Franciscan priest from Columbia helping students experience Catholicism as “the norm” at St. Francis University


Franciscan Father James Puglis occasionally gets lost in the mystery of the Priesthood.

It just seems too good to be true.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “Sometimes while I’m at the altar, it hits me and I have a little existential crisis and thank God for it all over again.”

The Columbia native has been a priest of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus province of the Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular since 2017.

He now serves as director of the Alta Via Intentionally Catholic College Community at St. Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania.

“It’s just an awesome experience,” he said. “I love relating to the students, preaching, administering the sacraments and being part of people’s lives.”

Located in west-central Pennsylvania, the university has about 1,700 students, about half of whom are Catholic.

Its specialties are health sciences and engineering.

The university is in the process of reasserting its Catholic identity, on campus and in the larger community.

“We are here to build on what is good in our students and on what their parents have already instilled in them,” said Fr. James.

Spiritual home

Fr. James discovered his priestly calling in the context of his family’s ongoing search for a deeper relationship with God.

The youngest of four siblings born to Deacon Joseph and Mary Ann Puglis of Our Lady of Lourdes parish, he moved from New York to Columbia with his parents when he was 3.

He attended Columbia public schools, receiving religious education and sacrament preparation from Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Thomas More Newman Center parishes.

Mass and CCD were always very important to the family, but Fr. James remembers his parents becoming more spiritual, more attuned to Sacred Scripture and more active in their parish as time went by.

Both parents supported their children’s aspirations.

When young James stated his interest in becoming an architect, his parents bought him a book about architecture and encouraged him.

“When I told them I wanted to be a priest, they kept supporting me,” he recalled.

His priestly role models at Our Lady of Lourdes parish included Father David Veit, Father Joseph Corel and Monsignor Michael Flanagan.

“I only hope I can live up to the ideals they set before me,” he said.

Taking the leap

Shortly after experiencing what he described as “a very energetic, very earthy type of encounter with the Lord” during a Catholic youth conference sponsored by Franciscan University in Steubenville, Fr. James told his parents, “I think I want to be a priest.”

“No elaboration, no beating around the bush,” his father recalled.

Deacon Puglis recalled his heart “leaping like the infant John in the First chapter of Luke.”

“We were thrilled!” he recalled.

Fr. James became drawn to Franciscan spirituality while attending Franciscan University.

He enrolled in the pre-theology program, which included Mass, Evening Prayer and a holy hour each day, along with retreats and spiritual formation.

He double-majored in philosophy and theology and took nearly enough coursework for a third major in catechetics.

“I wanted to learn how to teach the faith better,” he said.

But the more he learned, the more questions needed to be wrestled with.

“The deeper we encounter Christ, the more challenging it’s going to be,” he noted.

Constant conversion

Fr. James felt increasingly called to life in a religious order or congregation.

“For one thing, I really wanted to teach,” he stated. “The more I learned about the faith, the more I wanted to help other people learn the faith and give what I had received to other people.”

He looked into many religious orders and congregations before settling on Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular (TOR), the branch of the Franciscan family that teaches at Franciscan University.

“The friars I knew in the community there are good guys,” he said. “So I figured I’d join them, and if God didn’t want me to be a part of it, He’d find a way to show me.”

Part of what attracted Fr. James was the TOR charism of constant conversion.

“We’re founded on the basis that we are all sinners and we need conversion,” he said. “Conversion is not a one-time thing, but I need it constantly over and over throughout my life.”

He graduated in 2010 and began his nine-month postulancy in August.

Afterward came the novitiate, a year of prayer and discernment.

He professed temporary (simple) vows on May 26, 2012, pledging poverty, chastity and holy obedience in accordance with the Rule of St. Francis and the Constitutions of the Third Order Regular.

After three years of further acclimating himself to the rhythms and realities of Franciscan life, he made final profession of those same vows.

“No more what-ifs or discerning,” he said. “This is it for life.”

He continued his academic and spiritual preparations for Priesthood at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

“Priesthood is ‘pouring myself for Him Who poured Himself out for me,’” he noted. “It involves self-sacrifice, giving everything for God and His people.”

Mutual discernment

The process of becoming a TOR priest is extensive.

In addition to his undergraduate studies, Fr. James’s formation included inquiry, discernment and acceptance into candidacy into the Franciscan order, the profession of simple vows and solemn vows, acceptance into seminary formation and four years of studies at Catholic University.

All the while, he retained the title “friar,” which is Italian for “brother.”

Deacon Puglis was invited to participate as a permanent deacon in most of those celebrations with his son.

But through each milestone in Fr. James’s formation, his father “took one small step back in order to make way for the Lord to do His work.”

Doing so reminded him of the words of St. John the Baptist, “This joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:29-30).

Finally came the day of Fr. James’s ordination as a transitional deacon.

Deacon Puglis ceremonially helped him put on his vestments during the Mass.

“Beyond the thrill of vesting him as a brother deacon, the most moving part of the Mass was the passing over of diaconate altar duties to him and his classmate,” Deacon Puglis recalled.

At the Sign of Peace, the older deacon said to the younger, “Congratulations, Brother Deacon, and God’s blessings!”

No greater love

Fr. James ministered on weekends at a parish in Henderson, Virginia, while continuing his seminary formation.

Right before his priestly ordination, he went to Loretto, Pennsylvania, for a five-day retreat.

“I spent the days in prayer and reading and internalized what was about to happen as I well as could — the reality that I was about to become a priest!” he said. “This 10-year process I had been working toward was coming to an end.”

On June 10, 2017, in the St. Francis University Chapel in Loretto, Pennsylvania, Bishop Mark L. Bartchak of Altoona-Johnstown ordained Fr. James to the Holy Priesthood.

His family attended, as did a busload of his parishioners from Virginia.

Mrs. Puglis and the mother of another priest ordained that day presented the gifts of bread and wine in the Offertory Procession.

Fr. James exchanged the Sign of Peace with his parents.

The next day, Deacon Puglis served as the deacon at Fr. James’s Mass of Thanksgiving.

“Incensing the altar with our son and spiritual father was one of the most moving things of all,” Deacon Puglis recalled. “And asking my son’s blessing before the reading of the Holy Gospel.”

It was the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.

Deacon Puglis paused for a breath while proclaiming the words, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son” (John. 3:16).

After Mass, several excited parishioners told Fr. James that they had seen a light that they could not explain, emanating from the Tabernacle as he prayed the words of the Eucharistic Prayer.

Peace and the good

A few years ago, the local fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order (OFS) in Columbia asked Deacon Puglis to serve as its spiritual assistant.

In response, he and Mrs. Puglis requested permission to discern possible membership in the fraternity.

“It’s part of the Franciscan family that extends internationally to all the orders of St. Francis,” Deacon Puglis noted.

Chief among them are the First Order of Friars Minor, the Second Order, known as the Poor Clares, and the Third Order Regular, from which the Secular Franciscan Order originated.

“This all, of course, brings us closer to God in spirituality and community, in service as a married couple, in service to our parish community and in service to our neighbor, as Jesus commanded,” Deacon Puglis stated.

“The humility of Francis goes against all that we see and hear in this world of ours,” said Mrs. Puglis. “He knew Jesus intimately, but did not let it go to his head.”

Deacon and Mrs. Puglis professed vows as secular Franciscans in October 2019.

“It’s an overwhelming abundance of blessing and peace and love, and a whole new community of connection to our son, to our Lord, to one another and to the world,” Deacon Puglis stated. “It’s just indescribable!”

Everyday experiences

After priestly ordination, Fr. James served for two years in parish youth ministry before becoming director of campus ministry at St. Francis University.

“It’s really awesome to lead the campus in spiritual activity in this way,” he said. “It’s an honor.”

In that role, he challenged the students to grow in honesty, integrity and virtue.

His goal remains for students to experience the fullness of Catholic Christianity as a way of life by the time they graduate.

“I want them to have experienced prayer and a deep connection with God as something normal,” he said.

He instituted daily time for Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament and has added more times for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

He set about helping young people appreciate that Jesus Christ is truly present, Body and Soul, Spirit and Divinity, at every Mass and in the Most Blessed Sacrament.

“My spiritual director once told me that ‘the more subtle something is, the more powerful and long-lasting the transformation,’” he stated.

“Where grace comes in”

One of Fr. James’s favorite devotions is the Prayer of St. Francis Before a Crucifix: “Most High glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart. Give me right faith, sure hope and perfect charity. Fill me with understanding and knowledge that I may fulfill Your command.”

He continues to pray for the people of his home diocese, especially during these times of discernment and change.

“Through all the changes, all the transformations, all the things that look different, it’s still Jesus in the Eucharist, the same God we pray to, the same Church, even though it may operate a little differently,” he said. “We’re still the Body of Christ.”

For himself, he asked for prayers for wisdom and perseverance, “so I can hold to my integrity and I don’t get lax in my faith and my dedication to the Priesthood and to the people of God.”

“It’s a great life,” he said. “The whole vocation of Priesthood — it’s a mystery to me. I don’t know why God called me to this, why He continues calling me to this.

“But I know it’s what He wants and ultimately what it will take to fulfill me,” he said. “It will take a lot of discipline. That’s where grace comes in. It’s been great so far. I’m looking forward to years to come.”