|“Please pray for priests. We need your support and prayers to continue our mission to bring the Good News to the people of the world.”|
Part 4 in a series on priestly experiences and
insights, published on Thursdays in the Year for Priests.
2009. “Being a priest at this time in history is
an adventure,” says Fr John Williams, a diocesan priest
who is also a Regnum Christi member.
“People ask me
what it’s like to be a priest, and my response
is that it’s exciting and never dull. No two days
are the same.”
The many hats of the priesthood
is the pastor of the Church of the Epiphany in
Cheshire, CT, in the Archdiocese of Hartford. But the word
“pastor” does not totally sum up everything that his mission
calls him to be.
“In addition to being pastor, I
am the Director of Religious Education, security director, business manager,
a referee, peacemaker, and a host of other jobs common
to priests today,” he says.
When he gets up in the
morning, he never knows which hat he’ll be wearing most,
or what adventure will be waiting for him. But he
does know that he will be totally at the service
of his people.
“We are with the people and become part
of their extended families. They want us with them in
joy, at the birth of a child, a baptism, a
wedding… and in times of sorrow: health problems, unemployment, death,
and everything in between.”
Crises might arise at the last minute,
with a dying person needing the Anointing of the Sick,
or with a couple on the verge of divorce who
come to see him in a last-ditch effort to save
their marriage. People come to see him in the best
of times and in the worst of times. And he
has to be ready for everything, ready to console, guide,
counsel, teach, serve, and save.
“We are a lot like a
military chaplain that operates with a unit,” he says. As
a former law enforcement officer and NATO command member, Fr
John understands the analogy from personal experience.
A military man
in St Peter’s Square
In the late 1970s, Fr John’s NATO
command unit was stationed in Italy. He was working in
the Navy as a Petty Officer assigned to communications duties
that supported the U.S. Sixth Fleet and other NATO military
“It was a very tumultuous time,” recalls Fr John. “The
Red Brigade was very active and had kidnapped and later
murdered Aldo Moro, the Prime Minister of Italy.” There were
very real terrorist threats against NATO commands, personnel, and dependents.
“It was all part of a day’s duty,” he says.
a gesture of appreciation for their service, the Vatican invited
NATO commands to come to Rome to be part of
the installation of the newly elected Pope John Paul I
on August 26, 1978. Unfortunately, Fr John had duty that
day and could not go.
Just over a month went by
and church bells began to toll throughout Italy.
no idea what had happened, and learned subsequently that the
Pope had died,” says Fr John. Determined not to miss
the installation of Pope John Paul II, he traveled to
Rome with a friend and stopped by the USO (United
Service Organization) to see if any tickets were available for
military personnel. Since the death of John Paul I and
the election of John Paul II had happened unexpectedly, no
tickets had been foreseen.
So they went to St Peter’s Square
with everyone else. As they stood just outside the colonnades
at a police barricade, a group of Roman school children
were entering in. The children looked up at the two
military men and asked why they were not going in.
When they explained that they had no tickets, a teacher
offered them two extra tickets.
“So in we went,” says
Fr John. On that October day in 1978, as the
message of “Be not afraid!” rang out over St Peter’s
Square and across the world, he first began to think
that perhaps the priesthood was not such a stretch after
From one vocation of service to another, he made
the leap. Thirteen years later, on September 6, 1991, he
was ordained to the priesthood by His Excellency Peter Rosazza
in the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut.
Ministering to the marginalized
current assignment in Cheshire, Fr John was pastor of the
linked parishes of Saint Patrick and Saint Joseph in Waterbury,
Connecticut. The two urban parishes were a few blocks apart
in the Brooklyn neighborhood of the city.
Brooklyn in Waterbury
is much like its namesake in New York. It is
densely populated, and is often the home of new immigrants
and of poor people who live in tenements or in
dilapidated houses with several other families. Gunfire and drug dealing
are not unusual.
People in need usually ended up at the
rectory, and the parish staff and volunteers helped out as
much as they could. Sometimes that help meant giving food
to help people get through to the end of the
month. Other times it meant helping people fill out forms
that they could not understand. And often it meant listening,
accompanying, and being accessible to people who had no one
else to turn to.
“I commented more than once to our
secretary that our ministry was a lot like that of
Jesus who ministered to those marginalized by society: the sick,
the poor, the lepers, the tax collectors, and prostitutes… Their
modern counterparts were all part of our daily activity and
ministry,” he says.
Jesus goes out to meet his flock
are times when priests experience circumstances that reveal Jesus’ desire
to go out to meet the people who never come
to him… and his power to touch hearts even in
the midst of the urban jungle.
For Fr John, one
of those experiences took place on a Holy Thursday night
in Brooklyn while bringing the Eucharist in procession between his
linked parishes: St Patrick’s and St Joseph’s.
After the Last Supper
Mass at St Patrick’s, the procession began with the altar
servers in the lead, the choir behind them, Fr John
holding the monstrance with the Eucharist in the middle, and
the people following behind. They were singing Eucharistic hymns as
they hit the streets.
|Fr John is the pastor of the Church of the Epiphany in Cheshire, CT, in the Archdiocese of Hartford.|
Normally, Thursday nights in Brooklyn were a
preparation for the weekend, with the bars jumping and all
sorts of activity on the street. But this Thursday night
was dramatically different.
“The scene was unreal. People came out on
their porches in silence. Patrons came out of the bars
and stood on the sidewalk with great reverence,” says Fr
John. “The traffic was stopped, and like Moses crossing the
Red Sea we crossed main intersections with no difficulty.”
arrived at Saint Joseph´s and the candles were lit and
the Blessed Sacrament placed on the Altar of Repose, the
church was silent and quite full with people in adoration
of Our Lord. The normally noisy area of the city
was unusually calm. When adoration ended and people returned to
the parking lots, the aura of peace at least for
that night was very evident. The presence of the Lord
was alive and well in Brooklyn,” he says.
gone out to meet his flock.
A living image of the
But aside from the many tasks he does, Fr John
observes that the priest is an image of the Lord
“We bring Jesus into their lives sacramentally and personally.
Their relationship with us helps them to have a relationship
with the Lord. It is a great joy and responsibility.”
In a parish, a priest’s life is rich in human
interactions. Amidst all the busy days, it can be surprising
to discover what his priesthood means in the eyes of
his flock, especially the little ones.
“It’s very humbling when a
little child waves to you as you’re leaving Mass and
says, ‘Goodbye, God!’” says Fr John.
He explains that when
parents teach their children that the church is “God’s house,”
sometimes the children logically assume that the priest is God.
After all, he enters and departs with solemnity, wears long
robes, sits in the big chair up front, and plays
the principal role at Mass.
“I had a little one get
quite irate with the Bishop when he sat in the
main celebrant´s chair. To the child, that was Fr John´s
chair and no one else should sit in it.”
children, the priest is the Church. That is why our
responsibility to children is so important,” he says.
Nothing is impossible
that’s also why, for Fr John, prayer is so essential
to stay rooted in his identity as a priest, and
not to get lost in all the myriad tasks and
duties that crowd at his doorstep each day.
assistance of Regnum Christi helps me to keep my spiritual
life in balance so that the admonition to live my
mission from prayer does become my reality. The support of
the Legionaries of Christ community has been very helpful in
my own priesthood,” he said.
The example of priest saints
is also very important, with their shining testimony of faith,
courage, and closeness to their flocks.
“In this Year for
Priests, St. John Vianney is certainly a hero,” says Fr
John. “He did not have an easy road to the
priesthood or an easy priesthood. But his deep faith in
the Lord enabled him to do the impossible.” And that,
for Fr John, is a sign of hope.
“His example shows
us that for God nothing is impossible, even working through
fragile human beings like parish priests.”
“Please pray for priests,” he
adds. “We need your support and prayers to continue our
mission to bring the Good News to the people of
Fr John Williams was born in New Haven, CT.
He graduated from the Municipal Police Training Academy in 1971
and from the University Police Training Academy in 1974. In
August of 1985, he entered Holy Apostles College and Seminary
in Cromwell, CT, under the sponsorship of the Archdiocese of
Hartford. He graduated from the seminary in May of 1991
and was ordained several months later on September 6, 1991.
Fr John currently serves as pastor of the Church
of the Epiphany in Cheshire, CT, within the Archdiocese of
Next week: Fr Evaristo Sada, LC, on the mission of
sharing God´s mercy.
To view a list of the articles in the series,