Difficult period showed him formation process in action
Music, the great outdoors, and of course faith, mingled together to lead Joseph Tokasz to the priesthood. Father Tokasz, who was ordained June 4, always let what was dear to his heart drive him.
Born in West Seneca and raised in Elma, the oldest of three kids in a tightknit family, received the music gene from his mother, who led the folk group at Our Lady of Grace Parish in Woodlawn.
“My earliest memories of Church are being there at rehearsals before Mass,” Father Tokasz recalled. “Then also, with my grandparents at Fourteen Holy Helpers. Good memories. They influenced me later on when I was discerning entering the seminary. I’ve returned to those memories many, many times.”
After graduating from Iroquois High School, Father Tokasz debated between pursuing music or his other love, the environment. The Eagle Scout and 4-H member wanted to help the ecology. He decided to study music education and music business at the Crane School of music at SUNY Potsdam. He had plans of opening his own music shop where he could give lessons and repair instruments.
“I decided to go with music because it was something I knew more and I discerned that being outdoors was going to be a hobby in some way,” he said.
The summer before leaving for school, he spent a lot of time hiking and camping with the Boy Scouts. That’s when he encountered the beauty of God’s creation. “That led me to have an encounter with God that led me to practice my faith (more),” he said.
At Potsdam, he joined a local parish and got involved in the Neumann Club. At a retreat, he heard the vocation director from Ogdensburg speak.
“I was inspired by his talk,” he explained. “He showed a video, and that video really prompted me to start thinking about that. I walked away from that retreat solidly thinking this is something I have to think about. I couldn’t get that thought out of my head.”
He spent his two years at school discerning his vocation and talking to the campus minister.
Deciding to enter the priesthood in 2015, he moved very quickly. Father Tokasz recalled making a decision in early May, calling Father Walter Szczesny, then vocations director for the Diocese of Buffalo. He interviewed with St. Mark’s Seminary in Erie, Pennsylvania, in late August.
“I had my interview on a Monday. Early the next week, I met with Bishop (Richard J.) Malone. He told me my letter of acceptance was in the mail. I got it on Thursday and moved in on Sunday. It was a rush to the end,” the 27-year-old recalled.
At St. Mark’s he earned his undergraduate degree. He also gained exposure to a seminary environment.
“The community there was great. There was five of us from Buffalo my first year,” he said. “The formators that were forming young men; they had a lot of experience doing that. They understood as a college guy, what discerning this vocation but also being a college student was all about.”
He admits to difficult moments during his years of study, which included transferring from Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora to St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore. The Buffalo Diocese also faced a clergy abuse scandal and faced Chapter 11 Reorganization. But the community he had at St. Mary’s made those issues bearable. Being in a Christ-centered place, made it easier to talk about them and pray about them.
“I saw the formation process working. Even with the difficulties of the past seven years, it was working,” he said.
He sees it as a positive experience to have three seminaries on his resume.
“You have different experiences, different formators, different priests, different dioceses,” he explained. “When we were transitioning to St. Mary’s, I was the only one of the seminarians who had the experience of another seminary, and I had classmates from the minor seminary who were already down there in Baltimore. So, I had people that I knew. Having that experience was great. You get a wider perspective of the Church and faith lived out in different places by different people.”
Father Tokasz will serve at St. Gregory the Great Parish in Williamsville, the same parish where he served his pastoral year of formation. He really enjoyed serving in youth ministry during his pastoral year and would like to get involved again.
“I think we need to get the young people involved in some way,” he said. “The research show that people are making the initial discernments of whether they’re going to live out their faith or not earlier and earlier. So, engaging youth, giving them a solid foundation in formation catechesis, it’s essential.”
His classmate and ordination buddy considers Father Tokasz to be a brother and mentor.
“I look at Joe and I see a priest. I can honestly say that,” Father Joseph Franz said. “He’s always the first to say yes. He’s always the first to help any one of us. He’s a true leader.”