By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator  

Father Gerald Burns captures adventurous moments in his life through photography. With liveliness and awe of nature reflected in his eyes and voice, he talked about an Alaskan photo expedition in which he captured a group of 25-30 humpback whales blowing bubbles in giant circles around herring to herd them into tightly grouped schools that can be swallowed whole. On another Alaskan expedition he was with a group of photographers taking photos of grizzly bears when, as captured on another person’s video, he found himself between a mamma grizzly bear and her two cubs – and he’s happy he is alive to tell about it.  

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Gerald Burns, who celebrates his 50th anniversary to the priesthood this year, is known for his patience in getting “just the right” photo of birds and other wildlife. Photo provided by Father Gerald Burns 

 

But as Father Burns marks his 50th anniversary to the priesthood, which was celebrated with a Mass at St. Aloysius Church in Baton Rouge on Feb. 17, it is a slightly out of focus picture of him as a young boy with his two brothers with his mother at St. Joseph Seminary and College in St. Benedict that clearly captures the family influences behind his greatest adventure in life – his priestly vocation.  

In the photo, Father Burns was on his mother’s left and she was holding his hand.  

Reflecting on the photograph before his anniversary he said, “Where are my sisters?”  

Musing that she could have been holding his hand “to keep him from investigating everything,” he thought. “Was my mother there at the seminary hoping that one of us would become a priest?”  

He added, “From very early I had the idea of becoming a priest and I became an altar server and I was very active at Sacred Heart (Church in Baton Rouge). Getting up early to serve at Mass and that kind of thing. From my earliest memory I wanted to be a priest so maybe my mother whispered that in my ear.” 

Father Burns, now retired, grew up in a devout Catholic family.  

“My mother was one of 11 and my dad was one of 12. And I had 22 uncles and 21 aunts who are very devout in their faith. And they were in a pool of faith, first in our families, and they chose church communities that influenced them to have a good faith that goes way back in our family heritage to the heritage in the Canary Islands,” he said.  

Father Burns entered the seminary when he was 14 and was ordained a priest at 25 by Bishop Robert E. Tracy at St. Joseph Cathedral in 1969. He’s served as pastor at St. Aloysius Church, Baton Rouge; St. Anne Church, Napoleonville; Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Plattenville; St. John the Evangelist Church, Prairieville; and St. Francis of Assisi Church, Smoke Bend. He’s also served as parochial vicar at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, Baton Rouge; St. Louis King of France Church, Baton Rouge; and St. John the Evangelist Church in Plaquemine.  

Additionally, Father Burns has served as a member of the Presbyteral Council, Defender of the Bond and dean of the southwest, southcentral and south suburban deaneries. 

He has been actively involved for many years in a diocesan priests support group.

“That’s been a huge influence where we encourage one another to take care of themselves whether it’s physically, spiritually, socially, psychologically, in whatever way a person needs care,” said Father Burns.  

While he has had good mentor priests, he said the people he ministered to taught him the most about being a priest. 

“What shaped my ministry the most is holy parishioners,” said Father Burns. “It was the prayer life of parishioners because I was in a seminary 12 years and it was under very strict observance and scrutiny and we had very rigid rules. And when I finished the seminary I was an athlete who was very good in sports. I wanted to play sports and see sports. And so it took me a while to really began to pursue it in a serious way a spiritual life learning, how do people become holy? How do you remain holy?”

Father Burns continues to celebrate Masses when priests are absent or sick. He said one thing he hopes people “take home with them” when they meet him or hear his homilies is a burning desire to know God and “to reveal themselves to God and to allow God to reveal himself to them.” 

“Another thing, I used to think that the most important thing to prepare a homily was study your exegesis – study the Scriptures, know the Scriptures reflect on the Scriptures. Yes, that is very important, but the most important thing when you prepare a homily is first pray for the people that are going to hear the homily and then do you your homework.” 

And it’s important to him that people can detect not only by his words, but his actions and interactions with people his love for God and others. 

He recalled on the grizzly bear photo expedition meeting a woman from East Germany who was agnostic. 

“From the moment she learned I was priest she said, ‘I don’t know what to believe. I don’t know there is a God and I don’t believe all this stuff,’ ” said Father Burns. “One morning we were having coffee, and all of the sudden the woman said, ‘I have sinned.’ My immediate response was to look into her eyes and say, ‘What’s clear is that you cannot sin so much that God will not love you.’ ”

With tears in his eyes, he said, “When we parted, she grabbed my hands and looked into my eyes and said, ‘You know. You and I – we’re not that different.’ I said, ‘I know, God loves you, too.’ ” 

While he’s not certain if she came into the Christian faith, there’s hope that the seed was planted. 

Since his retirement, Father Burns said he has had the gift of time to reflect and pray, and he is studying the writings of St. John the Cross and appreciating the value of silence. 

And his photography continues to be a link to faith. The invitations to his anniversary celebration included a photograph he took in 2018 at Virgin Island in Pierre Part of three wood duck chicks leaping off a cypress stump to their mother duck calling to them from below. National Geographic selected that photo from among entries around the world as their “editor’s pick of the day” for their website. 

“It took four hours for 14 wood duck chicks to leap six feet down to the water to join mom,” said Father Burns. “I think this picture is about a leap of faith – isn’t a leap in faith what spirituality is about?”