Cardinal celebrates with 50th jubilarian priests at Regina Cleri

BOSTON -- It was only natural for Father Stephen Rock to enter the priesthood.

One of seven children born and raised in North Andover, he had many cousins who were priests and religious sisters. Joining them in the call to vocation, he was ordained in the Archdiocese of Boston in 1973. He had no idea what the next 50 years would have in store for him. He served as a chaplain in the U.S. Armed Forces for 22 years in 30 countries, primarily in Europe and East Asia.

"It was great," Father Rock, 76, told The Pilot, "because Pope Francis talks about having the smell of the sheep, and you're out there just like them. You're in the dirt, sleeping in tents. You're doing the priestly ministry in the middle of nowhere."

In 1999, Father Rock was on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. It was a long way from North Andover. After years of serving as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy, he was on his way to serve the Marines stationed in Okinawa. In the hangar, he was saying goodbye to some of the sailors.

"I had a group of sailors standing there, and I gave them a hard time. The Irish thing, the Irish Boston thing," Father Rock recalled. "And there was one kid who stood up, saluted."

"Sit down, don't worry about it," the other sailors told him.

The sailor who saluted stood up, walked to Father Rock's side and said: "Let me tell you about this chap. I came to his office with a crisis in my life two years ago. So, when I saw his rank of his insignia, I got nervous. He couldn't take it off fast enough to show me the cross. Because that's the type of person he is."

Recently, Father Rock heard from someone he served 25 years ago, thanking him for saving his marriage.

"It doesn't matter whether you're in a parish or overseas or on a ship somewhere or with the Marines in the field," Father Rock said. "You're still Christ's presence there."

Father Rock and 10 other priests celebrated their 50th jubilee year at a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley at Regina Cleri on June 6. The other priests honored at the Mass were Father Joseph Baggetta; Father Kevin Deeley; Msgr. William Fay; Capuchin Father Antonio Fidalgo de Barros; Father Charles Hughes; Jesuit Father Frank Herrmann; Father Brian Manning; Father Leonard O'Malley; Father Jack Sullivan; and Father Jack Tackney. Together, they represented 500 years of priestly ministry.

In his homily, Cardinal O'Malley gave a special shout-out to the religious jubilarians, particularly Father Fidalgo, who has spent the last three years serving the Cape Verdean community at St. Patrick Parish in Roxbury.

"I feel a need to give God thanks this whole year," said Father Fidalgo, speaking in Portuguese and translated by Father Sean Hurley of the Franciscans of Primitive Observance. "Even though there have been difficulties and challenges, I feel that the Lord has never let me go. He has held my hand the whole way."

Father Fidalgo was inspired to become a priest by the Capuchin missionaries he saw as a boy in Cape Verde. When he was 11 years old, he accompanied a Capuchin priest to the bedside of a sick person.

"Would you like to be a priest like me?" The Capuchin asked him.

That "planted the seed" for his vocation, he said.

He entered a diocesan seminary before he realized his calling to be a Capuchin priest. In 1979, he visited Boston for the first of many times to see family members who had moved there. It was his first time seeing the sheer size of Boston's Cape Verdean community and the challenges they faced: getting steady jobs, finding housing, learning English, and integrating into society while keeping their community intact.

"It was a wonderful experience," he said, "but the immigrants at that time lived with many difficulties that they don't have today."

Coming to Boston, Father Fidalgo had to adapt to a new language and a faster pace of life.

"I have loved the ministry here," he said. "I've loved being able to accompany my people in facing the challenges and the opportunities."

Cardinal O'Malley opened his homily by giving an overview of the portrayal of priests on film. Over the decades, he said, the priest's Hollywood role has remained the same as his role in real life -- serving those marginalized and rejected by the rest of society.

"The basis for all ministry is a deep and abiding love for Christ," Cardinal O'Malley said. "Friendship cultivated by prayer, sacraments, works of mercy... So often, the priest represents Christ's loving presence in very important moments in a person's life -- in a marriage, the birth of a child, a funeral, a graduation, and especially in moments of crisis."

When Cardinal O'Malley was a young boy, around Easter his family received news that a plane his father was in had crashed. The cardinal's father survived, but at the time, his fate was unknown. The cardinal teared up slightly as he remembered that his pastor, Father Larry O'Connell, was the first to ring the O'Malley family's doorbell.

"He came to pray with us, to hug us, and be with us in that great moment of fear," the cardinal remembered.

A few years later, the cardinal's father lost his job, leaving the family on the brink of financial ruin. Father O'Connell was once again the first to comfort the family.

"At your ordination, you were anointed with the oil of gladness," the cardinal told the jubilarians, "and your ministry has been about spreading that oil in the Body of Christ."

Cardinal O'Malley, who was ordained in 1970, told the jubilarians that he could relate to their experience living through the radical changes brought by the Second Vatican Council, controversies over abortion and birth control, the Vietnam War, the Boston busing crisis, and the Civil Rights Movement.

"The young priests today see your pictures in those birettas and think 'Their life was a walk in the park,'" the cardinal said. "We know that's not true. All of the social and political upheavals, followed by the sex abuse crisis and reconfiguration . . . It's not been a walk in the park. You guys are my heroes."

However, Cardinal O'Malley noted, young people who feel called to the priesthood today do not receive as much support from their family, friends, and communities as the jubilarians did in their time. But, he said, "it was impossible not to feel the energy and the joy" at this year's presbyteral ordination.

"The priesthood brings such joy to the Catholic Church," Cardinal O'Malley said. "Today, despite all the differences in the Church and society over 50 years, the Catholic people rejoice at an ordination. It's a sign of hope and assurance that Christ is with us and the sacraments will continue to be available."

The cardinal pointed out that the ordination Class of 2024 is a more diverse group than the jubilarians, representing a larger demographic shift within the archdiocese.

"I urge all of us to look for opportunities to be bridge builders in a growing immigrant church," he said. "Thank you, jubilarians, for your witness and for all your solidarity and fraternity here and in the greater presbyterate."