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Rookie Priest: Ordination culminates the answer to a long call

First in a series

Sunday, June 25, 2000

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Six men robed in white stood before Bishop Donald Wuerl, then dropped to the floor before the altar of St. Paul Cathedral.

  Bishop Donald Wuerl lays hands on James Bernard Farnan at St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland yesterday. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

This is the first in a series of articles following the ordination and first months of a newly ordained priest in the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Next: How a priest learns he's not alone

The voices of the cantor and the congregation soared toward heaven, invoking the prayers of all the saints. As James Farnan lay on the marble floor, he recalled that this ancient ritual of ordination to the Catholic priesthood represented dying to himself and rising to live anew for Christ.

As 1,800 voices called to saint after saint, Farnan realized, "I am not alone. I have the prayers of everyone in the church and also of everyone who has gone before me for 2,000 years."

Farnan, 35, was among six men ordained to the priesthood yesterday for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

It had been two years since the diocese ordained a priest, but six more are anticipated next year and five in 2002.

Pittsburgh's class of 2000 also includes Joseph Codori Jr., 43, a former civil engineer, and James Stover, 27, both from Assumption parish in Bellevue; Thomas Lewandowski, 43, a former truck driver from Christ the Light of the World in Duquesne; Michael John Lynam, 38, a one-time auto technician from St. Jude the Apostle in Wilmerding; and Daniel Whalen, 45, who was an attorney and real estate agent, from St. Benedict the Abbot in McMurray.

And then there is Farnan, a former businessman from McMurray, who the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will follow through his early ministry. He will spend this summer at Our Lady of Fatima in Hopewell before returning to Rome for a final academic year.

A call to the priesthood, Wuerl said in his homily, is summed up in two verses from Isaiah: "The Lord has called me from birth" and "Here I am, send me."

Farnan's mother, Rosemary, had a place of honor in a center pew. Five of Farnan's six siblings were with her. The missing sister had just given birth to Rosemary's 17th grandchild.

His father, John, could not be seen, but Farnan knew he was present. John Farnan's death in 1988 had set him on his journey to the cathedral floor. Farnan had taken care of his mother while she grieved. Yesterday she glowed.

"God has been so good to me. When John died, I thought I would never laugh again. But I'm laughing now," she said.

Rosemary had fallen in love with John in part because of his deep Catholic faith. A decorated veteran of the Korean war, he built a business in McMurray as a manufacturer's representative for maintenance and janitorial supplies. They had seven children in eight years. Jim was the sixth. Their parish home was St. Louise de Marillac in Upper St. Clair, where the children attended school.

The Rev. Robert Reardon, their pastor during Farnan's youth, kept his eye on the four boys. With the family's strong faith, "I was hoping that one would become a priest," he said.

In eighth grade, Farnan decided on impulse to spend an introductory weekend at St. Fidelis Seminary in Butler. It was a sincere inquiry, but the experience left him cold. He didn't think of priesthood in four years at Seton-LaSalle High School.

  Farnan, left, laughs with fellow seminarians, Michael Lynam and Daniel Whalen Friday during rehearsal for the ordination. (BillWade, Post-Gazette)

Life of the party

At the University of Dayton Farnan was "a cultural Catholic," he said. No matter how hard he partied on Saturday night, he made it to the last Mass on Sunday.

"I went through the motions when I was supposed to, but I didn't really understand what I was doing or why I was doing it," he said.

He had girlfriends, none serious. Anything serious was for later. He was busy being the life of the party, playing lacrosse, playing pranks and majoring in information management systems. In 1987 he took a job trading treasury bond futures at the Chicago Board of Trade.

He mastered the art of hand signals, screamed orders, pushed through crowds. He relished the excitement and fast pace. But something inexplicable led him to attend daily Mass at a church near his apartment.

"I had a sense that the party was over. I started to ask the big questions. What am I doing with my life? What is it all about? God, what do you want me to do?"

A year after he moved to Chicago, his father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Farnan returned to McMurray.

"I had always known that my father was loving and compassionate. Now I got to see a side of him that was courageous," he said.

For six months he watched John Farnan's spirit grow strong as his body wasted away. He watched the parish priests care for him, saw his father gain more from communion than from chemotherapy, saw him fall into exhausted sleep with a rosary still in his hand.

Sensing that death was near, John Farnan asked him to run the family business for three years while Rosemary recovered from his loss. When Farnan gave that promise he felt, for the first time ever, that he was doing God's will.

In the early morning hours of June 29, 1988, the family gathered in John Farnan's hospital room for the last time. He had lost consciousness days earlier, but James Farnan didn't need the monitor to know when death came. Somehow, he saw his soul depart. In that instant, he knew for certain that the spiritual world was real.

Rosemary told her children, "Your father is before Jesus now, and he is being judged." They knelt and prayed the rosary.

For three years, Farnan gave himself wholeheartedly to business.

He was a formidable competitor, said Paul Samios, whose company sparred with Farnan's.

"Because of his honesty and hard work and good-natured approach, the distributors who bought from him were very reluctant to change. They stuck with him," said Samios, who bought Farnan out when he entered seminary.

Samios said he tried to lure Farnan back into business. "He's a real loss to the laity," Samios sighed.

But Samios is also a Catholic who believes the priesthood needs men like Farnan as never before.

Fifteen years ago, if someone had told Tom Farnan that his younger brother, Jim, would be a priest, he'd have laughed. But by 1994, it made perfect sense.

He was still the same prankster he'd always been.But he had undergone a conversion. He read Catholic books, prayed, and had friends who did the same. Tom was drawn into their circle and his faith deepened as well.

Farnan shows a chalice he designed and had made in Rome to the Rev. Derek Lappe, center, a friend from Seattle, and Whalen. (BillWade, Post-Gazette) 

Believes in his product

The same characteristics that made his brother a good salesman will serve him well as a priest, Tom Farnan said.

"He can go into a group of people and make them feel at ease. He is genuinely interested in what they have to say. He is a strong believer and he believes straight down the line in what the Catholic Church teaches, but he is not overbearing or didactic. It's the old salesman's technique of knowing your product. He truly believes in his product."

Business was booming as Farnan's three-year commitment drew to an end. He loved the work, but he also loved the Eucharist. One day a priest told him that there can be no Eucharist unless someone says "yes" to God's call.

Farnan felt compelled to consider whether God was calling him. The idea frightened him. But he also believed that the greatest gift he could ever give someone was to offer then Christ in the Eucharist. He called the diocesan vocations office and joined its "affiliate" program, which allowed him to spend time at the seminary without declaring himself a candidate.

He spent four years as an affiliate.

The Rev. Edward Burns was diocesan vocation director then and now runs the vocations office of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. He was impressed with Farnan's faith, intelligence and wit.

"I admired the pledge that he had made to his father to keep the business going strong. Loyalty and commitment are ... characteristics that are needed in the priesthood."

It was not Burns' job to tell Farnan what God's will was, but to help Farnan discern that will.

Decision time

To Farnan, it seemed irresponsible to give up a booming business. But as he studied Jesus' call to the first disciples, he realized that they were fisherman who walked away from the biggest catch of their lives.

"I knew Christ was calling me away from my boatload of fish, but it was still tough to walk away," he said.

As for celibacy, "I was living a chaste life, so it wasn't that difficult a thing."

But the potential loss of relationship and companionship with some future wife and children held him back. He could see himself as the sort of husband and dad his father had been.

"A lot of people hear about celibacy and they think it's about sex. But it was family that was the most difficult thing for me to discern my way through," he said.

The first that Rosemary knew of her son's call was when he asked her permission to move out of the house.

"I want to work for the bishop," he told her. "I want to go into the seminary."

She told him, "Don't do it half way. Do it all the way. Give God all you've got."

He entered St. Paul Seminary in East Carnegie in 1994, telling himself that it was just another stage of discernment. I'm not tied to this, he thought.

He was not absolutely certain of his call until after his ordination as a deacon in 1999.

If Farnan had a fault as a seminarian, it was that he overextended himself, Burns said. He was always the first to volunteer for a difficult task, to take on a project to help the youth the poor, the elderly.

"He sometimes found himself up very late at night, weary and running around," Burns said.

But he also brought a joie de vivre to St. Paul's. Using the pseudonym "Scoops," Farnan published an underground newsletter, poking fun at students and faculty alike.

He could get away with a lot of what Burns identifies as "blarney" because it was never derisive.

"He possesses no malice. He comes at a person with a real sense of goodness in his heart and a real desire to do God's will," Burns said.

Sharing the joy

Farnan once convinced a group of seminarians and faculty members to chip in on a $100 raffle ticket for a new sport utility vehicle that St. Louise de Marillac was offering in a fund-raiser. They had the winning ticket and, after selling the SUV, everyone netted $1,100.

"I remember thinking how that was just like Jim. He wants others to share in the joy," Burns said.

In 1996, Farnan entered the North American College in Rome, where four of the six new priests did at least some of their graduate work. Living an ocean from home showed him that God would give him the grace to be without a family. It exposed him to aspects of the faith that Americans rarely witness. Some of his African classmates were from dioceses where priests risk martyrdom daily.

Once, he e-mailed his brother, Michael, that he had just finished a 27-page paper on six verses of the Bible. His brother shot back, "Remind me not to bring my kids to your Mass."

After returning home, Farnan spent most of last week on retreat at St. Paul seminary with the other candidates. The gospel reading at Mass on Wednesday was from the sixth chapter of Matthew: "Be on guard against performing religious acts for people to see. ... Keep your deeds of mercy secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you."

Farnan's thoughts drifted back to a visit he had made to the American military cemetery at Anzio, with the seemingly endless rows of graves from World War II. He had walked among them in prayer, reflecting on the meaning of sacrifice and commitment.

Many of the stones said, "Here lie the glorious remains of a fallen comrade known only to God."

"That reminded me of what this life is all about," Farnan said. "So many of the things that priests do don't get written about. It's a life of anonymous witness. That is what the gospel told us today. It's telling us to be anonymous, but saying that it will be glorious."

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