The gift of our priests

At that point in my life when it was time to think about high school, my mother suggested that I apply to Matignon, one of our archdiocesan schools. Two of my older brothers were already there, and enjoying it, and so I followed them. I recall that I was not too sure how this French name was pronounced but, like any other 14 year old, I didn't see that as a big problem. In the course of my fine education, however, I came to know that the school had been named for Father Francis Matignon. I learned how to pronounce his name and, most importantly, his great importance to the early history of the Archdiocese of Boston.

He was a learned and educated priest in France during the 18th century, with a university appointment, who left his country in the midst of the persecutions of the French revolution and landed in Boston. He was eventually joined by his student, Father Jean-Louis Cheverus, who would later become the first bishop of Boston. They labored together to serve the small Catholic population of Boston and throughout New England. The territory was huge but they worked hard in an area still hostile to Catholics, to build the Church and bring the Catholic community together. At the time of his death Father Matignon was praised for his efforts in strengthening the faith life of the Church which had grown much larger due to immigration. It was really through his efforts and his encouragement to others, including Bishop Cheverus, that the work of the Church in Boston began. Father Matignon is rightly revered as the first diocesan priest in Boston.

Throughout the history of our archdiocese, we have been blessed with diocesan priests in the model of Father Matignon, all eager to spread the Gospel and bring the faithful of the Church closer to God and to each other. At times, in the history of our Church in Boston, that task has been challenging. In all the difficulties, however, whether in the years of Father Matignon, or in the 1850s when new immigration from the Catholic countries of Europe raised suspicion among the Yankee population, or during the civil rights unrest in the 1970s that divided communities, priests from the Archdiocese of Boston have generously and courageously worked to minister the Gospel to all the people of our area.

Certainly we would count among the most difficult periods the last ten years when we have been shocked by the revelations of the sexual abuse of minors by priests unfaithful to their vocations. Terrible crimes were committed. The lives of those who were victims of such abuse were damaged horribly. For our faithful priests this was a new kind of difficulty. This crisis did not come from outside, but from within their number. The sexual abuse crisis brought embarrassment, shame, and much questioning to the entire Catholic community but especially to our priests. At times priests found themselves and their ministry ridiculed. Simply wearing a Roman collar led some to become suspicious of them and they experienced people turning away because of a general lowering of trust in priests. They found themselves gravely disappointed by the horrendous actions of some of their brother priests. At times they were not sure what direction they should take.

As we look back now from a distance on the past decade, we can see how our priests responded. In their own grace-filled way, and despite their own pain, they continued to do what they were ordained to do. They offered Mass. They visited the sick. They incorporated new safety guidelines for the protection of children in their parishes. Often they saw the financial resources with which they had to administer the parish diminish, but they continued to preach and lead, and encourage their people. In sum, they continued to bring their priestly presence to the community, serving God's people as best they could and trusting in the Lord.

At this moment in our history, we give a new challenge to our priests. In a recent convocation of our priests, Cardinal Seán and the Archdiocesan Pastoral Planning Commission presented a proposal to them and asked for their input on the idea of serving all parishes through new groupings called Pastoral Service Teams (PSTs). The thrust of this new approach would be to enhance our evangelization and outreach activities through a greater sharing of resources and collaboration with nearby parishes. Understanding that this proposal, if implemented, would mean many changes and challenges, priests nevertheless responded thoughtfully and with openness to the initial draft. In the course of a meeting I was having with a group of them last week, one of our hardworking older priests, still pastor a few years after the age of 75, told the group he only regretted he was not younger so that he could be more fully engaged in integrating the new proposed model into the life of the Church.

There is no doubt that while the clergy sexual abuse crisis was, and remains, a real challenge to our priests, I am impressed with the generosity and good nature they continue to bring to their work. As Church we are a eucharistic communion. We depend on our priests for the holy sacraments which are so vital to our lives. In our archdiocese we are blessed by the ministry of these fine men. I ask you to pray for them, and seek out ways to help them in their ministry. And please pray and work to encourage vocations to the priesthood. Our future as Church depends on our ability to help young men answer the call that the Lord gives to them to serve God's people as priests in our Archdiocese of Boston, continuing in the footsteps of Father Francis Matignon.

Msgr. Deeley is vicar general and moderator of the curia of the Archdiocese of Boston.