In elementary school, I was a member of the Eucharistic Crusade. Once a week we would attend a daily morning Mass before school. Everyday, some children were representing the school at morning Mass. One neighbor who would sometimes walk the mile to church with me once asked me if I ever thought of becoming a priest. I told her that was my intention. In later years she took the credit for inspiring me to be a priest.
LESSON: Everyone wants to take credit for a vocation, but only God inspires the soul and graces it with the gift. Don't stifle the child, pray to God.
Above the main entrance to College de L'Assomption, in L'Assomption, Province of Quebec, Canada, where I spent five years in high school and college prep, we still read the works: "PARARE DOMINO PLEBEM PERFECTAM" (translation: To Prepare A Perfect People For The Lord.) The form of education given by the secular priests in our days certainly contributed to the spirit of the students in such a way that this LOGO became my priestly motto to this very day. I found that my pastoral leadership was well grounded on this one desire to prepare a perfect people for the Lord. Little did my parishioners realize what spirit was behind my pastoral vision. The words remain the objective of my every priestly function.
LESSON: Never underestimate the input of your years of formation. If you are open to the message, your life will be so directed to the good you welcomed.
When I was at college, the house spiritual director was interviewing me concerning my plan for life. I shared with him the fact that since I was at college, my mother had been inflicted with Multiple Sclerosis. I also told him that I wanted to be a priest. Being a very spiritual man, he looked at me in the eye and said, "Show me a priest and I will show you a suffering mother." I immediately connected with the role of Mary in regard to Jesus. I never forgot that and to this day attribute the "purchase of my priesthood" by the gift of my mother's sacrifice.
LESSON: It takes more than one person to make a priest: it takes a whole family and a whole community.
The first day I arrived at my new parish, the assistant pastor and a visiting retreat master had arranged to take the only two confessionals after the retreat session that night and I would be placed right in front onf the community with an open confessional where both priests could observe me from the screen-windowed door to their confessionals. There they could see me blush and squirm as I officially heard the first confessions of my priestly life and tried to seem professional in my easily revealed discomfort. It was material for a good tease after the confession session of the evening.
LESSON: There's always a moment of initiation... Flow with it!
My appointment to the first parish.
The day after our first Mass, six priests were told to come to the bishop's office to receive our first assignments. When Bishop Connolly met with us, he told us that we were to find our appointment on the diocese newspaper, the Anchor, on Thursday of that same week. We then had to report for duty on that Saturday. Even the pastor of my first parish was not notified in advance that he would have an additional assistant priest. Fr. Charest, my parish priest (not my uncle), got an early issue of The Anchor and called early Thursday morning to deliver the news that I had to report at Sacred Heart Church in No. Attleboro. There was no time to share my first days with the local community. From the fry-pan of the seminary, we jumped right into the fire of ministry. It took a while to recuperate.
LESSON: Always be ready for the unexpected.
Fr. Dickinson was the acting pastor due to the fact that the Pastor, Fr. LaRue was 80. There was no retirement for pastorship in those days. "Fr. Dick" as we called him, had a roar of a lion but the heart of a lamb. As a result of living with him, I developed a special love for the biblical image of the lion lying with the lamb. Even today, a special painting by a local artist, hangs in our dining room as a reminder of my years with Fr. Dick. The moment I remember most is how Fr. Dick used to give me a hard time. One evening when we were on our way to a leisure dinner, "Dick" started in on me once again. Finally I told him, "Look I did not ask to be assigned here. If you don't like it, tell the bishop to move me." He burst into laughter with the simple remark, "It's about time you speak for yourself." From that moment on we were well paired partners in ministry to the parish.
LESSON: Don't be intimidated by seemingly hostile circumstances.
Within a year of ministry I had learned that so many of our young people were entering marriage with partners from another faith. Many times the marking of such new families brought a separation of the Catholic from active participation with our parish family. So I told Fr. Dick that we should have an organization for Catholic young adults to meet Catholic young adults on church grounds. I got no response. Three times I brought the subject up to him. Each time he remained silent. Finally I got to think that if no one else will do it, maybe I could start this new organization. So, I went to Fr. Dick and repeated my concern to him, this time asking if he thought I might have the ability to start a Catholic Young Adult Organization in our deanery. His simple response as so many other times was,"It's about time you wise up and do something!" So, I organized a CYAO in the deanery which carried on for the next 6 years of my stay in that parish.
LESSON: Act on inspiration. Don't wait till the Holy Spirit hits you over the head
On Mardi Gras, 1967, after a new and difficult pastor had been assigned in our parish, I had gone to prepare for Ash Wednesday and Lent by receiving the Sacrament of Penance. When I left the rectory of my confessor, I sat in my car and asked God to show me what I should offer as a way of being strengthened to serve faithfully under this new pastor of ours: it was going to be a tough haul! As I asked, I lit one of the cigarettes I was in the habit of smoking over 11 years and thought in my imagination that I could see a big grin on the cigarette. My answer was immediate: give up smoking for good! So I chain smoked till midnight and then completely stopped smoking even to this day.
LESSON: Ask God to show you your weaknesses and he will not only reveal them, but will heal them.
After I got the approval of Fr. Dick to start the CYAO for young adults, I still had my doubts and hesitation. So I decided there is only one way I will get this started without pussy-footing around any longer. I knew that I had to make a public statement concerning the establishment of a CYAO unit and mark a day of departure on the public calendar. Since this was a productive decision, I followed through by always making a public announcement of anything new I wanted to try in the parish. Then I had to follow through.
LESSON: In necessary or important decisions, make a promise to a few others or to many and then trust in God as you carry out your promise.
I had been assigned to my home parish for about one year when another priest was assigned to assist us in our priestly ministry. The pastor had assigned me to several major areas of responsibility enough to keep me quite busy. The newly assigned confrere soon got seriously ill, was taken to the hospital and after having survived a near death experience, returned to recuperate for the next several months. During that time he was not allowed to do much. But on Sundays he would walk the front porch of the rectory and smile at all the people coming to and from church. For all the work I did I got little affirmation, but often I would here people say how wonderful the recuperating priest was: "He's always smiling and always has a nice 'hello' for you. His reputation grew more by his charm then mine did by my work.
LESSON: Remember that attitude goes much further than a lot of good works. Kindness touches hearts more quickly than simple service.
In 1978 shortly after my mother died, I was preparing decorations for the Easter altar at St. Joseph Church. I had gone to the florist to pick up some Easter flowers. Just before going there, I had saved money to buy one of the popular Boomboxes to have music in my room, but the cost was twice the amount I had saved. So arriving at the florist, I decided to put the money I had saved into buying more flowers in memory of my mother, figuring that if "Mom wants me to have a boombox, she will find a way to get it to me." The following day, an anonymous envelope was left at the rectory mailbox with my name on it. Inside was the exact amount for a new boombox which I purchased after Easter.
LESSON: What you do for your deceased loved ones is never lost.
ALSO: Our deceased loved ones can watch over us in a more intimate way.
One June in the 1970's I felt overcome by the energy demanded in the priestly ministry during that school year. I told a parishioner that I hoped the community would leave me alone during the summer so that I could recuperate. At the end of the summer, that same parishioner gave me an account of some of the burden she had to carry during the summer. I inquired why I was not contacted to help make the load easier. The response was a reminder of my comment of wanting an "easy summer".
LESSON: Don't complain about ministry or it will nip you at the end.
In my first pastorate, I never thought that my method of leadership had anything special to note. One day, however, I had to opportunity of attending a Commencement Exercise at the local Catholic High School. A Sister of Mercy saw me arriving from the parking lot to join the clergy at the outdoor waiting station. She immediately left the cluster of clergy to come and welcome me with the words: "Father, I need to say this to you: you impress me because you walk by a different step than other priests I know. It shows that you are a leader." That little affirmation did much to give me courage and to empower my future attempts in pastoral leadership.
LESSON: Never underestimate the meaning of affirming comments. They may be the source of strength in difficult moments. It is better to remember the positive than to dwell on the negative.
Around 1967 I had been invited to be the guest homilist at the Silver Jubilee of a priest who was serving in my home parish. After the Mass, several parisioners came to tell me that they enjoyed the homily very much and wished that I could be stationed at that parish. Two years later their dream was realized when I was assigned to my home parish as an assistant pastor. By my second year there, those who had first expressed their desire to have me as their parish priest no longer were charmed by the message I was giving. The message was too close to home.
LESSON: A priest is a prophet only when he is not part of the parish family. No priest is a prophet in his home territory. OR, Familiarity breeds contempt.
In 1969 I was given my second assignment after having served over nine years in this first assignment. A couple of months after my departure from the first parish I returned on the occasion of the death of a long devoted parishioner there. After the funeral Mass, I exited the church building by the door that led me to the school playground where the children were in recess. The children dutifully gathered to say: "Hello, Father!" But one of the children who had been attending school during my last years there innocently asked: "Who is that priest?" - My ego was squashed!
LESSON: In absence we are soon forgotten.
During the summer following my first year in the priesthood, I had the opportunity to travel through the Corn Belt of the West, the Badlands and the Yellowstone National Park as well as the Grand Tetons and Glacier National Park. I never forgot the impression the Rockies made on me and the longing I had to return to the West someday. Little did I realize that this hidden longing would be realized by the Divine Providence who would guide me to retire in California and spend these years in the Tehachapi Mountains.
LESSON: If you remain alert to God's presence, you will find that he prepares you for the treasures he holds in store for you.
ALSO, you will find that often God responds to a simple wish more quickly than to an intense request. He is swayed more by love than by obligation in our behalf.
In 1979 when a traditionally Franco-American parish became available for a new pastor and I was next in line for a pastorate among the French speaking clergy, I readied myself for my first appointment as a pastor. Rumors were that I would be the pastor of this vacant parish that was mostly unfamiliar to me. In a dream, I had a vision of entering a large educational institution and a nun was showing me to my room. But when she opened the door, the room was filled with storage. So she led me to another room across the hall and opened that door. "This is your room!" she said. It was decorated with antique furniture, a style I normally do not like, but I immediately fell in love with it. A few days later I received my appointment to my "old parish" where I had previously served nine years as an associate pastor. I immediately associated the "old furniture" with the "old parish".
LESSON: Listen to the dreams you remember in the morning. God often speaks through them. Whenever something special strikes you in a dream, put it in recall, so that you can review its message at a proper time.