By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 4, 2017
ATLANTA—Samuel Beardslee would come into his spiritual director’s office at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary every few weeks. He had the weight of seminary pressures and future priestly life on his mind.
The visits with then-Father Bernard “Ned” Shlesinger III would often begin with a small gesture, an offer of a hot cup of tea. Father Beardslee isn’t much of a tea drinker but would take Earl Grey with a splash of milk.
“Somehow, holding and drinking it would make the atmosphere less tense, and allow for deeper conversation,” he said.
A priest for just three months now, Father Beardslee said the consistent message he heard has taken root.
“Him asking ‘how’s your relationship with Jesus’ was always a good wake-up call. That’s one thing I always turn back to,” said Father Beardslee. He is serving in his first parish at Blessed Sacrament Church, in Lincoln, Nebraska.
The new Atlanta auxiliary bishop carries with him a faith built on time spent in prayer with Jesus, said priests who have known him for years.
“All of these qualities that seem kind of small, kind of mundane, speak of a man who is, all at once, very humble and very strong,” said Father Beardslee. “He is soft-spoken. He is very firm in his conviction of the faith because of his relationship with Jesus.”
Father Shlesinger was sent from the Diocese of Raleigh to minister to men studying to be priests at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, located outside Philadelphia. He arrived in 2013, the same year as Father Beardslee. He served there until he was named a bishop this spring.
“He was very encouraging, someone who was very down-to-earth, very grounded,” said Father Beardslee. “It was very easy to talk to him, be with him and to learn from him how to approach Jesus.”
“His heart belongs to the people”
Father Shlesinger was ordained a priest in 1996. One of his duties in the Raleigh Diocese was shepherding other men interested in serving as priests in eastern North Carolina. He first assisted Msgr. Michael Clay in the work, before serving as the vocations director himself.
The relationship between the two men stretches back 25 years to when Shlesinger enrolled at the Theological College at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., to begin studying philosophy as the first step toward ordination. Msgr. Clay was appointed as a mentor.
Years later when they worked together, Msgr. Clay said the priority was to identify men who “know the Lord,” are willing to sacrifice, and with a “sense of wanting to serve.”
Msgr. Clay, who teaches at Catholic University now, said those attributes are found in his friend. But the most vital qualification for Bishop Shlesinger’s episcopal ministry is his “pastor’s heart.”
“His heart belongs to the people. He covets that relationship,” said Msgr. Clay. “That’s what gets him out of bed in the morning: ‘I have another opportunity to serve the people of God, and isn’t that wonderful.’ You will discover a bishop who truly has the heart of Jesus in his ministry.”
He learned about his friend’s appointment as an auxiliary bishop when the news was posted on the diocesan website. He said the new position came as a surprise because the elevation is not what his friend would have wanted. Msgr. Clay joked that he was almost an “anti-candidate for the episcopacy” with his preference for serving in out-of-the-way parishes.
“This would not have been on the radar screen,” Msgr. Clay said.
Priest with a passion for those on the margins
One of the projects Father Shlesinger fostered as vocations director was an immersion program. He wanted American priests to better understand the people they would serve in their parishes. Seminarians traveled to Central America where they studied Spanish for eight hours a day, then afterward spent two weeks in rural, poor Honduras to experience how Catholic life is lived in the developing world. They saw family life and also saw the conditions that pushed women and men to immigrate to the United States.
Father Bill John Acosta-Escobar, pastor of St. Therese of Lisieux Church, in Wilson, North Carolina, succeeded Father Shlesinger as diocesan vocations director.
“The biggest tip he gave me was the seminarians should understand we are not their bosses, but we are their companions. We will help them bring their best into church ministry,” he said.
Father Acosta-Escobar said the new bishop impressed the Spanish-speaking communities in small-town North Carolina.
“He was able to talk to people. He is very loved there. He visited the sick; he visited their homes. People feel at peace when they are around him,” the priest said.
Father Michael Schuetz, a Raleigh diocesan priest, is parochial vicar of St. Paul Church in New Bern, North Carolina. Eleven years ago Father Shlesinger was the vocations director and helped him apply to start studies for the priesthood.
“He has always been a man I look up to and admire. He has also been a wonderful example of a man of prayer and a role model priest for me,” said Father Schuetz by email.
Because of this witness during years of formation for the priesthood, Father Schuetz asked his friend to preach at his first Mass of thanksgiving on June 5, 2016.
“The lay faithful of Atlanta can expect Father Ned to be a leader by example. Everything that he taught and shared with the seminarians during his time as vocations director and as spiritual director at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, you knew that he had put that into practice first,” said Father Schuetz.
Starting new chapters
For Father Beardslee, the time spent with his spiritual director shaped his life.
Just like smart married couples carve out time to sit with each other, the same goes for faith life.
“There should be time you carve out and that should be reserved for Jesus,” he said is a lesson he picked up from the future bishop.
Father Beardslee invited him to preach at his first Mass of thanksgiving on May 28, 2017, following his ordination the day before. It was about two weeks after Father Shlesinger was named a bishop.
Said Father Beardslee, the soon-to-be bishop reminded him at the ordination, “Both of us are starting new chapters together. We both were pretty nervous about starting something new.”