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Rookie Priest: Priest, parish tee off for God

Fifth in a series

Sunday, October 22, 2000

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

As parishioners sipped coffee on the patio of the Beaver Lakes Country Club while waiting for the Our Lady of Fatima golf outing to begin, some were still talking about the homily that their young parochial vicar, the Rev. Jim Farnan, had delivered the week before.

Father Jim Farnan watches his ball while competing in the annual Our Lady of Fatima Golf Tournament at Beaver Lakes Country Club in Aliquippa. Farnan is assistant priest at Our Lady of Fatima in Hopewell. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Next: Work day for hustling green cleric is 18 hours

Fred Romantine gave a recap, beginning with how Farnan said that there would be a special guest that day in the parish community center: Jesus. He asked how they would prepare to meet him. Would they seek Jesus' advice? Would they go to confession?

Norm Kraus told Romantine that the sermon not only grabbed his attention, it also riveted his children. His 4-year-old exclaimed, "Dad, Jesus is going to be next door!" -- leaving Kraus to explain the concept of metaphor. Farnan's point was that Jesus is always present, especially in the Eucharist.

Farnan, 35, a former businessman from McMurray, was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in June. The Post-Gazette is following him through his early ministry. He was given a short-term assignment at Our Lady of Fatima, a 5,400-member parish in Hopewell.

Farnan arrived at the country club wearing shorts -- with a beeper attached to the belt -- and a gray golf shirt with the shield of the Diocese of Pittsburgh on the pocket. A parishioner had given him a straw hat with a black-and-white hat band sewn to resemble a Roman collar.

Farnan's father taught him to play golf when he was 10. He played against his brothers as he grew up, and with customers when he was a manufacturer's representative for restaurant and janitorial supplies. His time on the greens plummeted when he entered seminary and could no longer claim games as a tax write-off. Some of his clubs were gifts from friends who know that, with a monthly salary of $1,250, he won't be buying many on his own.

As much as he loves the game, Farnan is sensitive to the stereotype of the lazy, golfing priest. One night he left a restaurant only to find a flat tire on the 1990 Toyota Corolla he had borrowed from his mother for the summer. As he dug the jack and spare out of his trunk, he tossed his golf clubs on the asphalt behind him. Then he imagined passers-by sniping at the priest who was inseparable from his golf clubs. He hid them on the back seat.

This golf outing had a noble purpose: to raise money for the Our Lady of Fatima parish school. About 150 parishioners have paid $95 each for 18 holes, a reception and dinner. Parishioners and local merchants have donated dozens of raffle prizes, from golf bags to a television. Romantine, who owns a Giant Eagle, canvassed his vendors for the free drinks and food that are available at several stops along the course. The day will clear $11,000 for the school.

Raffle tickets at 4th hole

For weeks Farnan had challenged parishioners to sign up for the golf outing by asserting that no one could beat him. At his last Sunday Mass before the outing, he sheepishly requested the parishioners' prayers because he had "said a lot of things" about his golfing ability. They burst into laughter.

Farnan also had promised to pray for good weather, and in that, his prayers were answered. It was a glorious day. Brilliant sunshine highlighted the green and surrounding hills as the dozens of golf carts set out on their rounds. He'd been on the phone with God all night to arrange that sunshine, Farnan told his partners, George Conti, an insurance salesman; Bob Williams, a real estate closing specialist; and Williams' son, Bobby, 14.

The two Williamses were the best golfers of the foursome -- both had played Beaver Lakes regularly from early childhood. The elder Williams bantered with Farnan throughout the game, occasionally with tales of less-than-reverent antics from his days as an altar boy.

"Things like this golf outing give me a chance to get the know the parishioners better," Farnan explained at the fourth hole, where Joanne Boyd, the rectory housekeeper, was selling 50-50 raffle tickets. She was happy to do so, she said, because she wouldn't pick up a golf club for love or money. How could anyone enjoy long, frustrating hours knocking a little ball into holes, sand traps and water hazards?

Farnan explained that he enjoyed being outdoors. But the game also is an analogy for life, sin and redemption.

"Every shot you make, you know you have the next shot. Even if you hit a terrible shot, you can make it up on the next hole," he said.

He stored those ruminations away as possible homily material. While his homilies are grounded in his scholarship from seminary, he doesn't dig into his Greek concordance for each daily homily. Even if he had the inclination, he wouldn't have the time.

His homilies are meditations that weave together the biblical text and his daily life experiences. For all of his studies in six years of seminary, Farnan took the idea for the "Jesus is coming to visit" homily from his mother, who has used it with her Confraternity of Christian Doctrine students for years.

It was not Farnan's best day on the green. One shot went so far off course that he had to hunt for it in the back yard of a golf course condominium. Another veered dangerously close to a nearby foursome.

"I almost killed a parishioner. The bishop doesn't like that," Farnan said as he slunk into the woods to hunt for his ball. It took some time, and he reflected on the parable of the lost sheep.

"You have 99 golf balls; you go after the one. See? Scripture applies to life all the time," he said.

"There's poison oak over there!" Williams yelled.

'He took too long'

The foursome frequently missed putts by the merest sliver. But not one swear word was uttered. "Go in, go in, go in ... ouch!" was as emotional as it got.

Williams didn't think their language would be any worse if a priest weren't present. "We'd have some good stories, though," he said.

He has never heard Farnan preach, because the new priest's Masses have a reputation for running longer than those of the pastor.

"I have to get in and out of church. You have no respect for the golfer in the parish, buddy," he told Farnan.

Some priests might have taken offense, but Farnan didn't. Williams, he could see, was an active member who threw himself into parish life because he valued it as a social community. That was something to be grateful for. Farnan began to reflect on ways to reach Williams through a homily, to help him build a deeper relationship with Christ. For weeks afterward as he prepared his homilies, he sometimes asked himself, "What would Bob think of that?"

There are friendly divisions in the parish between those who prefer Farnan's Mass and those who prefer that of the pastor, the Rev. David Driesch. The conversation between Charlotte Muia and Joseph and Ruth Jezewski summed it up.

"He took too long. He's slow," Ruth Jezewski said after one of Farnan's 45-minute morning Masses.

"He'll get it," her husband replied.

Muia couldn't believe what she had heard from them.

"He's so holy and reverent. To me this is the way it should be done. I could sit there for two more hours," she said.

Farnan realizes there are practical realities. The 8 a.m. weekday Mass must end in time for people to pray the rosary before the 9 a.m. Mass. His home parish has a 7 a.m. "commuter Mass" where parishioners are anxious to get out in time to avoid the heaviest tunnel traffic. Even so, he takes his watch off before each Mass and leaves it in the sacristy as a reminder that he is not to focus on time, but on eternity.

By Protestant standards, Farnan's homilies would be considered short, about 10 to 15 minutes. He had a seminary classmate from another diocese who often surpassed 15 minutes. That student was invited to preach at another classmate's first Mass. During the homily, a man got up, went to the restroom and died there of a heart attack. No one found him until the homily ended.

Farnan couldn't keep from joking, "We said he killed him with that long homily."

Ultimately, it's not length, but depth and truth that count, he said.

He tries not to overemphasize any one approach to the Catholic faith. He believes that when Catholics mistake devotion to Mary or work for the poor or opposition to abortion for the whole of the Catholic faith, they lose sight of the church universal and end up turning against the church as a whole.

Farnan veers more toward a mystical, Marian spirituality than he does to one based on the call to social justice, but believes he must preach both. And he says that, while it is very important to be pastoral in the preaching of doctrine, truth must be preached.

'He hooks them in'

Before he was ordained, he met a woman who thanked him for encouraging teen-agers to refrain from sex before they were married. Many years earlier when she and her husband-to-be had told the leaders of their Catholic marriage preparation program how difficult it was for them to wait, the leaders replied that nothing was wrong with premarital sex, as long as it was an expression of love.

So they had sex, and she promptly became pregnant. They had to tell their parents, rush their wedding and she was showing when she came down the aisle. They love their firstborn, but she wishes they had waited. She believed they would have if they had been offered the church's true teaching.

She taught him, "A priest is also called to challenge people," Farnan said.

Driesch, his pastor, has seen him do that during his short time at Our Lady of Fatima.

"He's not one to write anyone off. There's always a temptation to say, 'There's no way to reach that person.' But Jim is not the person to quit on someone," Driesch said.

"He's not off in an ivory tower. He knows the daily struggles that people have -- and he knows the teaching of the church. I see him meet people where they are and maybe bring them up a notch to a higher understanding of the church. He doesn't water down the teaching of the church, but he's able to explain it in a profound way. Instead of having people walk away from that, he hooks them in."

Theologically and spiritually, Farnan is almost a walking definition of what Pope John Paul II has called priests to be. That makes him appear conservative to some Catholics whose ideals of the priesthood were shaped under the pontificate of Paul VI. His sincerity has been questioned by those who believe the church is headed in the wrong direction.

Farnan received a letter from a more liberal Catholic who read about him in the newspaper. Jesus, the letter writer said, would not have approved of Farnan's decision to follow church teaching by withholding communion from non-Catholics. Farnan, the writer continued, must choose between leading souls to Christ or receiving promotion in the church.

It didn't bother Farnan that the writer was upset about denying communion to non-Catholics. Farnan himself had found the experience difficult. What bothered him was the assumption that he followed church doctrine out of ambition, rather than true conviction and love for the church. He believes it is wrong to share the sacrament of communion before full communion between Catholics and Protestants is achieved.

But other feedback has been positive. When a man telephoned to compliment him on a sermon, Farnan could tell that his caller knew more than the average Catholic about preaching and theology. He inquired, and his caller explained that he had once been a parish priest, but had left the ministry. He was now married, with several children.

Farnan didn't ask why he had left -- and didn't assume it was to marry.

"Maybe he had too many days when he needed to receive a congratulatory call like that, and no one called him. Maybe that's why he called me," Farnan said.

Farnan sank his final putt for his foursome to finish five under par. They didn't come close to winning -- one of the foursomes was 13 under.

Before the reception, he caught a ride to a nearby muffler shop where he picked up his borrowed Toyota. Before he entered the seminary, Farnan drove a 1966 Mustang convertible, which he had restored himself. Priesthood has changed his lifestyle in many ways.

He drove back to the country club and parked outside the clubhouse. He remained in the front seat for a long time, praying the daily office. Only then did he go inside for drinks and dinner with the parishioners.

He told everyone that he didn't win because he used all of his prayers on the weather. At his next Mass, he made a more general announcement:

"Nobody told me they weren't going to use the Vatican scoring system, so I didn't win yesterday. Normally, they give a stroke a hole for priests."

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