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Rookie Priest: How a priest learns he's not alone

Second in a series

Tuesday, July 04, 2000

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

With 800 friends and relatives filling the pews of St. Louise de Marillac Church, the Rev. James Farnan offered to God the wine that filled his new chalice and began the prayer that he believed would miraculously transform the red wine into the blood of Christ: "Blessed are you, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this wine to offer."

  The Rev. James Farnan celebrates Mass at St. Louise de Marillac in Upper St. Clair. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

Next: Priest forges bonds of unity

It was a prayer he had heard all his life, had studied through years of seminary and reviewed in a final Mass practicum before his ordination just one day earlier. Yet now, as Farnan felt himself become Christ for the congregation, it was as if he had never experienced Mass before. He became lost in the prayer, lost in the sacred moment -- and lost in the Sacramentary.

He halted, flipped a page, flipped it back, repeated a line. Farnan had no idea what to say next.

Then, from 20 priests arrayed behind him to concelebrate his first Mass, came the whispered words of the liturgy. Following their cues, Farnan finished flawlessly. Only the fact that the Our Father was spoken, rather than sung to the music printed in the program, hinted at his reliance on his brother priests.

"As I said to my driving instructor when I took my driving exam for the first time, 'Hey, I remembered all of the important stuff,' " were Farnan's first words after the Mass. The congregation burst into applause and laughter.

Farnan, 35, a former businessman and college athlete, celebrated his first Mass last week at his home parish in Upper St. Clair. The Post-Gazette is following him through his early ministry.

He was ordained a priest on June 24 after six years of seminary and four years of wrestling with whether to enter seminary. Raised as the sixth of seven children by two parents who adored each other, he had feared the isolation of living without a wife and children. But witnessing his father draw strength and courage from the Eucharist before his death from cancer in 1988 had led Farnan down a 12-year path to priesthood and this Mass.

The whispered help he received when he faltered was a sign to him that celibacy will not mean solitude. He was ordained into a brotherhood of priests. And he had the prayers and support of everyone who had ever known him at St. Louise.

When he lost his place, "I had forgotten everything I had ever done to prepare for that Mass. I relied on my brother priests, who were behind me, and on the grace of our Lord, who was working through them. I was trying to bring the Lord to the people, and I couldn't do it alone," he said later.

The priests behind him had been his mentors. The Rev. Robert Reardon, who was pastor at St. Louise in Farnan's youth, preached the homily. It takes more courage to become a priest today than it did 40 years ago, Reardon said afterward.

"The culture is not as supportive as it was when I went into the priesthood. It's harder. I think it even takes a stronger faith. And I think he and his family have that. He will be a great priest," he said.

Farnan's former seminary rector, the Rev. Joseph Kleppner, was the first to whisper the words of help. The Rev. Charles Bober, who had vested Farnan in his first stole and chasuble at ordination, had supervised his summers of field work at St. John Vianney in Allentown.

The Rev. Andrew Fischer had preached the homily that first compelled Farnan to consider priesthood. And the Rev. Joe McCaffrey, from whom Farnan sought advice in 1991, had sent him on a retreat to discern God's will.

Farnan's first Mass was evidence "that God really does work through our lives when we are open to him," McCaffrey said. "I look at him today and say it's a miracle how God has worked. You can tell he is happy, that he made the right decision. He is at peace."

A half-dozen of Farnan's classmates from the North American College in Rome had come from as far as Seattle. Farnan's first Mass slip-up paled in comparison to tales they have heard.

There was the perfectionist who planned each detail of his first Mass. As he raised his arm for the final blessing, his chasuble caught on the altar cloth, knocked over a candle and started a fire. A deacon doused the flames with water from a large vase of flowers. But he also drenched the young priest, who gave the blessing dripping wet.

"The fire and water represent the Holy Spirit, teaching him some humility. And that brings up a piece of advice I'd give to Jim: Leave room for God in the sanctuary," said the Rev. Leo Patalinghug, a North American student from the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Roman seminarians form strong bonds because they must rely on each other in a land far from home. The ties are spiritual as well as social.

"It's a brotherhood based on the blood of Christ, which is thicker than family blood," Patalinghug said.

The brotherhood of priests includes the bishop. Moments before completing the sacrament of ordination on June 24, Bishop Donald Wuerl had told the six men that he was addressing them for the last time as "sons." From now on, even though they were pledged to obey him, they would be his brothers and co-workers, he said.

Wuerl, a former seminary rector, dines informally at the diocesan seminary on Friday nights. One of his maxims is, "I would not call to orders a diocesan priest who I didn't know."

That isn't necessarily standard. Farnan knew seminarians at North American who had never met their bishops. He has enough confidence in his relationship with his bishop that, during his final retreat before ordination, he told Wuerl, "Five days from now you'll have your hand on my head -- and in a week and five days you'll have your hands around my neck."

Wuerl laughed at that. He wants his priests to feel they can talk with him, and he works to foster a sense of community.

One of his favorite memories is of sharing pizza and conversation with a group of seminarians who had helped with a Christmas reception at his home. They asked him to explain the spirituality of a diocesan priest. Most classics of priestly spirituality were written by monks, who live in a community and whose lives revolve around prayer. But a diocesan priest may live alone and have so many parish duties that he neglects personal prayer.

"We talked about how a diocesan priest has to find his spiritual life nourished in the administration of the sacraments and in ministry with the people," Wuerl said.

"He should find his contact with Christ renewed every time he administers a sacrament. Since we administer sacraments every day, and often many times during the day, we have the opportunity to live in the presence of Christ with great intensity."

Farnan was profoundly aware of that intensity at his first Mass, and of the support he had from the parish community where he had grown up. His white chasuble, embossed with gold, was a gift from the Women's Guild of St. Louise. Everyone who entered the church passed a large poster signed for him by scores of children in the parish Bible camp.

He had studied at St. Louise, played football on its fields, learned to pray in its pews, seen his sisters marry there, buried his father from there. Those assembled included nuns who had taught him, cousins who traveled from Ireland, his mother and five of his six siblings.

"My sister Catherine couldn't be here today because she just gave birth to a little priest -- I mean, to my nephew," Farnan joked.

He told everyone, "I hope that my life as a priest and my service in the church would in some way be a response to everything you gave me."

They responded with a standing ovation.

Then they headed for the gym, where sprays of yellow roses adorned tables laden with cookies and hors d'oeuvres prepared by parents from the school. Dozens of tables bore handmade centerpieces in the shape of a chalice and wafer.

Conversations involved laughter about eager young women who had been crestfallen to learn that the main woman in the handsome young parishioner's life was the Virgin Mary. As they ate, drank and waited in line for his blessing, people asked each other, "Is there anyone else from St. Louise who might consider the priesthood?"

The Rev. Thomas Kredel, the pastor of St. Louise, hopes so.

"When you see a good-looking young man who is an all around guy, it's the hope of every pastor that it might inspire others to be open to the priesthood," he said.

It was an inspiration for Tony Gargotta, 37, who is scheduled for ordination in 2001 and who has done two summers of field work at St. Louise.

"It's awesome to think that next year, at this same time, I'll be doing the same thing -- consecrating the bread and wine to become the body and blood of Christ. There are no words to describe it," he said.

Sister Mary DeLourdes, who taught Farnan in eighth grade, and Sister Mary Anthony Venneri, the principal, hadn't seen him for 20 years when they received invitations to the Mass.

When Sister Mary Anthony opened the invitation, her first thought was that she was not worthy to receive it.

"I was just a small instrument in his life," she said.

Mixing with those who had taught Farnan were those Farnan had taught. During the four years he had struggled with whether to enter seminary, he taught Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes at St. Louise.

Brian D'Onofrio, 25, a graduate student in psychology from Upper St. Clair, was one of the students. Farnan, he said, "showed me what it meant to have a personal faith. He got me to pray more and to really fall in love with the sacraments of the church."

Farnan "was wonderful at explaining doctrine and theology in a way that it came alive, it made an impact on our lives. He wasn't just presenting facts," D'Onofrio said.

Guests stood in line for up to an hour to receive Farnan's blessing.

A basket behind him overflowed with cards and the table was stacked with gifts. He is grateful for their generosity, and also grateful not to be in debt from seminary. Now that he is ordained, the diocese will assume payment of the loans he took out for two years of undergraduate theology at Duquesne University. The diocese paid outright for four years of graduate school, and also provided a modest stipend and book allowance.

But there are expenses involved in ordination. His family and friends purchased vestments, and gave him the gift he cherishes most: his chalice. Made of gold-plated silver, it was designed by Farnan and handcrafted by an artisan in Rome.

He knows that it is an extravagance, "but that is for the Lord, not for me," he said.

It is intricately engraved with symbols that hold special meaning. There are signs for St. Peter and St. Paul, respectively the patrons of the church universal and the Diocese of Pittsburgh. They are also men with whom Farnan identifies on a personal level.

Peter was the fisherman who left a boatload of fish to follow Jesus, just as Farnan left a successful business. Paul, Farnan said, "was an active guy who rushed in where angels fear to tread."

On the other side of the chalice is an image drawn from a vision of Fatima, in which grace and mercy flow from Christ's wounds. A renewed devotion to the rosary -- which is closely associated with the Virgin of Fatima -- was instrumental in Farnan's call to the priesthood.

Before leaving Rome last month, Farnan left his chalice at the pope's private chapel, so that John Paul became the first priest to use it. Wuerl also celebrated with it before Farnan's ordination.

His priesthood is part of both men's legacies. It also an inheritance from his family.

His mother had two great-uncles who were priests in Ireland. His 75-year-old aunt, Sister Mary Giles, is a retired School Sister of Notre Dame who educated black children in the Jim Crow South.

Perhaps the most hallowed name in the family is that of the Rev. Lawrence Lynch, a cousin of Farnan's grandfather, who was an Army chaplain in World War II.

In April 1945, the 39-year-old priest found himself in a foxhole on Iwo Jima. When a nearby soldier was mortally wounded, an officer in the foxhole ordered Lynch to stay put. But Lynch leapt out to give last rites to the dying man.

As he held the communion host and spoke the Latin words for "The body of our Lord Jesus Christ ..." a shell exploded. Shrapnel tore through the chaplain's helmet, killing him instantly.

The same officer who had ordered Lynch not to go then jumped to the dead priest's side. He pried the host from Lynch's fingers and put it in his own mouth so that it would not be desecrated.

It's a humbling legacy. But, as he prepared to begin his summer parish assignment, Farnan was certain Lynch was among the brother priests supporting him with their prayers.

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