New vicar general speaks on background, hopes for future

Last April, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley announced that he had named Father Richard Erikson to be the next vicar general and moderator of the curia of the Archdiocese of Boston. He will begin that assignment June 19. Father Erikson spoke to The Pilot June 12. The following are excerpts of that interview.

Can you tell us about your background and what led you to the priesthood?

I grew up in Watertown and as a youngster I attended public schools. St. Luke’s in Belmont was my home parish and remains my father’s home parish. Growing up I was an altar server at St. Luke’s and I was in the CYO [Catholic Youth Organization]. During that time I began thinking about the priesthood. Father Leonard O’Malley was at our parish. A newly ordained priest, he was the head of the CYO. I talked to him about becoming a priest and he was very helpful with his example and his encouragement.

Then I went to St. Anselm’s College in Manchester, N.H., a Benedictine school, and entered more deeply into discernment. The monks at St. Anselm’s were very helpful in discerning God’s call.

Both at the end of high school and at the end of college, I decided it was not the time to go to the seminary. I worked in Massachusetts, in a government position for about a year-and-a-half and then I went to the seminary.

It was about two years into my seminary experience when I, basically, surrendered to God.

I did not feel worthy to be a priest. I could imagine myself well as a father and husband but I had trouble imagining myself as a priest. But after two years, in second theology, that’s really the time when I accepted God’s call in my life, and the Church affirmed that call. Two years later I was ordained.

Can you tell us about your experience as a military chaplain?

When I was a seminarian, I entered the chaplain candidate program for the Air Force and I did two summers of duty as chaplain candidate. One of the reasons I did that was because of the example of my father. My father served in the Navy in World War II. He taught me a love for country and the need to serve country. Also, it gave me the opportunity to travel a little bit, to have some diverse experience as a seminarian. I enjoyed that experience very much.

Military ministry, like many other ministries, is very specialized. It was an environment where there was a great need and I felt I could help meet that need. So, one year after I was ordained, I asked the archbishop if I could go into the reserves as a chaplain, and for 14 years I served as a reservist.

When I turned 40, I felt it was now or never for military service full time. Thankfully, the Archdiocese of Boston gave me that privilege. On June 30 I will be finishing seven years of active duty. I have enjoyed it thoroughly. I’ve been all over this world and have served in a variety of circumstances.

There is an enormous need for the sacraments in the military and for Catholic voices in leadership, particularly in the chaplain service.

In 2004, I was at the Chief of Chaplains office. A priest’s mother — a priest serving in Iraq — had a stroke and he needed to come home right away, so I volunteered to go and take his place so he could come home. I was in Balad, Iraq for 40 days. Balad is in the heart of the Sunni Triangle and a hotbed of activity. The insurgency there remains extremely strong and it is a very a dangerous place.

It was a great privilege to be there, and particularly offer the sacrament of the anointing to severely injured men and women — both military and civilian — who are serving there and to offer the Eucharist and confession. It was a very humbling experience to welcome our deceased, our fallen heroes, from the field and to send their bodies home. All of that was a great privilege.

How do you think that experience may help you in Boston?

As senior priest in the Air Force Chief of Chaplains Office, my primary responsibilities were to guide the chaplain ministry in the Air Force and to encourage and promote vocations to the priesthood and to support and encourage priests serving in the military. I think that if you look at my job as vicar general and moderator of the curia in Boston, those responsibilities are of utmost importance: to serve as an administrator for the archdiocese, to guide Catholic ministry with Cardinal Seán in Boston and to support and encourage our priests. My most recent position in the military, I feel, has been a wonderful preparation for this position.

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing you as the new vicar general?

The first challenge for me is to become reacquainted with the Archdiocese of Boston.

I’ve been re-engaging in the archdiocese since Cardinal Seán invited me to take this position. I have been back to Boston seven times. I was here for the Chrism Mass and for the ordinations. So, on a personal level, that is a big challenge: simply to come into a place where I haven’t been for seven years and try to be a leader in that place.

Certainly, I am very well aware of the great challenges in the diocese. In some ways, looking at the challenges, they seem at times almost overwhelming. But, I realize that the issues, problems and concerns in Boston are much greater than I am, and the strength of God that is the answer, is much greater than I am.

I was reflecting earlier today about a training session we had when I was newly ordained at St. Mary’s in Lynn. We had some folks come in and talk about organizations. They said in organizations there are three modes of operation. There is crisis, there is maintenance and there is planning. My sense is that over the past few years the Archdiocese of Boston has been in crisis. When you are in crisis, even maintaining day-to-day life and operations is difficult, and certainly planning goes onto the backburner.

My hope and my prayer is that we are moving from crisis. I hope and pray that we have learned a lot through a very difficult time and that we can take those lessons to make the archdiocese stronger and to bring healing to people who are still desperately hurting. My hope is that we are moving out of the crisis phase of the past few years and toward a return to daily life, and then planning for the future.

If you look at what Cardinal Seán has done — particularly since he was elevated to cardinal — you can see a movement from the crisis we’ve been in to planning for the future. He has made some very bold and significant personnel changes and policy changes. I think of the financial transparency report, for example.

I guarantee you that Cardinal Seán and I have the best of hearts and intentions. What we need to do is to take our good hearts and our good intentions and to translate them into action. My hope is that— in the days, weeks and years to come — a return to the fullness of life in the archdiocese and planning for the future can happen.

The cardinal has recently held a novena to the Holy Spirit to atone for the sins of sexual abuse. How do you see your role as a healer in the context of the harm this problem has done in Boston?

First and always, our focus has to be on those who were abused. Everything else about the crisis is secondary. Our hearts go out to those who have been abused. Whatever the other fallout, the other consequences of priest abuse of children are, they are secondary to the needs of those who have been abused. I also would say that there are enormous secondary consequences as well. And we see them in the daily life of our parishes.

When I think of the sexual abuse crisis, I think of those who were hurt the most. I said earlier that I hope we have learned our lessons. There is no doubt that Church leaders made some terrible mistakes in responding to those who were abused. I hope and pray that we have learned from our mistakes and that we will do better.

The vicars general in recent years have all been bishops. What do you make of the fact that the cardinal has appointed a priest to the position at this time?

I know the cardinal wants me to devote my full attention to the administration of the diocese and of the curia. The previous vicars general have been auxiliary bishops, which has taken them away from that responsibility quite a bit. He [the cardinal] wants me to give my undivided time and energy to the ministry of vicar general.

There is a perceived divide between the central administration and the parishes. How are you planning to bridge the gap between the chancery and the Catholics in the pews?

The first people in the pews I will be reaching out to are the people of Holy Name, West Roxbury. That will be where I reside and that is where I will have the privilege of celebrating the sacraments. I will be living parish life at Holy Name in West Roxbury, which will be my home.

I have no chancery experience in my background. I am not a career Church person. My heart is in the parish. If I were given a choice of where to serve in the archdiocese, my choice would be to pastor a parish. Cardinal Seán has asked me to take on this ministry and I will do my best, but my heart is in the parish. I hope and pray that shows in the way we administer in the chancery.

There is a parallel here to my military career. I am just finishing two-and-a-half years at the Chief of Chaplains’ office. Chaplain Charles Baldwin is our Chief of Chaplains. He would say what matters most is what happens at the wing, meaning what happens at the base level. He would say, what we are doing at the Pentagon was completely unimportant compared to when an airman walks into a base chapel looking for help.

I want to bring that perspective to the chancery: Where people experience the Church is at the local parish level. That has to be our focus.

What’s one thing that you think people should know about you that they are not going to find in your official biography?

I would want the people of the archdiocese to know that I am coming home. This is my family. I feel that the Archdiocese of Boston sent me to the military and the Archdiocese of Boston has called me home.

To come home to this position of great responsibility and challenge has some concern, but I will tell you a moment when I felt, OK, now I know why I am doing this.

I participated in the Good Friday service at St. Luke’s in Belmont, my home parish. As I was giving out Communion during the service, watching the people come forward to receive Communion, I thought to myself: This is why I am coming home. Here are people who have experienced enormous pain and suffering. People tell me today, in Boston, that at times they are embarrassed to be Catholics.

Even though I have been in Iraq, in Guam, in Okinawa and around the world — I was never separated from my family. I was distant but I was not away. And it is the same with the archdiocese. I have come home frequently over the past seven years. I would like the people of the archdiocese to know that this is my home and you are my family.