WILMINGTON — Father Brian Zumbrum, ordained in 2013 as an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, has found his vocation within his vocation. Now in his second year at Nativity Prep, the tuition-free middle school for boys in Wilmington, Father Zumbrum has an opportunity to combine his passion for teaching with that of working in an urban setting.
“My entire formation has been immersed in the urban world,” he said recently in his office at Nativity. “The urban setting can be a very difficult one, and not everyone’s matched for it, but I am. I thrive in the day-to-day craziness that sometimes can come, but also in that sense that everything we do truly does matter.”
One of the things he appreciates is how the young men at Nativity approach their work with an eye to the future, telling of fifth-graders who worry about the effect a math grade may have on their chances to earn college scholarships. He also loves that they appreciate the opportunities Nativity has afforded them.
Tending to the educational needs of students is something Father Zumbrum could have predicted when he was a student at Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg, Pa., but taking care of their spiritual needs as well did not enter the picture until a few years later when he was attending DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., which is operated by the Oblates. He had never considered life as a priest until he encountered the Oblates.
“So I went not knowing in the least about who the Oblates were or their charism or anything, but that’s where I met them. And then I joined them four years later, so they made, obviously, quite an impact in a very short amount of time,” he said.
After entering the congregation after his college graduation in 2007, Father Zumbrum, 29, spent his formation ministering in different capacities. He served as a hospital chaplain, worked with Hispanic immigrants, taught at Father Judge High School in Philadelphia, and worked at the Nativity summer program.
He graduated from DeSales with degrees in history and secondary education, which came in handy at Father Judge. That also was a great time to “leave the bubble that seminary can be” and get real-world experience.
“It’s definitely prepared me for here,” he said. “These young men that I work with, there are a whole host of issues from the outside and inside. And I think a lot of my perspective and patience and comfortableness came from my pastoral year.”
The fact that most of the students at Nativity are not Catholic presents a great chance for Father Zumbrum to introduce them to the faith and shape their opinion about priests and Catholicism, which he says is “humbling.” He likes to take what he loves about Catholicism and apply it to their lives.
“It’s just so cool because they’re so open to all of those different ways of seeing the world through a different lens. This doesn’t mean that most of these kids are converting to Catholicism tomorrow, but what is great is that many of them leave here with a renewed faith in God and Christ, with a new appreciation of what makes us different and what unites us as church, but more importantly to me is that a lot of them leave in a better place both in terms of their own spiritual journey but also in terms of the moral decisions they make. That for me, I would call success.”
‘I’ve been blessed’
Father Zumbrum received support from both parents when he told them of his desire to become a priest.
“My mom is one of eight in an Irish-Catholic family,” he said. “They’ve been waiting for a priest or a sister in that family for generations. She was effusive in her praise and pride and joy in my decision.”
His father wanted to know more about the Oblates and what their life was like. His parents visited the congregation in Washington, D.C., where their son was studying, and the more they got to know the men, the more they supported his vocation.
“I’ve been very blessed,” he said.
Father Zumbrum has two younger brothers, one of whom is married and the other engaged. The first brother’s wedding was scheduled for two months after Father Zumbrum’s ordination, and he will officiate at the other one as well. He knows there are other, less-happy occasions where he will be pressed into service, for funerals and anointing of the sick, and he sees positives in those as well. Being present in one’s time of need may transform that person’s life, he said.
Like many brothers, the Zumbrums spent time wrestling and playing video games; there wasn’t much introspection. But they, too, have been supportive of his decision.
“It was actually when I entered the Oblates and started making these milestones … that my brothers really took the time to tell me how proud they were of me and how I had shaped their own faith journeys,” he said.
He knows the priestly life is not for everybody, but he would encourage those who are curious to seek out religious orders and give it a shot. For Father Zumbrum, the blessings far outweigh the challenges.
“This life has made me a better person, and not just a better Catholic or a better priest. It has transformed me as a person into someone who tries to be Christ-like. I believe this life has made me fulfilled and happy like nothing else has,” he said.