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Rookie Priest: Rookie year behind him, a priest visits home as past and future converge

Last in a series

Sunday, July 08, 2001

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

This is gloriously familiar, the Rev. Jim Farnan thought as he sat in St. Paul Catholic Cathedral on his last day as a rookie priest.

Through rows of priests ahead of him, he could just discern the six white-robed men who were about to be ordained for 2001. He had seen them enter the seminary and wrestle with the same issues of sacrifice and commitment that had taken him a decade to resolve. As they made their promises of service and obedience to Bishop Donald W. Wuerl, Farnan silently renewed his own.

He vowed to attend each year's ordinations because "You remember your own commitment. It brings you back to that day," he said.

The Rev. Jim Farnan blesses sister-in-law Katherine Farnan of Orinda, Calif., before baptizing her 10-week-old son, John Francis Farnan III, at St. Louise de Marillac churchin Upper St. Clair. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Farnan, 36, now sat among the priests who had mentored him through his first year of priesthood. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had followed the former businessman from McMurray, first at a parish in Hopewell and then in Rome for graduate studies. This month he will begin his first permanent assignment, doing ministry among college students at St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland.

He went to the ordination during a visit home to help his mother, Rosemary, move to a townhouse from the home in Peters where she had raised seven children. Farnan's visits have been times for family celebration and for old friends to decide whether priesthood has changed him. He has played lacrosse and quaffed beer with them, performed their marriages and baptized their babies.

"There are a lot of demands on his time, a lot of calls. Everyone wants to see Jim," said his brother, Tom, a lawyer in Pittsburgh.

To Tom, his younger brother will always be the guy who took over the family business after their father died of cancer in 1988.

"The plane was flying with one engine blown. Jim seized the controls when only he could," Tom said.

He watched Jim this year for signs of change. He saw the same guy who had always worked hard, played hard and treated others with a magnetic mix of quick wit and kindness. But an intangible force now seemed to be at work as his brother drew grace from his rhythm of prayer, the Mass and from countless actions whose purpose was to draw others to Christ.

"I just hope it doesn't go to his head," Tom quipped.

A growing passion

One vacation night Farnan played lacrosse with some young men whom he had once helped to coach at Upper St. Clair High School. Farnan, who hadn't used a stick in five years, was goalie when his team held on for a 14-13 victory.

"Three cheers for Father Jim!" shouted Jon Moriarty, who was head coach at Upper St. Clair when Farnan was an assistant.

"I knew Jimmy when the call was just a whisper," Moriarty said at a sports bar after the game.

"Years ago, when I ran the Pittsburgh Lacrosse Club, he was the nemesis of lacrosse officials. Jimmy was a very passionate competitor. He once refused to leave the field after being ejected from a game."

The female fans all had their eyes on Farnan, Moriarty said. But he never hid the growing depth of his faith. When he later coached at Upper St. Clair, Farnan exerted a calming influence on the sidelines.

Moriarty, a self-described fallen-away Catholic, said Farnan took time to listen to his beefs against the church and respond to him.

"I always feel pretty good afterward. It's not because I think I'm right, it's because I think I might be wrong," Moriarty said.

As they downed beers, Matt Giglotti, 22, told Farnan about his life at Penn State. He admitted that his Mass attendance had fallen off.

Farnan told him about the Newman Center, which offers ministry geared to students.

"Promise me you'll make contact," Farnan told Giglotti.

"I think it's great that a priest is willing to listen to young kids," Giglotti said.

"To me, he still doesn't seem like a priest. He's a coach, and he's helped me so much not just with lacrosse, but with growing up and learning to be a man."

Farnan had taught him that "I don't have to have the perfect play, I just need to stick to the fundamentals and get the job done. He said that is what will last and what will help me to survive. It was a lesson for lacrosse, and a lesson for life."

Across the generations

At Christmas, Farnan baptized his newest nephew, John Francis Farnan III. Called Jack, he was the second child of Farnan's oldest brother, John, and his wife, Katherine, who live near San Francisco. Twelve of Farnan's 19 nieces and nephews, all under 8 years old, attended the ceremony at St. Louise de Marillac in Upper St. Clair.

Theresa Farnan, a philosopher married to Farnan's youngest brother, Mike, was expecting their sixth child. Before the baptism, their eldest, Michael, 7, gazed around the church, which was filled with brilliant red poinsettias for Christmas two days away. He posed a question to Farnan.

"Why isn't there any purple in the church for Advent?"

Farnan pointed to an Advent wreath all but buried under red velveteen bows. When an astonished guest remarked that few adults would have known that the colors were off schedule, Farnan asked Michael to say the Hail Mary in Latin. He did so, perfectly.

"These are the highly drilled special forces of the new millennium," his brother, Tom, told the flabbergasted guest.

Mike and Theresa, who teaches philosophy at Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., met in a college Latin class. They taught young Michael the old prayers.

"He memorizes very well," said his father. "What's amazing is that our 2-year-old can say them. He listens when we say the prayers at night, and he picked it up."

When Jack was dressed in the christening gown worn by seven Farnan children and 18 Farnan grandchildren before him, his uncle began the baptismal rite. Seeing toddlers fidgeting on the pews, he said, "Don't worry about the children. If they want to run, let them run wherever they want."

His text was Jesus' command to "let the children come to me." Children, Farnan said, are a testament to hope.

"We have come together to celebrate a third generation of hope," he said. "As a family and as a Christian church, we celebrate the great gift given to us. ... In a few minutes, John will be baptized into Christ Jesus, the source of our hope."

Farnan asked everyone to gather around the font as he poured holy water on Jack's head and intoned, "John Francis Farnan, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."

There were no squalls of protest.

"He thought that was great. He's laughing!" his mother said.

Rosemary held a reception where Farnan helped her transfer 17 pounds of ham and 40 pieces of chicken from the oven to the table. Carrie Longwell, the baby's other grandmother, had brought 10 loaves of Jewish rye from Long Island.

Farnan said grace, then warned, "The rule in the Farnan family is 'Eat fast, or don't eat much at all.' "

An unfolding surprise

Downstairs in the finished basement, where the children watched "Toy Story," the walls were covered with plaques honoring Farnan's achievements as a salesman of janitorial supplies. One, from 1990, was engraved, "There is no room for second place, there is only one place in any game and that is first place -- Vince Lombardi."

The big change in Farnan happened while he was winning those awards. He became serious about seeking God's will, said Mike, a lawyer with the state attorney general's office.

Having completed his first year of priesthood, the Rev. Jim Farnan will begin his first permanent assignment, doing ministry among college students at St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland. (Marth Rial, Post-Gazette)

"The priesthood was just following through on that," Mike said. "In a lot of ways, he's still the same guy, cracking jokes and making everyone laugh. Jim would come home from college and tell stories about the characters he knew. It made my dad laugh so hard he'd be in tears."

Their father's death affected all of the children, but the impact on Jim was profound. When Mike worked with him, Jim would suggest that they pray the rosary together on long road trips.

"Jim made me look at my faith a lot more seriously," Mike said. "The faith that he showed in his vocation, I try to show in mine. That's why I have six kids."

Mike's eldest, the 7-year-old liturgical expert Michael, appreciates having a priest for an uncle.

"I like that you have someone in your family who is able to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ," he said.

Asked if he would like to be a priest, Michael was noncommittal.

"Maybe," he said. "I'm into other things as well. I'm into politics and engineering."

His father would be thrilled, but does not intend to push. His own parents never lobbied for a priest in the family. Jim's call was the work of the Holy Spirit, Mike said.

"If we are fortunate enough to have a child who becomes a priest, he will have to get there on his own," he said.

On an upstairs wall was a photograph of Pope John Paul II greeting Rosemary after his private Mass, which Farnan arranged for her to attend. Mothers of priests are highly esteemed in Rome.

One year after her son's ordination, the corsage that Rosemary wore that day remains before the large, framed image of Our Lady of Guadeloupe in her living room. To Rosemary, those flowers were precious and they were her gift to the Mother of God.

Jim was always a strong and generous son, but over this year she believes she has seen him grow into the man God intended him to be.

"He knows what he wants to do and he'll do it," she said.

She knows the research shows that mothers are often the greatest obstacle facing men who suspect God may be calling them to the priesthood. In many families, it is no longer considered a blessed calling but a bizarre lifestyle. It is not prestigious, it doesn't pay well and it doesn't produce grandchildren.

Would Rosemary be as happy to have a priest for a son if he was her only child?

"Yes," she said.

Children are gifts whom God entrusts to parents to raise and send out to do his will. If she thwarted that call, she would fail as a parent.

"My prayer every day is that all my children will go to heaven, that everyone whom I love will go to heaven. I think Jim will go to heaven," she said.

"I'm not proud that he's a priest, I'm grateful that he's a priest. I'm grateful that John and I had someone who turned out to want to work for God forever."

Farnan returned to Pittsburgh this week, with a graduate degree in theology, magna cum laude.

His first year of priesthood, he said, has been an unfolding surprise. The greatest surprise was the profound peace that he felt after a decade of turmoil over whether to make the sacrifice.

"Everything I do now, even when I don't mean to, is living and promoting the gospel," he said.

"My only regret is that I didn't do this sooner."

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