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

Fourth in a series

Monday, September 04, 2000

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

As the Rev. James Farnan greeted the faithful after a weekday Mass at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Hopewell, Victoria Seltz took him aside.

Her 83-year-old husband, Frank, was dying of cancer and hadn't been to Mass for 30 years, she said. Could Father please come to their home?

  Rev. James Farnan blesses the body of Frank Seltz at Our Lady of Fatima. Seltz's wife thanked Farnan for helping her husband during the period before his death. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Next: Priest, parish tee off for God

It was the sort of invitation for which Farnan gave his life to the church. The 35-year-old former businessman from McMurray was ordained June 24 for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is following his early ministry.

Death is a constant presence in the lives of priests, who tend to the dying and bury the dead. In fact, a good part of their ministry prepares people for this final passage of life.

Farnan rediscovered the Catholic faith 12 years ago after he witnessed the strength his father drew from prayer and the sacraments as he died of cancer.

Funerals, in his eyes, are a moment when even the most callous souls can receive the Christian message that death leads to resurrection and new life.

He visited Frank Seltz as soon as he could.

Seltz, whose photos revealed a man bulging with muscles forged in the steel mill, was now a fragile 90 pounds. He shivered in the summer heat. A hospital bed had been set up for him in a spare room, where Jesus kept watch from a crucifix.They talked for a while, with Seltz telling Farnan about his life as a steel worker. At a pause in the conversation, Farnan noted, "It's been a while since you've been to church."

"Yeah, but I talk to God," Seltz replied.

He declined Farnan's offer to hear his confession, so Farnan told him Jesus' story of the prodigal son who ran away and wasted his inheritance but was welcomed home by his joyous father.

Seltz still had no interest in confession.

Farnan visited the Seltz home often. Frank Seltz, he said later, was a kind man who allowed him to finish their chats with prayer. On one visit, Farnan took a cross and asked Seltz to hold it as a sign that he now shared the suffering of Jesus, who had loved him enough to die for him. Every visit thereafter, Farnan found the cross at Seltz's bedside.

Farnan always asked if Seltz wanted confession, and Seltz always refused -- until the day Seltz could no longer speak.

Seltz reached for Farnan's hand and pulled him close. Farnan asked if he wanted confession and Seltz nodded. He made it silently. Whatever had caused his rift with the church remained known only to God. Then Farnan gave him absolution.

At one of his next morning Masses, Farnan preached on the mercy of God.

"Even in the face of our turning away from God, we can always return to his love," he said.

After Mass, he asked for prayers because his first two funerals would be that day. Twenty minutes later in the sacristy, the adult altar servers coached him on matters such as when to walk around the casket with incense.

Lou Salvati has frequently given Farnan pointers on parish procedures but said he has only admiration for the newly ordained priest. He regrets that the parish will lose him next month, when Farnan must return to Rome to finish his degree.

"Whichever parish gets him as an associate is really going to get something. He's got the personality for it," Salvati said. "And he's so devout. You see it in the way he elevates the host. He doesn't rush anything. Everything is done for a reason."

But Farnan can joke about the darker side of priests who do everything for a reason. As he vested in white, he noted that white, purple and black are the colors for funeral vestments. Black has fallen out of use in the United States, but Farnan drew laughs from the altar servers with his tale of a crusty monsignor who continued to wear black "if he thought the person deserved it."

The 10 a.m. funeral was for an 89-year-old man whom Farnan had never met. His conversation with the family had revealed little about the man's faith. So in his homily, Farnan put his trust in the theology of the funeral Mass, which says that those who are baptized into Christ's death when they are born will share in his resurrection after they die.

"We mourn because we love," he said. "In the face of death, we mourn because of our separation from a loved one. In the face of death, our love seems helpless, and that adds to the ache of death."

But, he continued, the earliest Christian tombs in Rome are easily distinguished from pagan tombs by inscriptions indicating that those inside them are merely asleep.

"Our loved ones are asleep because one day, Christ has taught us, they will rise from their sleep in resurrection," he said. "When our love might seem helpless, Christ's love is powerful, so powerful that it overcomes the separation of death."

Afterward, the funeral director complimented him on the service and Farnan admitted that it was his first.

The funeral director replied, "I've been doing this for 15 years, Father. It's all acting."

Farnan was amused. His intent, he explained, was to offer the funeral liturgy in wholehearted prayer for the one who had died.

The noon funeral was for Andrew J. Doby Sr., 88, who had heard Farnan preach once or twice before his illness kept him from Mass. He was so taken with the young priest that, when he lay dying in the hospital, his children asked for Farnan to bring him the sacraments.

Farnan could sense the deep faith of the family members gathered around the bed. Doby was feeble, slipping in and out of awareness, but as Farnan held the communion host before him, Doby's eyes fixed intently on it. As he received it, he clearly said, "Amen."

As Farnan prepared to leave, Doby appeared agitated, gesturing to his children and grabbing Farnan's hand. The children promptly dug into their pockets and purses to give the priest an offering. Farnan was unsure how to respond, since no offering was required or expected, but he accepted it and thanked them.

Later, he asked his pastor, the Rev. David Driesch, if he should have refused the money. Driesch assured him he had done the right thing.

"You should never thwart someone's expression of generosity," he told Farnan.

Farnan preached Doby's funeral homily from the same text he had used two hours earlier, making the same points in nearly identical language. But it was interwoven with a description of the faith that Farnan had witnessed ever so briefly in the hospital.

"He was prepared, he was disposed and his death was holy," Farnan said.

"He was generous in his love, and in his love for God."

After the burial service, Farnan returned to the parish office. Andrew Doby Jr. called to invite him to the wake. It was a slow, August afternoon, and Farnan accepted.

The family had gathered at the Elks Club. Laughter abounded as the children regaled Farnan with tales of their father. He had been reared in foster homes and spent the Depression in the Civilian Conservation Corps, which gave him a lifelong love of wildlife and gardening.

He had told his children that, when they planted a garden, they should give away the first year's produce. The next year, he said, the garden would produce double. It was clear from their conversation that Doby had known how to tend the seeds of his children's faith as well as he tended his gardens.

Farnan left to take Frank Seltz the Viaticum, communion for those in danger of death. Its Latin name means "food for the journey." Along with anointing for forgiveness and healing, it is part of what was once known as the Last Rites. The church no longer uses that term because anointing is now encouraged for everyone in need of healing, whether or not they are near death.

Seltz was deep in a morphine-induced sleep, unable to receive communion. Farnan spent a long time in prayer at his bedside, while Victoria Seltz waited in the living room. Despite her grief, she almost bubbled with joy and gratitude because her husband had finally made his peace with God. Jesus had answered her prayers by sending Farnan to their home, she said.

"Father is so compassionate, he has his whole heart in this," she said. "I am so happy now."

When Farnan entered the living room he paused to admire two large photographs of Frank and Victoria Seltz in their youth. She had been a brunette beauty.

"I was only 19 when that was taken. I was so innocent," she said.

"You're still innocent, aren't you?" he teased. He gave her communion before he left.

Frank Seltz died six days later. The gospel text Farnan preached from at his funeral was that of the repentant thief who was crucified alongside Jesus. When he begged Jesus to "remember me when you come into your kingdom," Jesus promised they would be together that day in paradise.

In the last three weeks of Seltz's life, Farnan told the assembled mourners, this man who hadn't set foot in church for 30 years taught him lessons he hadn't learned in six years of seminary.

"They didn't tell me in seminary what to do when a man made strong by the mill was weakened by cancer and was reaching out to God. Frank helped me through it," he said.

"We all think we can go it alone, can go without God. When we turn our backs on God's son, we turn our backs on the love God has for us. But God never turns his love from us."

The funeral director's cellular phone rang in the silent church and continued ringing loudly as he moved toward a back door. Farnan didn't skip a beat.

"Frank taught me in a very real way about God's love and mercy. I will never forget the strength Frank showed me and the love Frank showed me, in accepting the love of our Lord," he said.

As they paused for a final blessing after the casket had been wheeled out of the church, Victoria Seltz took Farnan's hand and stood on her tiptoes to gently kiss his cheek. People all around her were weeping, but, in the midst of her own tears, Seltz's face was lit with a smile.

"Father Farnan was wonderful," she said. "My husband made his confession before he died. And that is my greatest consolation."

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