After five years as priest of Our Lady of the Mountain Catholic Church in Ashland, the Rev. Joseph Betschart is off to a new assignment counseling and teaching freshly ordained priests; at the Vatican.

After five years as priest of Our Lady of the Mountain Catholic Church in Ashland, the Rev. Joseph Betschart is off to a new assignment counseling and teaching freshly ordained priests — at the Vatican.

"My job will be to help direct their growth spiritually and personally and in pastoral skills. I'll be sort of a guidance counselor," said Betschart, 41, who joins the staff of the Pontifical North American College in Rome, a seminary just a few minutes from St. Peter's Basilica.

He will be replaced next week by the Rev. Sean Weeks, parochial vicar with Our Lady of the Lake in Lake Oswego. Weeks is a former Benedictine monk who has sought a "more public vocation" and was ordained three years ago.

Parishioners expressed sadness, as did Betschart, over his departure from the fold of Our Lady, but all reckoned it was his spiritual duty.

"He's doing his best to serve the Lord," said Pat Latham, exiting from morning Mass Tuesday. "He's a good man with lots of love in his heart and compassion for people."

Said parishioner Sam Giffoni, "He's done a tremendous job, giving to us in spirit, with the love of the Lord. He lives it and shares it with us, which is the most beautiful thing to do. We're going to miss him."

Betschart said he's not sure why he was assigned to the college, except that's where he was trained as a priest from 1995 to 2000. Ashland was his first parish.

"I got the phone call and, as a priest, I said yes, just as I said yes when I came here," said Betschart, seated beside a going-away cake decorated with the words, "muchas felicidades." Leading the Mass in Spanish for a Latino congregation has been one of his duties.

"I don't speak Spanish well, so when I preach, it's with their help and patience. When I need words, they are kind and are there with the words," he said. The Spanish Mass started about 10 years ago.

Betschart said he loves teaching. He will live at the North American College in downtown Rome and will have occasional encounters with Pope Benedict XVI, including a scheduled monthly event.

The college is trying to cultivate a closer relationship with the pontiff, but "Rome is a big place and the pope is a busy man," Betschart said.

As to the mission of the church in an increasingly complex world, Betschart said, "The church has the same mission she's always had, to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and the presence of his life and love to the whole world. The problems of today are all the more reason we need the good news."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.