I thank God that the first nine years of my priesthood was spent in a large, sprawling parish on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. There were 3,500 families at that time. An elementary school and a small all-girls high school. St. Mary of the Sea, Beverly, Mass. I can never forget it.
A Catholic parish is unique and filled with joy for a priest. In all my years as a bishop, nothing encouraged me more than being with a priest and his parishioners for Mass and Confessions, for the sacrament of Confirmation, or whatever the pastor organized. Even now in retirement, I have great joy in helping out some of our parish priests.
So, I was on my way south on a lovely late summer afternoon to offer a weekday 6 p.m. Mass for Father David Voors — as fine a parish priest as I have known. Father Dave was taking his mother on a drive through Michigan, and I was privileged to celebrate the 6 p.m. Mass so his people would have a Mass on that day. Drawing close to Decatur, the cell phone rang in my car. An anxious voice said, “Bishop D’Arcy is supposed to be at St. Mary’s for Mass and I am trying to reach him.”
“That’s me,” I said.
“Oh, Bishop, this is Deacon Jerry Kohrman and the people are waiting for you and some people want to go to Confession before Mass.”
“I am just passing Central Soya, Jerry, and I will be there in plenty of time.”
“Well, they want to go to Confession before Mass.”
“That’s not in the contract,” I mumbled to myself with a touch of mischievousness. “I will be glad to hear their Confessions after Mass.” So, I celebrated 6 p.m. Mass. As always in Decatur, there are more people at Mass than you expect. (Decatur is a place where people go to church, whether it be to one of the famous Penance Services in Advent or Lent when the church is full, or for Sunday or daily Mass.)
After Mass, and a short homily and Confessions, Bertie Shrader, a parishioner who initiated the emergency call, asked if I would go with her to visit a man who was dying. Of course, a priest must never hesitate after such an invitation. So Bertie rode with me.
“It is on your way home,” she said. “Don’t worry, I will get someone there to drive me back to the church. There will be plenty of people there.”
She was right. The home was just off Route 27, and there were cars everywhere. When I entered the home, there must have been 15 people there. Joseph Wilder was stretched out in the living room. Joseph and Ruth had nine children, and it seemed they were all there, along with their spouses and one grandchild.
“Bishop, it is incurable,” Joseph told me. I did what every priest would do — I prayed. I made Acts of Faith, Hope and Love with Joseph. We recited the Act of Contrition. The whole family said the prayers with me. I encouraged him, and he told me he was ready to go. Father David Voors had given him the Sacrament of the Sick, Holy Communion and the sacrament of Penance a few days earlier. A man dying with his wonderful wife, children and grandchildren all around him. A serious cancer that involves suffering. A retired bishop filling in as a parish priest.
As I returned alone to Fort Wayne, I gave thanks to God that I was a priest. I was reminded of a question that I posed once to Pope John Paul II at an ad limina visit. “Do you have a word for our priests when I return?”
He replied, “Tell your priests that the great day for the pope was not the day he was made a bishop and not the day he was made a pope, but the day he was ordained a priest and could say Mass for the people.”
So, for a few hours on a lovely summer evening, I was the parish priest at St. Mary of the Assumption, Decatur.
While this was an unusual experience for me since I left St. Mary’s, Beverly, Mass., a half century ago, events like that happen for a parish priest almost every day. When you see a priest who is happy and joyful, that is the reason. He can never doubt that his life has meaning. He is with people in their most important moments. It also reminded me of the words of Walker Percy, a favorite author of mine, who I met once at Notre Dame when he received the Laetare Medal. He said in an interview and later in a book he wrote, “My hero is the parish priest.” Mine too.
The next morning Deacon Kohrman called my office with the news that later that night Joseph Wilder had died. What a privilege to have ministered to him in his final hours and to help him prepare to meet Christ our Savior.
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