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Rookie Priest: Work day for hustling green cleric is 18 hours

Sixth in a series

Sunday, November 26, 2000

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The high-tech gadget in the Rev. James Farnan's office was barely recognizable as a coffee maker. An ordination gift from a fellow priest, it produces high-octane, high-caliber coffee at high speed to keep him alert through the last parish meeting or pastoral emergency of an 18-hour day.

Linda Liberatore, principal of Our Lady of Fatima in Hopewell, peeks to see how the Rev. Jim Farnan is doing on a math test he volunteered to take. He scored 100 percent. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Next: Day of sorrow touched by God

Because of his Eucharistic fast, however, he can't touch the stuff until after each weekday morning's 8 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of Fatima in Hopewell. Going without that morning coffee is "the first sacrifice I make as a young priest," Farnan said, his eyes alight with humor.

Farnan, 35, a former salesman of janitorial supplies from McMurray, was ordained in June. The Post-Gazette is following him through his early ministry. He was given a short-term assignment at Our Lady of Fatima, which will have only one priest to tend its 5,400 members when Farnan returns to school in Rome.

A Protestant congregation that size would have at least a half-dozen clergy on its staff. The declining number of priests for the growing population of U.S. Catholics makes for long days. In his third month of ministry, Farnan acquired a Palm Pilot to keep himself on schedule.

Farnan wakes between 6:30 and 7 a.m. He tries to spend time in prayer before the 8 a.m. weekday Mass, perhaps meditating on the Gospel for his next Sunday homily.

When a neighboring parish, which uses two church buildings due to a merger, was recently cut from two priests to one, Farnan offered to take a 9 a.m. Sunday Mass in West Aliquippa. He figured it would be no problem to make his own 10:30 Mass in Hopewell.

He had not counted on getting stuck behind a large, slow-moving truck. He rushed, fully vested into Our Lady of Fatima just in time. "Hey Father," one of the ushers said, "Maybe we should get you an alarm clock."

Farnan spends part of each day doing paperwork or preparing homilies in his rectory office. The door is adorned with a drawing by his 7-year-old nephew of Farnan's first Mass. It depicts a joyous stick figure offering a chalice and host to another stick figure. "I'm giving Communion to Gumby," Farnan explained.

The walls feature classic depictions of Mary, and a large color photograph of blues musician B.B. King presenting Pope John Paul II with his signature guitar, Lucille. It was a spontaneous gesture on the part of King, a Protestant, after John Paul presented him with a rosary. To Farnan it was a moment of inspired ecumenical generosity.

He also has a poster of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, who worked for nine years as a parish priest in 19th-century Pittsburgh, then died tending the sick during an epidemic in New Orleans. Farnan was struck by how Seelos' saintly character was honed and revealed by the everyday, often anonymous, tasks of priestly ministry.

Visiting the homebound is one of Farnan's favorite duties.

Elsie Filorski, 83, had been looking forward to meeting him. All of the lay ministers of the Eucharist who had brought her Communion had talked about him, she told Farnan as they sat at her kitchen table.

"They said, 'He's wonderful and, oh, is he handsome!' I've been hearing it from all the ladies," Filorski said as she sized him up.

"You are handsome, Father," she said. Farnan blushed deep red.

Filorski is a cheerful woman whose face has been lined by decades of laughter. But she was worried. A widow for 27 years, she was thinking of moving in with her daughter. Yet she was reluctant to give up her independence or to impose a burden on her daughter.

"I may be 83, but I can fit right in with 16- and 18-year-olds," she told him. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren frequently call her for advice.

"But I'm tired now. I told God, I'm leaving it up to you. Whatever you decide."

Farnan spoke of how much it would mean to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren to have her with them. She should never think of herself as a burden when she has so much to offer.

He asked about her late husband. Filorski explained that she had longed to become a nun, but that her father forbade it. The man who delivered coal to her father was Polish, while she was Italian; but she fell in love with him because they shared the same deep, Catholic faith. They were married for 34 years, and even though he has been gone for nearly that long, she still misses him.

Farnan had a brief Communion service at her kitchen table and gave her his blessing.

"You're a delight to talk to, Elsie. I'm envious of your children," he said. "Promise me that you'll keep me in your prayers. I think the Lord listens to beautiful, old Italian women."

Sometimes opportunities for spiritual discussions arise spontaneously, although Farnan is still a bit unnerved by strangers who respond to the sight of his collar by pouring out their life story. One evening between events at the church, he ran out with his collar on to hit a bucket of balls at a driving range. The man on the next tee took his arrival as a sign from God and poured out the saga of why he hadn't been to church for four decades.

Farnan assured him he was welcome to return.

The church, of course, provides a forum for people to unburden their souls in the sacrament of reconciliation, still best known as "confession." The obligation to protect the secrets revealed there is profound. A priest can recover from breaking his promise of celibacy or of obedience to the bishop. But the penalty for violating the secrecy of the confessional is an automatic excommunication that can be lifted only by Rome's Sacred Penitentiary.

On a recent Saturday a dozen parishioners came to confession. They included elderly women, young men, teen-age girls, middle-aged couples. Each disappeared into Farnan's confessional for about four or five minutes.

Sometimes fewer people come. One of his classmates taught him to use those times when he waits alone to meditate on how God waits for people to turn to him.

"I felt the presence of God was with me there, waiting -- waiting for whoever wanted to come and experience his mercy," Farnan said.

More people have come to reconciliation at Our Lady of Fatima since the diocesanwide emphasis on it last year, said the Rev. David Driesch, the pastor. In some cases, parishioners needed to overcome the old idea that confession was something done at Easter and Christmas, rather than something needed when the relationship with God was broken.

"More people today are realizing that spiritual direction is part of the sacrament," he said.

"That's what I see with Father Jim. He represents that generation that is starting to discover the great spiritual wealth of the church that so many people had set aside."

The fluke of being in the newspaper has brought spiritual inquiries even from non-Catholics. A Protestant seminarian wanted to talk about what it means to serve God. He sensed that many congregations just wanted an entertainer who wouldn't rock the boat. He sought Farnan's insight into the risks and the meaning of ministry.

Another call came from a Crafton man who had read that Farnan was related to the Rev. Lawrence Lynch, a Catholic Army chaplain in World War II who was killed as he gave last rites to a dying soldier. Joe Balzer had known Lynch, and brought Farnan a signed text of a homily that Lynch had delivered on Father's Day 1944, the 12th anniversary of his ordination.

Lynch's door was always open, Balzer said. Lynch sought out men who had been devastated by their experiences, or who were about to be sent into battle for the first time.

"If you saw him in his Jeep and flagged him down, he'd stop and spend hours with you if you were struggling with something," Farnan said Balzer had told him.

It's the kind of priest Farnan wants to be. But one of the questions that nags at him is how any American priest will have time for such personal ministry if their numbers continue to decline.

Priests don't keep union hours. Evenings are filled with parish meetings, classes on the faith, community events, interviews with engaged couples -- or some combination thereof.

Farnan was invited to lead a prayer at an ecumenical gathering, held in a nearby Episcopal Church, to pray for all the schools in the area. It was a mostly Protestant event, and Farnan was impressed that 70 of them came to spend an evening in prayer.

He was scheduled for one of the final prayers and had written a short liturgy in which he would offer a series of petitions and the group would recite the Our Father after each one. But the other prayers were lengthy, free-form conversations with the Almighty. Farnan arrived at 7 p.m., expecting to be done by 8:30. At 8:12 the group was halfway through the testimonies and prayers. Farnan was anxious. He had an appointment with an engaged couple at 9 p.m.

He gave his prayer just in time to bolt from the meeting and race to Our Lady of Fatima. He hoped they didn't think he was rude.

Farnan held a series of evening meetings for the parish's 60 extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, lay persons who distribute Communion. "Our Lady of Fatima is here in Hopewell to do one thing, to bring Christ to the people of this area," he told them. They shouldn't think of their service as an unpaid job, but as a ministry.

Some of his advice was strictly practical, such as remembering to leave the key to the tabernacle, where the sacred hosts are locked after Mass. Once when Driesch was away, Farnan received an urgent Communion call and discovered that the Eucharistic minister had walked off with the key. He rushed to a neighboring parish for hosts.

When offering the host, "Remember that this is a communication. Try to make eye contact. Say the words reverently and with feeling: 'The body of Christ.' Then wait for them to respond with 'Amen,'" he said.

"It is easy to slip into an assembly-line mentality, but this should be a moment of prayer. Say 'The blood of Christ' and wait for the 'Amen' before handing them the cup."

Several hands shot up. Some parishioners, the Eucharistic ministers told him, wait until they are walking back to their pew to consume the body of Christ. Farnan told them to discreetly intervene to make sure it is consumed in front of them. He offered to write about proper reception in the bulletin.

"Father, couldn't you say something from the altar? People don't read the bulletins," someone said.

Another chimed in, "Maybe you could mention it in a homily."

"I didn't know that anyone wanted my homilies to be any longer," Farnan replied, prompting laughter.

Rhonda McLaughlin, 37, said Farnan had done his best teaching by example. The last two times she distributed Communion, "I found myself making sure that I had the same kind of eye contact that he does. There is a sacredness to what we do," she said.

The youngest of McLaughlin's three children was preparing for First Communion, and McLaughlin was thrilled when Farnan took time to speak with her daughter after Mass. He told her what a special year this would be because she would be able to receive Jesus. He promised to keep her in his prayers.

But is it just the enthusiasm of the newly ordained? Will he care in 2030 whether one little girl is excited about her First Communion?

"Right now, maybe it is rookie hustle," Farnan conceded. "But I have been going to daily Mass for 12 years, and the Eucharistic prayer is still fresh to me."

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