic high school in Boston serving underserved populations from the Boston metro area. I was there for five years. I just loved it. I loved it and it was so close to what I was supposed to do, but when God came knocking then at age — it must have been age 31 and 32 — I realized I can’t run anymore; it’s time for me to be a priest and I discerned that I was called back to Upstate New York. I discerned that I was called to my mom’s hometown Albany, where my beloved grandmother … who I loved, and that great aunt, the nun who was such an inspiration, I decided that that was where I was called to be — still close to home to my family in Rochester, still near Utica, but also grounded in a really strong place for my family history and a good diocese for me to work in and I went to the seminary and I was ordained in 2013.

Do you think priests of your generation differ from priests of the past?

It does seem that the pendulum is always swinging. I agree that the priests of the past and the priests of today are different, and I think that statement could be true in every generation. One of the things you’ll hear is that today’s elder priests came of age during the blooming of Vatican II, and so they were in love with the reforms of the Vatican II council … and so they loved that Mass was in English, and they loved the closeness with the people, and they loved the model of priest moving from leader of prayer and intermediary between God and the people, to one who walks with the people, a fellow journeyer, one who is on a sojourn with the people of God.

Those priests — the ones that are now in their late 60s 70s and 80s, they are very influenced by the cultural shifts of the ’60s and ’70s. They are what we might call modern priests — you know modern thinking. The younger priests tend to be very traditional and there’s a lot of studies that show that’s likely to be because many of them were raised during a time when single-parent households were just as common as two-parent households, when both parents were all working and there was a lot of flux in the home situation, which causes them to hunger subconsciously for order, and the way of the church before Vatican II appeals to them because there was so much order. There’s no way not to describe that as an ordered life and so they were very drawn to the order of that many people would say that today’s young priests are more old-fashioned than the older priests.

 I think that’s a very interesting dynamic and I think that’d be really interesting for people to read more about that a lot of times when a priest is transferred into a parish, if he is young, people might be inclined to say something like, “Oh good, we’ll get some fresh young energy in here, and somebody who’s not like, you know, stuck in old ways.” And they may find that actually that person that young person is rebellious in a traditional way.

What do they say, traditional is the new radical? Radical priests are no longer the ones that are protesting in the streets with people over social justice issues. They’re much more likely to be the ones asking for people to return to more pious practices in church. It’s interesting and depending on what your life experience has been you might see that as a positive trend or a troubling trend, but I think it’s an interesting thing for us to realize, and when we realize that it’s part of a movement that’s pretty natural in the pendulum swinging. I try not to panic too much about it. I try not to think, “Well now, everything’s lost if it’s going a direction I don’t like, or now we’re finally getting back to the true church. If it’s going in a direction I do like.” I try to remember that there is a rhythm and a movement to the church that is bigger than we are and can only be understood in retrospect

 I liked that Soren Kierkegaard once said life is like rowing in a rowboat because in a rowboat you row forward but you face backward. You only see where you’ve been, not where you’re going. I think that is brilliant. I think that’s so true, and it makes sense to me that that would be the case.

Please describe what the priests were like in their approach when you were younger.

Priests tended to be more progressively minded than they are today. The priests that I were around when I was being raised in the 1980s and ’90s were very much into social action, starting ministries, raising people’s consciousness to issues going on in the world, wanting people to take an active part in ending poverty, feeding hungry people, responding to climate change, things like that. Today’s priests, my colleagues, are much more interested in people being consecrated for holiness and to live obedient and pious and virtuous lives.

I think the priests in the days of old — meaning the ’80s and the ’90s not so long ago — they were quick to say people’s sins are understandable. All of us struggle. Sin is not the most important thing to speak about. Justice is more important than focusing on people’s sins. Younger priests would say it all begins with sin, so encourage people to be very humble and self-effacing and contrite for their sins and then they will be all of justice will flow from that. It’s a different approach, and I can understand why either approach taken to an extreme is dangerous for balance

Were priests of your generation any different from the priests of your parents’ generation?

I think the priests of my parents’ generation were a lot like the priests of today — there’s one difference. Today’s young priests have all sorts of freedom that the priests of my parents’ generation did not have. The priests of my parents’ generation lived a very rigorous life — meals were served at given times in the rectory, they all ate together. Unless you were the pastor, if you were an associate or a curate, as they were often called, you had no real rights to lead. You were always directed by the pastor, and in a way your wings were a little bit clipped. You were given assignments. You didn’t direct, you followed. Many priests had to wait 15, 20, 25 or 30 years or longer before they could be a pastor for the first time, and so today’s younger priests often like much of the piety and the traditionalism of that time, but they have a cellphone in their hand all the time, and they go on vacations, and they have a lot more freedom

I’ve heard that some of the priests of the Vatican II era have critiqued that and have said if you want the old-fashioned church you have to take it whole cloth, meaning you will have a curfew you will not have any contact with parishioners through any technology, everything will be monitored by the pastor. You will be given a portion of food to eat every night and the refrigerator will have a padlock on it after that. The housekeeper will be loyal to the pastor and will be watching every move that you make and reporting what behavior is troublesome to her. So, that’s an interesting perspective isn’t it, that if you want the traditional ways, you should take all of them because to have all of that freedom without all of the responsibility is unfair, I think that’s an interesting critique worth thinking about

Are these changes you noted for the betterment of the church?

In so far as they bring us to balance. I think our goal is for the pendulum to be centered in that place where we are disciplined but free, devoted but unattached to forms you know. I think we’re called to be radically open to whatever God wants of us and that means being very clear that the church is a gift of God, it is a sacrament of God, it is a graced thing in our life, and it also is sinful because the church is made up of people. And so, I think there are people who have a hard time discerning or deciphering between where does the church end and God start.

I think a lot of people think the church and God are synonymous, and I think that when the pendulum comes to the center, we are very clear, crystal clear, God being God and the church being the church, and although the church comes to us from God, it is a gift from God. It is not God. And one way to say that I think is God is the ultimate the church and everything else could only be penultimate. Nothing takes the place of God being God and nothing shares that pedestal with God — not the church not anything else God alone

There used to be several priests to one parish. Now, it’s several parishes for one priest. What are your thoughts about that?

It’s a very hard challenge. You asked me what my biggest challenges are these days. That is the biggest challenge — to have too many parishes, too much work, too many tasks and having the feeling of being stretched too thin. My big struggle right now is that I always feel overworked, and the people of God have a right and legitimately often feel undernourished. I’m working as hard as I can, and harder perhaps with more hours and more effort than has been done in recent memory where I work a lot of 60-hour weeks. I only have one day off. That’s pretty typical for priests, but that means there are times where the evening before my day off I work right up until midnight so I can actually have that day be without work. I have so much work to do, so much correspondence; it’s a real challenge and I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a burden. What makes that sad is I’m working as hard as I can, so people ought to be very, very happy and they are. People are very grateful and loving, but they cannot hide the fact that they’re used to a higher level of connection with the priest than can be given when you have multiple parishes

Do you feel priests are more approachable now than in the past?

Yes, partially because I think today’s people begin by knowing that we’re human and then later recognize that we’ve been consecrated for service to God. It used to be the opposite. We were seen as consecrated by God and therefore superhuman. No longer do we start with the consecration; we start with the humanity, and I think there’s some real gifts to that.

How has evangelization changed? During the pandemic, younger priests turned to social media. Is that an effective way of communicating with the flock? How has it helped? What are the drawbacks?

It is a marvel that we are able to use social media the way we do. I know that the St. Mary of Mount Carmel / Blessed Sacrament Parish website is a true gift to me and to everyone. We are so connected through the content that has been created, and I just am so grateful to Fran Perritano and Peter Elacqua and to all the others who are doing that because you are nourishing us, you are feeding us. Here I am in Glens Falls able to connect with my beautiful old hometown in Utica and my beloved parish and grow spiritually because of the work that’s there. The YouTube channel that I have has more than 1,500 followers — 1,500 followers — how incredible is that! I am excited to be a part of this era of the church’s life that this could be at all possible

I do think though that Christians by nature need to gather in person. They need to know and experience each other. Is the surge of distance connection to the parish through livestreams and online Masses and online content — is that permanent or is that only during COVID? I don’t know the answer if it’s permanent, I will be happy that those seeking have a way to find, but I will be so sad that we are left with the inability to be able to gather the way we did all together. There’s a lot more I can say about that, but I think that paints enough of a picture.

With fewer priests and pastors now heading more than one parish, how difficult is it to evangelize and keep up with the business of running a parish?

I think we often have to choose. Are we going to focus on mission or maintenance, and I don’t think that’s an all-in or all-out endeavor. I think every day I need to devote a lot of my time to mission and a lot of my time to maintenance. I do find myself being overwhelmed by the amount of property that we have. The amount of square feet the school that I’m the leader of has 115,000 square feet and 200 students, and it has a monthly utility bill in the winter of $15,000 … that is paid through the school’s budget. But the parish subsidizes the school’s budget as do other parishes in the region. I share this with you because it is impossible not to work on maintenance and on day-to-day temporal responsibilities, but if we stop and stay there, we’ll be in big trouble for obvious reasons.

In the past, the focus was more on guilt — you better do everything right or else. The focus was on obeying all the rules. How has that changed?

I think that goes back to what I said about the traditional model of church is that sin is the problem. The model of Vatican II was the lack of responding to the universal call of holiness is the problem. It sounds like I’m saying the same thing there, but I think there’s a big distinction. It used to be that we emphasized in the church that if you were charitable then justice would follow, and nowadays I think there has become an awareness through Vatican II that unless there is justice for all, no amount of personal charity will exemplify the holiness God is calling us to. We are all called ideally to be personally charitable and loving and to as a body to each contribute to the just working of the whole. And I think that the very traditional model before Vatican II focuses on the individual and the post-Vatican II approach is to focus on the whole.

How to you see the future of the priesthood?

Unknowable. Unknowable. I do think it’s interesting that Jesus said in the scriptures that the church would always find a way to survive, that the church would always prevail. I think that’s beautiful, and I think it means that we need to be open and trusting that we will find our way.

You know one of the things I love and I’m going to be preaching about soon is that life is an awful lot like a train. The engineer of the train may think that he or she is driving it, but the rails are actually what determine the direction of the train. No engineer can say, “Oh, that looks nice over there, let’s go that way.” You’re going to go the way the rails go. Your job is not to choose where to go, it’s to stay on the rails, to not derail. And I think the church, we can all think that we’re going to have a role in deciding where the church is going, I think the church is going to go where the Holy Spirit leads the church to go. We are not we are not driving; we’re the engineers responsible for responding to the conditions so that we don’t derail, but the church is going to go where the rails take her.

Is the anything else you would like to add?

I am so grateful for all of the ways that Mount Carmel / Blessed Sacrament Parish has blessed my life. I am so glad for all that I learned there about liturgy from Peter Elacqua. I am so grateful for all of the generous and gentle people who guided me and helped me to be a better person, who modeled what holiness looked like for me. I am so grateful for the mentorship of Father Joe Salerno, who I lived with when he was pastor there for a year and with his father, John, and Father Luis Olguin. I’m so grateful for all of them and I am grateful for Utica food, the most delicious of all foods in the world, including in Italy. There’s nothing like Utica Italian food and Utica Polish food, too. I’m so grateful, Thank you for asking me to respond this way. May God bless and keep you now and always peace be with you.

Father Scott Vanderveer

Age: 46.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in journalism from St. Bonaventure University and a master’s degree in education from Boston College; master’s in divinity from Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass.

Ordained: June 8, 2013.

Parish: Pastor of St. Mary’s in Glens Falls, which also has a pre-k through eighth-grade school.