By JEAN DRISKELL, Special To The Bulletin | Published April 15, 2010
“Be open to what God is calling you to do. Being a priest is not a job, it is a way of life,” said Father Eric Hill, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Decatur. “It is a life choice, not a job choice. It is who I am.”
Coming to this life view for Father Hill was not an easy decision. While discerning his call to the priesthood, he struggled with the world’s view of success and God’s view of success.
“I felt the call when I was six,” he said. “As I grew up, the idea of being a priest became less attractive to me. Like most people, I felt the need for more money. In high school it was my priority to make the ‘big bucks.’”
It was also his priority in college. Father Hill began studying for a degree in civil engineering at Bradley University in Illinois.
“I like knowing how things work. Then I realized that the math in engineering was beyond my capabilities. So I switched majors to medical technology.
To continue this new degree, he transferred to Purdue University in Indiana. It was here, he said, he “came to realize the need for church.”
“I started asking questions of myself. I spent long hours in front of the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel asking for guidance,” he said.
One day while in the chapel, Father Hill heard noises and asked a woman what was going on, and she said that daily Mass was about to start. He stayed.
“As I got more involved in the church, I was asked to be the sacristan for one year,” he said. He accepted. Then “one of the priests asked me if I wanted to be a man of the cloth. I asked what he meant, and he said being a priest.”
This priest told Father Hill they had a discernment group that met twice a week. It was made up of both men discerning for the priesthood and women discerning for the religious life.
While meeting with the group during the 1993-94 academic year, Father Hill said he decided to further his discernment.
“I made an agreement with God. I will go to seminary to see how it goes,” he said.
In the fall of 1994, he entered St. Vincent’s Seminary in Latrobe, Pa.
He visited Colombia in South America in December 1995 and spent a month there. While there, he continued to pray and think about whether to return to the seminary.
In the Cathedral in Medellin, he said, “The Lord spoke in my heart and said this is where I want to be. I felt that it was what God was calling me to do: to be a priest, an honest call.”
“I went back to the seminary without any other questions about the priesthood,” he said. “I never said I would be a priest when I first went into the seminary.”
Father Hill said his family supported him through this process, “but some could not understand why I would do this without the future” of financial success.
“I always struggled with the fact of ‘being alone’ and how I would handle that different lifestyle,” he continued. “And yet God worked through that as well. The struggles still come, but I am open to the help God is offering me.”
Father Hill said he did not have any expectations nor was he expecting any revelations while in seminary.
“I thought I knew everything when I entered seminary,” he said. “And now I see how dangerous that was.”
“It took a couple of years while in seminary before I began to realize that all the answers were not all black and white,” he said. “I came to understand more and more about the power of God working in my life, in the smallest ways and yet in the most profound ones as well.”
“This process is not easy because I had to take down my guard and really look at myself and my life,” Father Hill said. “I was able to learn about my gifts, talents and what God is calling me to do with them. Sometimes it’s really hard to see your own gifts even though they are right in front of your face.”
Father Hill said that he learned how to be a priest, the logistics, in seminary. But to learn what it means to be a priest, he said, “takes on-the-job training, learning from other priests and the people of God, and from (my) own mistakes and successes.”
“I came to Atlanta to try new horizons,” he said. After his ordination on June 3, 2000, his first parish was Transfiguration Church in Marietta, where he became involved in prison ministry. He was chaplain at the Cobb County Adult Detention Center at the county jail for two years.
He continues prison ministry at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Decatur, which became his first pastorate in 2005. He celebrates monthly Mass with the women of Metro State Prison, a women’s only prison at the state maximum level. He said that this is the first time he has worked with women in prison.
“I’ve been doing prison ministry for 10 years,” Father Hill said. “I enjoy this experience of having to do this ministry. It’s a unique call.”
Another aspect of ministry for Father Hill is teaching eighth-grade religion classes at St. Peter Claver Regional School in Decatur.
“I enjoy being in service with the children. Ministry is never a one-way street. I learn from the kids,” he said. “They help me to better understand their situation in today’s world.”
Father Hill had learned Spanish while in school and would say Mass in Spanish at Transfiguration. But within six months at Sts. Peter and Paul, he was asked to become involved with the Haitian community, and he quickly learned to how to say Mass in Creole and French, with some struggles and with encouragement from the community. He said that he believes that the Haitian community has embraced him as one of their own.
“I’ve been a priest for nine and a half years, and yet I am still learning what the Lord is doing in my life,” Father Hill said. “The Lord has really been working in my life over my 37 years.”
He continued, “Only after some serious reflection have I been able to realize the power of God in my life. He has been working … despite my best efforts to resist.”