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Rookie Preist: Rookies find priests hit the ground running, don't stop all day

Eighth in a series

Monday, January 29, 2001

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Perhaps it was God's joke on a newly ordained priest when the Rev. Jim Farnan, former class clown and no stranger to the detention room, was asked to speak with the occasional clone of his former self at Our Lady of Fatima School.

The Rev. Jim Farnan works on a math test he volunteered to take at Our Lady of Fatima School in Hopewell. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Next: Study in Eternal City affirms priesthood's eternity

"My experiences in parochial school were such that I can really relate to these kids," he said. "I think my life is evidence that the Lord draws straight with crooked lines."

He asked students to reflect on the impact of their actions on others, and then write letters of apology to those they had hurt.

That approach "is what someone did for me a long time ago," said Farnan, 36, who was ordained in June and served a short-term assignment to Our Lady of Fatima in Hopewell before going to Rome to finish his theology degree. His reassignment left Our Lady of Fatima with one priest to serve 5,400 members, because no priest was available to replace him.

The person who confronted him at Seton-La Salle High School 20 years ago was not a priest but a science teacher and golf coach. Farnan had blown off some lab assignments, done poorly on a test and skipped a golf team tryout.

"I was trying to talk my way out of all three when it became obvious to both of us that I wasn't interested in doing any of them the right way. I just wanted to get by on the minimum," Farnan said.

"He sat me down and wouldn't let me lie to myself anymore."

Even today, when he finds himself trying to shirk responsibility or deny the consequences of his actions, Farnan hears that teacher's words echo in his soul. He wants to talk to young people the way that teacher talked to him.

Our Lady of Fatima School is in the midst of a resurrection. When the Rev. David Driesch became pastor in 1998, the school was dying. Enrollment had fallen below 100 and seventh and eighth grades had been dropped.

Driesch drafted Linda Liberatore, a teacher from Monaca, as principal. Over two years, enrollment doubled. The school has added a Spanish language program, a computer teacher came onboard and the music curriculum was expanded. A second kindergarten was opened and seventh and eighth grades returned. As with all Catholic schools, there is a strong emphasis on building character.

Liberatore was concerned that some of the teen-agers were starting to live as if their actions had no consequences. She knew it was normal behavior for adolescents but worried that a few students might make irretrievable mistakes. She asked Farnan to speak to their class, hoping he could inspire the pupils to think about what they were doing with their lives.

Warning to pupils

As Farnan reflected on what to tell them, memories of a half-dozen teen-agers whom he or his siblings had known in high school floated to the surface. Some had been killed or paralyzed in alcohol-related crashes. Adolescent foolishness had led to lifelong consequences for them or for someone else.

He wove details from several tragedies into one narrative about a beautiful, talented girl called Julie. She had the whole world ahead of her before she chose to get into a car with a driver who had been drinking, and to sit in her boyfriend's lap rather than buckle her seat belt. The driver pulled into the path of another car.

"The accident was horrific," Farnan told the pupils. Julie died when she was thrown against the car roof and her neck snapped.

"She has one of the nicest tombstones in the cemetery" Farnan said.

He was thinking of a high school classmate of his younger brother's. Farnan's father was buried next to her. She has been there for 14 years.

"Her grave is always decorated with fresh flowers and immaculately kept, which is a witness to the ongoing grief of her family," he said.

"It was her decision to get in the car with someone who had been drinking. It turned out to be a very wrong decision and it led to her death."

In a few years, Farnan told the seventh- and eighth-graders, they would be in high school, where they would face pressures from which Our Lady of Fatima now protects them. They would have opportunities to make mistakes involving drugs, drinking, boyfriends, girlfriends and sex.

"This year, you will be preparing to move on in your life. You need to use this time to develop the skills you need to move on to high school," he said.

"There, you will be making very large decisions about how to spend your life. What you decide will be based on what you learned in high school, about yourself, your abilities, your weaknesses and your strengths. The people at Our Lady of Fatima want you to face high school as prepared as you can be. Everyone here is interested in you having the most fulfilling and promising life you can."

Farnan reminded the pupils that he would soon leave the parish.

"I will be long gone when the decisions you make play themselves out. I want you to be the best you can be," he said.

The pupils were silent. They remained so when he asked if anyone had questions.

"Good luck to you. I'm serious when I say that I will keep you in my prayers," Farnan said.

"Thank you, Father," they chorused in unison.

Farnan was not convinced he had made an impact, but Liberatore was pleased.

"Father Dave is wonderful. He's the perfect boss. But pastors get bogged down with so many administrative responsibilities. It's been wonderful to have Father Farnan here, even for this short time. He has made such a difference. He comes over to visit the children, just stops in to say good morning. He makes the kids feel special," she said.

Fewer priests in future

When Farnan left, Our Lady of Fatima would, for the first time, have just one priest.

Driesch put the best face on it, but he would miss Farnan. He would have liked to have an assistant who could devote time to the school.

Driesch had attended a diocesan workshop on how to change patterns of parish administration to free the priests for pastoral work.

He has promoted the parish secretary to business manager. When problems arise about leaky roofs, he has resolved to let the lay staff figure out what to do.

On the other hand, one priest for 5,400 parishioners is a rough ratio.

As busy as Farnan was, he was at Our Lady of Fatima during the slow months, Driesch said.

Farnan saw only the beginning of the school year and missed most of the religious education and music programs that keep the parish hopping in the late afternoons and evenings.

Driesch especially regretted that Farnan would not be at Our Lady of Fatima for the Rite of Catholic Initiation for Adults, which works with potential converts.

"I see him as a great catechist and a great teacher. With his enthusiasm, he would have been a great inspiration," Driesch said.

During his months at Our Lady of Fatima, Farnan met several times with his five classmates from the ordination of 2000.

The diocese sponsored two retreats for the new priests to discuss common issues, and Farnan cooked dinner for them one night at the rectory.

The Rev. Tom Lewandowski from St. Basil in Carrick, the Rev. Joe Codori from St. Thomas More in Bethel Park, the Rev. Jamie Stover from St. Sebastian in Ross and the Rev. Dan Whalen from St. Philip in Crafton arrived in civilian clothes. The Rev. John Lynam rushed in later from St. Charles Lwanga in Homewood, still wearing clericals.

Over beer and snacks in the rectory living room, they talked about some of their challenges: Lewan-dowski had celebrated a funeral Mass for a premature baby and for a murder victim.

Whalen had preached to a church filled with sobbing teen-agers after a 17-year-old died in a car crash. But the running topic was how busy they all were.

Whalen noted that the priority of parishioners at a diocesan synod was better homilies.

He wondered what those parishioners were willing to sacrifice to allow time for homily preparation.

Stover, 27, the only rookie to have entered seminary straight from college, was shocked at the demands on his time.

"Every morning, I leave my room at 6:30 and I feel like I hit the ground running. It's nonstop until 9 p.m. I knew things would be busy, but I couldn't imagine that it would be nonstop," he said.

The rookies weren't worried about themselves so much as their pastors. The diocese tries to assign newly ordained priests to parishes with pastors whose dedication and depth of spirituality make them good mentors.

The rookies see those qualities, but they also see dedicated men driving themselves as they try to do the work of three priests.

It's not that priests are natural workaholics, Farnan said.

"I think most of it is that you want to bring Christ to these people. You extend yourself," he said.

Codori reminded them that many other people worked long and hard.

"My sister is raising 4-year-old twins. She doesn't have time for herself, either," he said.

Farnan recalled the words of Susan Muto, a teacher of Catholic spirituality who had told the seminarians to think of themselves as spiritual reservoirs.

"You minister from the overflow. She warned us never to minister from our capital," he said.

Farewell to parish

A week later, Farnan was preparing to leave Our Lady of Fatima. He flew to see his sisters on Long Island, N.Y., and Nantucket, Mass.

On his return, Farnan ran in The Great Race, beating his brother, Tom, by 25 seconds. Then, he went to a Steelers game.

Our Lady of Fatima held a reception after his last Mass. His mother came and parishioners stayed for hours to talk with him.

Finally, Farnan crammed all of his belongings from the rectory into his mother's Toyota Corolla.

He hoped the parishioners would be able to adapt to life with one priest.

"It means they will have to change their ideas of what to expect in terms of priestly ministry. The presence of a priest will be cut in half. Other people will have to fill in, doing those things that are not reserved for priests alone.

"Father Dave will have to change the Mass schedule and people will have to be understanding," he said.

"Perhaps we take our parents for granted until they pass away. Then we feel the loss. This is one of those moments, where the abstraction about losses in the priesthood becomes reality."

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