Thomas J. Burns—that’s me-- was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1948. (To save you the math, I am 75.) I attended Buffalo’s St. Mary Magdalene Church and School (closed forty years ago.) I was the senior altar boy and exceptionally curious—my priests then would have said precocious—about the world of Catholicism and pastoral life, and early in the eighth grade I received acceptance letters on the same day to my local seminary in Buffalo and a Franciscan boarding seminary in the Catskills. For a number of reasons, I found myself entering the latter seminary in September 1962. One of the first events I recall upon entering the seminary was a solemn high Latin Mass to mark the opening of the Council Vatican II. I learned later that Thomas Merton had applied to my order twenty years earlier but was declined.
I spent six years at St. Joseph Seminary in Callicoon, New York (closed forty plus years ago), completing high school and two years in junior college at the site, earning a degree in classical languages (Latin and Greek.) I made good friends in those years and maintain close ties a half century later with several compatriots of those times that I cherish on a daily basis. Many are followers of the Café.
In June 1968, I entered St. Raphael’s Novitiate in Lafayette New Jersey (closed forty-seven years ago) and took the Franciscan habit. In 1969 I was professed and transferred to Holy Name Friary in Washington, D.C., in that great cluster of dozens of religious formation houses around Catholic University. I completed my bachelor’s degree at Catholic University in Philosophy in May 1971, in large part because Viet Nam War demonstrations closed my campus during final exams week.
I was a competent but somewhat unmotivated student back then. I found more personal satisfaction in giving youth retreats in the tristate area than in hours with the books and typewriters. I proceeded to the Washington Theological Union in Silver Spring, Maryland (closed ten years ago), a graduate theology school of major religious orders, and it was there that my academic impulses took hold, thanks to several inspiring professors, fascination with the art and science of theology, and the opportunity to do guided graduate research. I earned my M.A. in theology in 1974.
I was ordained to the priesthood on September 14, 1974 by Archbishop [later Cardinal] Joseph Bernardin, of happy memory. My first assignment was a four year stint as Chaplain of Siena College, Loudonville, New York. This coincided with the chaotic post-Council days of liturgical experimentation. Suffice to say that every day was an adventure. However, I did want to work in a parish setting, and in July 1978 I was assigned to a Franciscan Parish in Apopka, Florida, a city where coincidentally I again live today, though the friars departed three decades ago.
Appointed pastor at age 31, I was very young and inexperienced for the position. I can certainly appreciate this fact with the vantage of age. As soon as I arrived there in 1978, I was recruited by the Diocese of Orlando to teach adult education in diocesan parishes and in the late 1990’s to serve in the diocese’s newly restructured catechist training program, which I continued until 2016 until my diocese dropped human teachers in favor of machines.Although there were many blessings in my twenty years of pastoring, it was becoming evident to me that the priestly life was for much better suited men than me. In 1994 I received permission from my Bishop to take an extended leave, and thanks to the gracious assistance of my Diocese, I was able to successfully complete the laicization process in 1998.
It had happened that while pastoring I was able to complete an M.A. in Counseling from Rollins College in 1988 after four years of night school and summer school. Thus, when leaving the priestly ministry in 1994 I was able to find work—entry level, of course—in the mental health field. I was able to successfully earn my medical license to practice psychotherapy from the Florida Department of Health in 1999 (license #MH5090, you can look it up) and continue in good standing. In 2003 I opened my own private practice. As luck would have it, many of my patients were Catholic, including clergy and religious and many church employees and volunteers. I expanded my practice into EAP counseling (Employee Assistance or job stress situations) and began to engage in occasional presentations and workshops on the crossover of mental health, work stress, and church settings. I served as an adjunct instructor for Daytona Beach College (human services and psychology) and St. Leo College, Daytona Extension (religious studies;) I have been a presenter at the National Catholic Educators Association conventions on issues of mental health and religious education during the years 2004-2015..
Given the changing nature of the mental health field, and my desire to engage more fully in my first love, theology and religious studies, I closed my practice on September 30, 2014. When the technological wave washed away my ministerial teaching position with the diocese, I dusted myself off and headed over to Catholic Charities of the Orlando Diocese, and soon I was maintaining pro bono mental health service in two rural locations in Central Florida under the Catholic Charities medical services division. I have reviewed theology books on Amazon—80 as of this writing. I always knew, however, that some kind of internet presence was in my future—and thus “The Catechist Café” came into being in November 2014.
In 1998 I had the great fortune to marry Dr. Margaret E. Curran. My then-pastor and Vicar General officiated at our wedding, and we are now in our 26th year of a very happy marriage. My wife has had a rich career; having earned her doctorate at Columbia University she taught for seventeen years for the University of Puerto Rico before starting a 25-year tenure as a Catholic elementary school principal from which she only recently retired (though the University of Central Florida was quick to recruit her to adjunct status.) She has served in multiple executive capacities with the NCEA for over two decades. She continues to serve in multiple human services placements for the Church.
And yes, I do love coffee, if you haven’t figured that out yet. And if you’re wondering why I embarked on the Café, a number of long deceased and long-suffering priests from my elementary school and parish days could answer in unison” “Because he’s precocious!”