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Rookie Priest: Priest forges bonds of unity

Third in a series

Sunday, July 23, 2000

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

  The Rev. Jim Farnan distributes Holy Communion during his first day of work at his first parish assignment, Our Lady of Fatima, Hopewell. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

Next: On-the-job training tests a new priest's resolve

After the caller hung up on the secretary at Our Lady of Fatima in Hopewell, she took her wounded feelings across the hall to the Rev. Jim Farnan.

The secretary had had to explain that the woman couldn't be a godparent because she hadn't been to Mass since her marriage before a justice of the peace. It wasn't the secretary's rule or even the pastor's rule. It was canon law.

The new parochial vicar offered to call the woman back. Farnan, 35, is a former businessman from McMurray and was ordained for the Diocese of Pittsburgh June 24. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is following his early ministry.

Farnan is troubled when Catholics feel rejected by their church. Often, the problem can be remedied. Marriage, and all of the church's rules for it, were on his mind because he was preparing to celebrate his first wedding ceremony.

He called the woman and said, "I understand you might be upset."

She started to cry, he said later. She was to have had a big church wedding. Then her mother died. The money saved for the wedding paid for her funeral. The couple had a civil ceremony, which they believed meant they were no longer welcome at Mass.

That wasn't true, Farnan explained. When his questions revealed that they were both properly confirmed Catholics with no prior marriages, he offered them a Catholic ceremony.

We can't afford it, she replied.

Startled, Farnan explained that the marriage is free. The size of the party afterward is a matter of choice. This was a revelation. The woman agreed to talk to her husband.

"It was the epitome of misunderstanding," Farnan said later. "But it's the kind of misunderstanding that leads to anger."

Farnan doesn't blame people for misperceptions. He learned things in seminary that he figured he should have known from Catholic high school. And now he is learning what they didn't teach him in seminary. Especially about all the rules, protocols and paperwork involved in a Catholic wedding.

He agreed last year to do his first wedding July 15 for friends of his. Farnan had played lacrosse with Chip Hansen, a salesman from Ben Avon, for more than a decade at the Pittsburgh Lacrosse Club.

Hansen is a Presbyterian who doesn't consider himself very religious. But his fiancee, Andrea Petrucci, a human resources worker from Edgewood, is Catholic. They have known each other for six years and dated for more than two. Farnan had cooked gourmet Italian dinners for them when he was home from seminary. They wanted a Catholic wedding, and asked him to be their priest.

He sent them to marriage preparation classes at St. John Vianney in Allentown, where he had done field work. They chose St. Mary of the Mount on Mount Washington for their ceremony. Shortly after his ordination, Farnan cooked dinner for them so they could finalize their plans.

Hansen questioned Farnan intensely about the meaning of Catholic marriage. Instead of being taken aback, Farnan was pleased that Hansen was giving serious thought to the sacredness of the vows. Some couples will parrot whatever answer they think is expected in order to get the ceremony. He was glad that his friend cared enough about the church's teaching to argue with it.

And he was touched that Hansen wanted his bride to have a wedding Mass. Older priests had warned him that this can cause hard feelings at a mixed marriage, because the Catholic church does not allow Protestants to receive communion except under extraordinary circumstances. But Farnan could see Hansen's love for Petrucci in his desire for her to have the full Catholic sacramental experience.

"I thought it would be good, because what I wanted to get across in this wedding is that idea of transcendence. The love that you have isn't just between two people. The Lord is involved in it," Farnan said.

As she watched her fiance struggle with concerns about a Catholic marriage, Petrucci said, "Jim has been very comforting, and really talked it through with him."

They had discussed spiritual matters before. Hansen finds Farnan's explanations of the Catholic faith thought-provoking.

"He's not selling it to me as propaganda. But he explains the history of it and why he believes it's true," Hansen said. "If the everyday Joe who is out there could describe what the perfect priest would be like, it would be Jim."

Although it was not a topic he got into with Hansen and Petrucci, Farnan cheerfully promotes the church's ban on artificial contraception. He has siblings who practice natural family planning and are happy with it.

Farnan believes that the church has a high view of sex. Each spouse is supposed to love and accept the other exactly as God made them, with all of their potential for creating new life. Short circuiting their reproductive systems is not only a rejection of whatever child God might bless them with, it's a rejection of God's grace and a rejection of each other as human beings created in the life-giving image of God.

Farnan knows that most Catholics don't see it that way. He figures that's partly because they rarely hear these ideas explained. And then television, movies and music distort sex into an end in itself, divorced from marriage, children, ethics and even from love.

"When you can talk about this in the context of love ... they begin to see the sacredness of marriage, the sacredness of the act, the beauty and the selflessness involved in it. But you know what that takes? A lot of time and effort. You are working against the flood of our culture," he said.

When Farnan saw the flood of affidavits, permission forms and regulations that he had to have in proper order for the wedding, he wasn't sure where to begin. He made an appointment to review the procedures with the Rev. Richard Lelonis, a canon lawyer in the diocesan marriage tribunal. Four of the five priests ordained with him last month decided to join him.

They spent 2 1/2 hours reviewing some of the rules.

For instance, if two Catholics are marrying, but one is from another diocese, permission must be obtained from the bishop of that diocese. A Catholic also needs special permission to marry outside the faith. The Catholic partner must sign a declaration of intent to raise the children as Catholics, but the non-Catholic spouse does not make such a promise. A priest can't do the wedding unless one partner is Catholic.

  Farnan performs his first wedding ceremony, uniting his longtime friend Chip Hansen with Andrea Petrucci at St. Mary of the Mount on Mount Washington. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

"The normal young priest is overwhelmed when he realizes what the chances are of two Catholics walking into his office who have never been married before and who have never lived outside of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. That is so rare today," Lelonis said.

He had expected the young priests to complain that marriage had become too bureaucratic. They surprised him with their approval of the effort the church makes to teach people about the sacred importance of their commitment.

Lelonis, who spends his days sifting through the wreckage of failed marriages for people seeking annulments, hopes time won't dim the enthusiasm of the young priests looking forward to their first weddings.

"You feel kind of like an uncle, being a little concerned that they will be bumped and disillusioned and disappointed in the fact that people sometimes don't accept the sincere work that you try to do for them. But that is part of growing up," Lelonis said.

As the wedding approached, Farnan felt his academic theology encounter real life. He has always accepted the Catholic church's understanding that Protestants can't receive Catholic communion. Few Protestants believe that the consecrated bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus. Sharing communion would create an illusion of a unity that does not yet exist. Still, his heart ached at the thought that Hansen would be unable to share fully in the wedding Mass with his bride.

The night before the wedding, Farnan called his mentor, the Rev. Charles Bober, pastor of St. John Vianney, searching for wiggle room. He found none. Protestants can receive communion only if they believe Catholic teaching about it, if they are not coerced and if they have had no access to their own clergy for a long time. The last is insurmountable for a Presbyterian in Pittsburgh, the Calvinist capital of the Western Hemisphere.

For Farnan, the day of Hansen and Petrucci's wedding began with 9 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of Fatima. A dozen parishioners kept him busy for an hour at 11 a.m. confessions.

After lunch of pepperoni pizza, he made final decisions about which blessings and prayers to use at the wedding. "What a beautiful rite," he said as he reviewed the liturgy.

Farnan has a romantic streak that emerges when he talks about other people's marriages. Choosing to live without a wife and children was the most difficult part of his decision to become a priest. When he meets couples who have been married for half a century, he imagines what they must have looked like during their courtship. He returned joyful from seeing the Hansen and Petrucci families coming together at the rehearsal dinner.

Running late for the wedding, Farnan pulled out of the parish driveway with the nagging feeling that he had forgotten something. On the Parkway West he realized that he had left his wedding gift behind.

Before the ceremony, he was consumed with small details, such as briefing the altar servers and making sure that he and the organist had the same cues.

Moments before the 3 p.m. service, he led the bridegroom, best man and two altar servers in a brief prayer. "May we experience in this ceremony a profound sense of your love and peace," he concluded.

As Petrucci came down the aisle to join her husband-to-be, Hansen beamed and Farnan looked on solemnly. His homily was on Jesus' command to "love one another as I have loved you."

"Love is more than simple sentiment and emotion," he said.

It is an action that reveals God to the world. The love between a husband and wife is a gift from God and a sign to everyone of the faithful, kind, patient and merciful love that God has for everyone, he said.

"Chip and Andrea, you are witnesses of the love that God has for us, by your love for one another."

After the newly married couple kissed, he announced, "I have the distinct honor of presenting to you, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Hansen."

As the guests left, Farnan prayed briefly, alone before the altar. The ceremony had given him a profound sense of closeness to his friends. But he was disturbed at the sight of all the people he could not offer communion to, even while he united them into one family.

"It did amplify the separation of our churches. That doesn't make me angry, but it makes me sad," he said.

The ceremony had defined the boundary he had crossed at his ordination exactly three weeks earlier. "Today, I was a priest for my friend," he said.

Or, as Farnan's brother, Tom, put it a few minutes later, "You wanted to know if I was surprised that he became a priest? Not until today, when I saw the 1989 Pittsburgh Lacrosse Club walk to the altar and bow to him in sequence."

Robert Babcock, a Methodist from Massachusetts who had never met Farnan before, had his own observations.

"I must have been to 10 Catholic weddings, and this was the first one that I understood. A lot of them rush through it like they have someplace else to be. This was the first time I ever felt like the priest was talking to me," he said.

Farnan did have to rush to be someplace else. He hoped to get to his friends' reception later that night, but he had a 6 p.m. Mass in Hopewell. The church was packed as he preached his third homily of the day, this time on trusting God.

Three days later, the woman who had hung up on the parish secretary called back. She and her husband want Farnan to marry them in the Catholic church.

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