ELMHURST — When Father Andrew Tsui was ordained on June 4, 2022, he knew his life would change. “I remember when I hit the floor, thinking, ‘It’s really going to happen!’ ” he said, recalling lying prostrate before the altar of the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph.
A year later, Father Tsui is settled into his role as parochial vicar for St. Bartholomew Church in Elmhurst. “It’s been nonstop. It’s been very busy,” he said. “This has been the best year of my life, beyond my expectations.”
Father Tsui was one of three men ordained in the Diocese of Brooklyn last year. Along with Father Tsui, the priests are Father Alex Olszewski, parochial vicar for St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Flatlands, and Father Vincent Vu, parochial vicar for Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Queens Village.
“All has gone well,” Father Olszewski said. “In seminary you sometimes hear that your worst day as a priest is better than your best day as a seminarian. After one year of priesthood, I can tell you that it’s not quite true. What’s true is that after five-plus years of often grueling seminary, it’s much better to be a priest because you see your labor bearing fruit.”
Father Vu is still busy familiarizing himself with Our Lady of Lourdes. “As a new priest at this time, I’m learning a lot of things as to how the parish runs; how to deal with the different needs of the parishioners from the many communities and how church activities, such as novenas and devotions, are organized,” he said.
The diversity of Queens Village is appealing to him. “This first year gave me an opportunity to meet and interact with various communities in Queens Village: Spanish, Filipino, Tamil, Indian, West Indian, Haitian. I am learning to appreciate their cultural values and developing relationships with them,” he explained.
The three men first became friends attending the same seminary, Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts, and remained close as they navigated their first 12 months as priests.
Father Olszewski spoke glowingly of their friendship. “Father Vincent taught me how to say the Mass and Father Andrew provides second opinions and pastoral advice whenever I need it,” he explained.
Father Tsui, who grew up in New York as the son of Chinese immigrants and worked in accounting, said the biggest lesson he learned during this first year was the importance of humility. “It’s not you. It’s God,” he explained. “God is working through you.”
He experienced a profound moment when he administered the sacrament of anointing of the sick for the mother of a friend in upstate New York, where he was visiting at the time. “I think they were very thankful that I visited her because there wasn’t a priest in the area,” he said, adding that it made him realize that he was helping people at the most vulnerable times of their lives.
Father Tsui has been struck by the big difference between his seminary studies and the real life of a priest.
“Intellectually, you think it’s going to go a certain way when you do sacraments for people. Take confession. You study what it’s like to be in the confessional. But you go into the confessional and you say to yourself, ‘This is beyond me.’ You’re allowing God to work through you.”
Father Tsui enjoys the challenge of writing and delivering homilies. “You’re constantly studying and constantly looking to different resources to better communicate to the people of God,” he said. “And also it’s important to know your audience, so to speak. Elmhurst is one of the most diverse places in the United States. Your homilies should reflect that.”
For Father Olszewski, who had a career in banking prior to the priesthood, the physical demands of the job came as a surprise. “Seminary doesn’t prepare you for many of the real-life ministerial challenges you’ll encounter. Physical fitness is more important than most seminarians realize,” he said.
That’s partly because the role of a parish priest has a practical side as well as a faith component. “There is an additional administrative role which involves papers and plumbing, leaks and ladders, and dealing with all kinds of things that go bump in the night,” he explained.
For Father Vu, who grew up in Vietnam and was a history scholar, a favorite part of his life is administering the sacraments. Calling it “the most profound duty of a priest,” he said he loves helping people. “I enjoy visiting the homebound and bringing the Church to them since they are not able to come to us,” he added.
Like Father Tsui, Father Olszewski pointed to the confessional as a place of deep meaning. “You hear people say words like, ‘I never knew that I could have such peace again.’ You are bringing people closer to God,” he said.
Now that they have a full year of priesthood under their belts, the three men have advice for new priests just coming aboard. Father Olszewski suggested that they put a lot of thought into homilies.
“Parishioners can tell when you’ve put in work into your homily and will appreciate it,” he explained. “If you take the time to research and write a good homily, not only are you informing them, you’re educating yourself as well.”
Father Tsui’s advice? “Be generous with God. Be generous with God’s people. And if there is an anointing, don’t walk, run toward that person. You’re called to serve the people,” he advised.
Father Vu urged new priests to open their hearts while staying true to the Gospel. “Be open to new things and new ideas. Try to understand the differences in people and where they are coming from. But at the same time, be steadfast with your values — especially Catholic values which are nonnegotiable,” he said.