Be Not Afraid: Fr. Roger on fearing your vocation and becoming a priest in his hometown of Edmonton

11 April 2024

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Father Roger Niedzielski is a priest for the Archdiocese of Edmonton. He currently serves as the pastor for the twin parishes of Resurrection and Assumption Catholic Church in Edmonton. He grew up in Edmonton, graduated from Louis St. Laurent high school, and in 2009 he entered St. Joseph’s Seminary at age 17. He was ordained as a priest in June 2017. Watch the video version of his story here.

When did you first think of priesthood as an option for you?

I think it really started when I began to altar serve at my home parish, Our Lady Queen of Poland, the parish just off of Whyte Avenue in Edmonton. I think I was about seven or eight years old, before I received my First Communion.

The sisters and priest of the parish say to all the young people that they could be a priest or (religious) sister and it freaked me out a bit and then I just filed that away for later reference.

Throughout elementary school, I had this one friend who was always saying “you’re going to be Pope, you’re going to be Pope!” because I was going to church a lot more often than he was, due to my altar serving duties. I almost always altar-served when I attended Mass, so I wasn’t in the pews very often, always up by the altar.

A young Roger Niedzielski at his First Communion (2000).

In Grade 11, we were doing this job aptitude test and with my test scores I kept getting “religious leader” or “priesthood.” That started the gears going, getting me to ask whether this was something I needed to take seriously.

I was 15 or 16 at the time, and I entered the seminary when I was 17.

In Grade 12, I got a hold of the diocesan vocations director, Father Patrick Baska, and it was a great conversation. It also kind of freaked me out, and of course he invited me to the seminary to come for a Come and See visit.

In the weeks between speaking with Father Baska and actually visiting the seminary, I started to dread this visit.

So it began this whole prayer with God: “Ok, you know who I am and I have this whole image of the priesthood as monastics in brown hoods walking down these corridors chanting in Latin. The priesthood just seems like something I could never even approach, so intense and far beyond the realm of possibility for me.”

Roger Niedzielski at his Confirmation with Cardinal Thomas Collins (2002).

So I told God: “Listen, I’ll go to this retreat, I’ll go to this stupid thing, but if I see this unattainable experience, I’ll know it’s not for me and that will be the end of it.”

I went to the retreat and was just getting settled into my room and then I started to hear yelling and cursing down the hallway from where I was staying at the seminary. I’m thinking, this is not what I was expecting. This is very strange. Why is there cursing?

So I walked down the corridor and there were two guys in a living room playing Mario Kart and one guy was winning and another guy was sorely losing and was expressing that. It was at that moment that it just cracked for me. This pristine image of the unattainable priesthood was cracked for me. 

What I realized at this moment was these are just regular guys, guys I could mistake on any busy street in Edmonton, and they feel the call of God. So wait a moment. God just calls us schmucks? He calls us regular guys?

Fr. Roger with brother priests at an inaugural priest fellowship trip to Buck Lake, Alberta (2022).

So that was really one of the first major steps to coming to realize that God maybe was calling me. And then I entered the seminary the summer after Grade 12, when I was 17.

In the first week of seminary we have this silent retreat, so we’re not talking to anyone and then after the retreat we had this banquet. And I wasn’t even able to have a glass of wine with the other seminarians because I was only 17!

In many ways I ushered in a much younger generation of seminarians, who entered after me. There were several of us that entered around the same time. We were really the vanguard of young seminarians. Prior to us entering it was mostly guys in their late 20s who were entering, or older.

Fr. Roger with fellow seminarians at St. Joseph’s Seminary in 2014.

You said that you got a bit freaked out by the prospect of priesthood. Why?

It’s a good question! Have you ever met a Polish priest? They can be a little intense at times! That was sort of the main worry in my life.

I grew up in the Polish parish in Edmonton and that was really the only contact I had with the Church for years. So my only experience of priests in the first 16 years of my life were the Oblate priests – and I love the Oblates dearly –  but Polish Oblates can be just a little bit extra. I was always just wary of being too intense, too extra!

It was only after I met a number of other priests that I saw that not all priests are specific to how I experienced many Polish priests.

A Polish pastor and his dog.

Were you ever concerned about celibacy or sad that to become a Roman Catholic priest means that you will not be married or have children? 

You know,  I think that if you are to be conscious and healthfully working through the decision that leads to priesthood, you are going to feel many emotions, even emotions of loss.

When it comes to the priesthood, you don’t want a guy who completely rejects married life because that’s not how God works through the gift of celibacy. I think you need to see yourself as a potential father, a joyful and happy father either way.

The gift of celebrating baptisms (2023).

God has given me the grace to be peaceful and confident in celibacy, but there are moments where I went through those thoughts: “I won’t have kids, my last name ends with me.” I used to joke that I’m writing the final chapter for my family and hopefully I can write a great end for my family.

What did your family think when you entered seminary? 

They weren’t surprised! I don’t think anyone was surprised. In fact, I think the only one who was surprised was me. It was one of those things where it was obvious for everyone else, but it just took me a little bit more time to be convinced and to see this as my vocation.

My family was supportive, in a healthy way. Mom and Dad were always of the mindset that they didn’t want me to feel pressured.

A future Fr. Roger with parents and siblings (2000).

Before entering the seminary for diocesan priesthood, did you consider entering a religious order of priests or brothers?

I considered religious orders for a little bit – although the parish Oblates in my home parish were certainly biased to getting me to lean towards diocesan priesthood.

I considered the Jesuits for a bit, but the heart tugged a lot more towards the diocese. In many ways I saw that my vocation was anchored here in Edmonton. My vocation grew in this stable community, and I felt that this was where God wanted me.

The day of ordination at St. Joseph’s Basilica, Edmonton ( June 2017).

Did you ever doubt your vocation, or did you always feel certain about the priesthood?

Definitely both! Absolutely both.

It was always confusing. It was always the feeling of this is up in the air, and yet at the same time there was no doubt in my mind that this was what God was calling me to do.

If there was any confusion, it was on my end of things. If there was any certainty, it was coming from prayer and coming from that sense that God has said what he wants me to do. He hasn’t said otherwise.

Every time I was having anxiety or stress it was coming from my own reflection, my own self-doubt, my own lack of self confidence. It was really in many ways, a process of getting over myself.

Fr. Roger receives his personal chalice from Archbishop Richard Smith on the day of his ordination (2017).

I can just hear Fr. Shayne [Craig] – one of my main seminary formators – speaking about the Divine Mercy prayer, “Jesus, I trust in you.” Because what I was lacking was trust, that confidence that I should have had in God’s Word.

So yes,  I experienced both certainty and doubt. The stress, the doubt, the confusion was always stemming from me.  I also felt a great sense of consolation from knowing that if the Lord has spoken once – the Lord who is able to create by only speaking once – if he has called me, he only needs to call me once. He only needs to say his words once, for them to indicate his will.

So in many ways it was just growing in confidence, growing in trust of the Lord’s perennial word.

Do you believe that God gave you one clear moment where he called you? Or do you think that your calling to priesthood was many different things that came together?

You’re going to hate me because it was both!

I saw my vocation like a slow cooker. You throw in everything and turn it on and forget about it for a long time and then all of a sudden it’s there! It is all these little pieces that are coming together.

At the same time, the Lord does like to work through bigger signs, bigger events. It was actually after my first year of seminary and I had the opportunity to go to Rome and do a classical (sites) tour for credits for my undergrad.

Fr. Roger (right) during a Mass celebrated at World Youth Day Portugal, as World Youth Day Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Edmonton (2023). Photo by Luke Fuentebella.

I had an experience as I was entering into St. John Lateran Basilica. I was the most touristy tourist you could ever see – I didn’t look like a seminarian at all – and I went to confession. In no way did I indicate that I was a seminarian. And then the confessor spoke to me and said: “I’m happy you’re in seminary. Continue doing this. I want you to be a priest.”

Instantaneously my heart was rendered and I felt like my heart was outside of my body, like someone ripped my heart right out of me. I felt incredibly vulnerable and I started crying. I didn’t know what was going on and it was a hell of an experience. I cried for probably about 20 minutes as I crawled out of the confessional and went to the Divine Mercy chapel, because I was right next to it.

I still was so freaked out because this priest read my soul like he did – and granted that was something that I worked through later on in spiritual direction. It was something that I kept rather close to my heart. I didn’t share it with too many people.

Teaching at a Catholic school in Castor, Alberta “in my Russian-Siberian Steppe sheep hat, for dramatic effect of course” (2020).

For the first entire year of seminary I was praying to God that he hit me with a spiritual baseball bat, to make me certain that I was supposed to stay in seminary. That’s exactly what God did, and then for the rest of my eight years in seminary to make sure that I didn’t lose my vacation because of myself, that I didn’t fail any grade or class because of my inability to actually want to do what God is calling me to do.

God gave me a clear answer, but then the ball was in my court to make sure that my vocation was going to be formed.

Do you believe that God has one calling, one vocation for each person?

I believe that God has chosen a role for us and that he wants us to be in certain places and certain times and certain scenarios that he knows only you can do, and no one else.

There have been many occasions in my priesthood where I feel that the hand of God has led me to this moment because I’m the only one who could actually do this.

Father Roger with good friend Fr. Robert Lee in front of the Popemobile, on July 25th 2022 (day before the Papal Mass in Edmonton, Alberta).

Why do you believe that God has specifically called you to the Archdiocese of Edmonton?

God has determined that he wants me to play a role in this given age, this given time. You know,  I would actually argue with him on that one, because it would be nice to be an eighth-century monk in Ireland. It seemed pretty calm then (maybe not the Viking parts!), but the Lord has a specific time and place for me, for my part.

Sometimes it feels clear, but sometimes it’s murky. There is a mystery – why this place God?

Fr. Roger on a vocation panel for the 2024 Archdiocese of Edmonton Vocations Rally, February 2024. Photo by Luke Fuentebella.

To young men, who are confused or fearful of their vocation, what steps would you encourage them to take?

I’ll give you two steps: The first would be to shut up and the second would be to reflect on who God is.

When we are fearful, it is usually because we make it worse by ourselves. Our thoughts race a mile a minute and we try to plan out our entire lives and plan out all of the scenarios. It has to reach a point where we just shut up.

We need to quiet ourselves and come into this moment of calmness. It has to be rather abrupt, to intentionally shut up and to be violently shaken out of this fear.

Fr. Roger elevates the monstrance during Eucharistic adoration at a CYEG young adults worship event at Resurrection Parish, Edmonton. Photo by Luke Fuentebella.

Then reflect on who God is and who the Lord is in light of the Scriptures. Who is the Lord in light of tradition of the Church, namely the experience of the saints, the good fruit that the Lord has borne through the lives of those he has called and those moments where the Lord has been giving you consolations throughout your life?

When you add all of those things up, you realize that if God is calling you – if you feel that inkling, if you feel that little spark – don’t blow it out, don’t question yourself. Foster it. Do things that will actually build on that spark that is already there. If the Lord is not calling you, he will make that evidently clear.

If he has spoken to you, don’t expect that he needs to speak to you more than once. Work with that understanding. Shut up and reflect on who God is!

Visit the website for St. Joseph Seminary.

 (This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity)

 Jenny Connelly – Archdiocese of Edmonton

Be Not Afraid is a series of videos and companion articles that tell the stories of 12 religious sisters and priests who serve within the Archdiocese of Edmonton.

 New episodes are released every Thursday. Subscribe to our YouTube channel to watch new episodes each week.