CROWN POINT — A former Times reporter is replacing his notepad with a Bible. Jeff Burton, who wrote for The Times from 2007 to 2012, was ordained a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Gary on Saturday.
The Rev. Burton, 34, who will serve as associate pastor at St. Paul Parish in Valparaiso, spoke about his journalism and ministry Thursday from St. Mary Parish in Crown Point, where the former newsman has served since his ordination as a transitional deacon in June 2017.
Unlike some men of the cloth, Burton said there was no enlightening moment that led him to the seminary. It’s something that had always been there, just not out front.
“I thought about the priesthood when I was about 5, then I wanted to be teacher, then a doctor,” said Burton. “At 5 years old, you don’t have a sense of the rest of your life.”
Although he recalls “little wisps” of the priesthood in high school, Burton decided to focus on the American dream. Go to college. Get a job. Get married. Buy a house. Have kids.
“The priesthood did not fit it,” Burton said. “It was never encouraged, never a possibility. But I still had little nudges.”
After graduating from Portage High School in 2002, Burton earned degrees in new media, journalism and political science from Valparaiso University. He then worked for the Elkhart Truth, covering crime and government and sitting on the editorial board.
One year later, Burton joined The Times. His beats included Porter County education and municipal government, Hammond city news and, finally, crime and courts in Porter County.
Burton and his family had been active at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in New Chicago. As his journalism career developed, those little messages inside kept calling Burton to a religious vocation, he said.
“It was always still there, in the back of my mind, reverberating in my head,” the deacon said. “I ran out of excuses, and it came down to what I had to lose. If God wasn’t calling me, I could go back to writing.”
At age 28, Burton entered the seminary. After studying at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, he spent four years at the University of St. Mary of the Lake at Mundelein (Ill.) Seminary. In addition to local parish work, he also learned Spanish in Ecuador.
While serving at local parishes, Burton taught four periods of middle school religion at St. Mary School in Griffith, which he called a “very affirming experience.”
He explained, “I learned a lot about other people and myself. You have to earn students’ respect.”
Another memorable seminary assignment was the Clinical Pastoral Education at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Burton used his journalism skills while learning hospital chaplaincy.
“In journalism, you have a breaking news event." he said. "But in the hospital, you have an emergency in someone’s life. You’re helping someone process a diagnosis or end-of-life issues. You’re helping people come to terms with grief and loss.”
While at the Crown Point parish, Burton applied his journalism skills to revamping the church bulletin. This included making it more visually stimulating, using people’s photos, running columns about the Gospels and utilizing apps and other technology.
Looking ahead to the priesthood, Burton said he believes his journalism can “hugely” impact his ministry.
“My journalism background gave me a unique insight into evangelization,” Burton said. “We have to look at means of communication. I understand that marketing is a necessity in evangelizing. We’re one voice among the many.
“We have to convey the message. We have to sell the message. We need to have a platform for people who were once here (in church) and for the people who were never here. We have to reach people where they are.”