The Year for Priests seems like a good time for all of us to recall those priests whose life, example, and ministry have helped us along the way. It might be a priest who faithfully served as your parish priest for many years; or a priest who came to see you or a family member in the hospital; or a priest who preached the Gospel with extraordinary insight; or a priest who, in the grace of the Holy Spirit, offered you life-changing advice.
We should celebrate their lives and give thanks for their priestly vocations. And we should make it a point to thank our priests for their ministry and to pray for them daily.
This column is an open thank-you note to a few priests who helped inspire my priestly vocation and who continue to help me along the way.
The Fisher Window
The list is by no means complete – it's only a sampling. A complete list would require a few editions of Fairfield County Catholic!
I should begin with the first priest I remember, at least vaguely. His name was Father Regal and he was the Assistant Pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany, Indiana, when I was in the first or second grade (1957-58). I didn't really know him, but even as a little kid in the pews I was struck by his reverence at the altar. I also actually paid attention to his homilies (or sermons, as we called them in those days). He wasn't funny or clever. He didn't sing like Bing Crosby. He just seemed to enjoy being a priest. Without knowing it, he may have planted the first seeds of my priestly vocation.
Those seeds germinated early. In 1965, at the age of 14, I entered a high school seminary, Saint Mary College High School, in St. Mary, Kentucky. It was the oldest Catholic school west of the Alleghenies and was located on a sprawling dairy farm. We lived in pre-Civil War buildings, slept on army cots, and were expected to follow a rigorous regime of prayer, study, manual labor, and exercise. It was all pretty daunting at first.
I'll never forget the first day. After rising at 5:15 a.m. and reporting to chapel at 5:50, my classmates and I filed into an old classroom for the first period. It was an 8:00 a.m. Latin class. Precisely on the hour, the priest who taught that class burst into the classroom and, in a voice reminiscent of John Wayne's, prayed the Hail Mary before the door could even close. We were shaking in our boots.
Our Latin teacher got down to business right away. Before we knew it, we were learning vocabulary and declensions. We were parsing sentences. And without its being said, we knew in our adolescent way that we were accountable. His name is Father John Lesousky. He is a member of the Congregation of the Resurrection and has been a priest since 1956. It didn't take long for us to see in Father John, as we called him, a manly, virtuous priest. He treated us like sons and taught us more by example than by words what it really meant to be a priest, to be the father of a spiritual family. His expectations were high and, in retrospect, always for our good. His advice was as good as gold. Few, if any of us, wanted to disappoint him.
Once in a while, I'll get a call at home around 10:00 p.m. On the other end of the phone will be that familiar John Wayne-like voice. "How are you doing out there?" he'll ask. ("Out there" means Connecticut). And pretty soon, I'll be giving a report to my old Latin teacher, high school principal, and priestly mentor.
There were many other priestly mentors along the way. As I progressed through college on the way to the final four years of seminary formation, I encountered a priest from Washington, DC, by the name of Msgr. William G. Curlin. He was pastor of an inner-city parish and vocations director. He invited me to Washington, and before I knew it I was working in his parish. The work was not glamorous. It involved taking away literally hundreds of burnt-out votive candles from the Miraculous Medal Shrine in Saint Mary, Mother of God Church, and replacing them with new ones in time for the 13 Novenas that would be offered each Monday. I was also enlisted to paint some walls, but I probably got more paint on myself and the carpets than on the walls.
While doing those chores, I saw first-hand a priest in love with Christ and the Church. He was and is a joyful, prayerful priest. He preached like a modern-day Fulton Sheen and was in demand to give retreats all around the country – something he continues to do. The hallmark of his priesthood was love for the sick and the dying. When Mother Teresa came to Washington, she found in him a soul-friend for, like her, he loved and served the poor and the sick out of love for Jesus. Msgr. Curlin coupled all that with a great sense of humor and with wonderful friends. He was the one who helped me to see for sure that God was calling me to be a priest.
Eventually, he became the Bishop of Charlotte, North Carolina. He was a successful bishop because he was a great priest. I'm sure his modus operandi changed little when he became a bishop of that far-flung diocese. He continued to be a joyful, prayerful priest. He inspired many to a priestly or religious vocation. He'd drive for hours to see someone in the hospital. Now in retirement, Bishop Curlin keeps a suit laid out at night because the local hospitals call him practically every night to be with the accident victims and the dying. He continues to preach retreats and give days of recollection. Many people go to him for spiritual direction. Over Labor Day, I will take a short trip to Charlotte to see my dear friend who has helped me over these past 33 years to love and to live the priesthood.
There are others I should mention. Father Harry J. Flynn, who was Rector of Mt. St. Mary's Seminary and later the Archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis, and the late Father Anthony Manochio, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark who served as my spiritual director. Every day they spent an hour before the Blessed Sacrament in the seminary chapel. They didn't just talk about prayer – they prayed. When Father Flynn became a pastor in his home diocese of Albany, parishioners noticed that he spent an hour a day in church before the Blessed Sacrament. I think they figured out that his prayer had something to do with his effective preaching and his pastoral love.
It's also nice that he's a dog-lover. Golden retrievers seem to be his preference. I wonder if that had an influence on my life?
No doubt, however, the great priest-mentor in my life was the late James Cardinal Hickey, formerly the Archbishop of Washington, under whom and with whom I served for some 18 years. Of him I could write a book. For now, let me simply say that he was a priest's priest. For nearly two decades, on a daily basis, I witnessed his priestly love, holiness, and hard work. I saw him in the best of times and the worst of times. I saw him in joy and in anguish. He was a priest, through and through.
As he advanced in age, I could see him growing not just in experience but in wisdom, the wisdom we look for in our elders. He's been gone now for four years, but not a day goes by without my thinking of something he said or did and without my praying for the happy repose of his great priestly soul.
These and other priests are in my mind and heart as we celebrate this Year for Priests. May God bless them and the priests who have touched your lives with Christ's love!
Please pray for us, your priests, in our service to the Church!