Happy 661st birthday to you

Friday 19 December 2014 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — Late Advent Weekday

A few weeks ago, Father Frank Wallace turned 93 years of age. Father Peter John, due no doubt to the influence of our two resident greyhounds, Transit and Justin, has oddly begun to think in terms of dog years rather than human years. Father Peter claims to be 231 years old. These young priests! In dog years, that would make Father Wallace 661. Traditionalist that I am (as you well know, dear readers) I still count in human years.

Father Peter John and I made plans to observe Father Wallace’s birthday. Our first thought was to hire a caterer and gather a crowd for a big celebration. No. Father Wallace’s party days are gone. How about just us priests treating Father Wallace to a meal in some fancy restaurant? No. Restaurant noise impedes his hearing. He would be unable to participate in table conversation. How about a small group of catechism children singing happy birthday to him downstairs in the hall? Perfect. We made our plans. God laughed.

At the proper time, we managed to get Father Wallace (and even a cake) downstairs. The problem was there were no kids — school vacation. Father Wallace is sitting downstairs, alone in an empty hall. It will be his worse birthday ever. Something must be done.

At the conclusion of Holy Mass upstairs in the church, a spontaneous procession formed. Led by cross and candles, anyone so inclined (including children) proceeded reverently downstairs to sing “Happy Birthday.” Father Wallace was delighted. He had never before had a “Solemn High” birthday celebration. Father Wallace even brought out an old (very old) baby photograph to show how he has changed over the years. Some wag teased that Father Wallace was born bald and bald he still remains. 

There were lots of greeting cards for Father Wallace this year, but no gifts to speak of. There comes a point when gifts are redundant. The greyhounds, unfortunately, didn’t get the memo. One night, the two of them trotted sneakily down to the pet supply store. Justin and Transit knew that Father Wallace likes to read. They went directly to the book aisle. Yes, dear readers, newfangled pet stores have book aisles. They spied a book of stories about army dogs — the perfect gift for a retired U.S. Army colonel.

Father Wallace may no longer be able to participate in public ministry due to his advanced age, but that doesn’t stop him from one-on-one ministry. He may no longer be able to drive around town making house calls, but he has more rectory visitors than I do. Some are social visits, but many are pilgrims come to seek Spiritual direction and counselling. 

With the aging of the clergy, there are continuously increasing numbers of priests retiring from active ministry. We already have Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, retired and living in Rome, and we have Bishop George Coleman, retired Bishop of Fall River.

Retired priests are currently providing Mass and other ministries, especially in parishes here on the Cape. Without our retired priests, what would we poor pastors do?

Here at St. Patrick Church, we get by with a little help from our priest-friends. Two retired Boston priests lend us a helping hand – Fathers Steve Koen and Paul Phinn

Until very recently, we were also able to call upon Father Jack Andrews, retired priest of the Diocese of Fall River. Unfortunately for us, however, Father Jack needed to withdraw from assisting here due to pressing family responsibilities at home. 

There can be a tendency these days to value retired priests only for the work they can do. A person’s value, however, lies not in what they do but in who they are. Senior priests are a treasure of the Church because of who they are. Elder priests in retirement are not useful because a parish might be able to squeeze more work out of them, but rather because they have gained wisdom. They hold the memories of where the Church has been. We need to know where we have been in order to understand where we are now and where we are going. 

Some retired diocesan priests are able to live at home, frequently with family members. A handful are able to make arrangements to live in rectories with other priests. Others prefer to live in the diocesan-operated Cardinal Medeiros Residence in Fall River. Thank heavens for the foresight of former Bishop Sean O’Malley who created this independent living facility. 

Tonight, late in Advent, I sit in the darkened common room. The space is lit only by the crackling fireplace and the glow of the rectory Christmas tree. I remember Bethlehem and I remember my own Christmases past. Christmas, it seems to me, is all about remembering. 

What a gift it would be to the diocese if someone were to record the memories and stories of our retired priests. It would be the oral history of many, many, thousands of years (dog years that is).

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

© 2018 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing   †   Fall River, Massachusetts