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Turn to Jesus (Article)

Fr John Williams on the Adventure of the Priesthood
Part 4 in a series on life as a priest.

John Williams, diocesan priest and RC member.
“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.

September 10, 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

Fr John 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 units.

“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.

As 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.

“We had 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 all.

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

Before his 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

There 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
John Williams at group dinner
Fr John is the pastor of the Church of the Epiphany in Cheshire, CT, in the Archdiocese of Hartford.
holding the monstrance with the Eucharist in the middle, and the people following behind. They were singing Eucharistic hymns as they hit the streets.

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.”

“When we 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. 

Jesus had gone out to meet his flock.

A living image of the Lord

But aside from the many tasks he does, Fr John observes that the priest is an image of the Lord himself.

“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.”

“To little children, the priest is the Church. That is why our responsibility to children is so important,” he says.

Nothing is impossible

And 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.

“The spiritual 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 the world.”

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 Hartford.

Next week: Fr Evaristo Sada, LC, on the mission of sharing God´s mercy.

To view a list of the articles in the series, click here.



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