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In the spring of 1966 I was completing my third year at St. John’s Seminary when my pastor, Father Bill Morgan at St. John’s in Canton invited me and a number of classmates to come and work in the parish for a week. Father Morgan told us, “You need to learn what it is to be a parish priest. Come to St. John’s for a week. You can live in the basement of the church.” Little did we know what he had in store for us!
And so began an adventure that changed our lives. From 6:30 a.m. in the morning until 11 p.m. at night Father Morgan had us working in St. John Parish. We visited parish homes. We went to visit parishioners in the hospital. We cleaned up school classrooms. We went to wakes and funerals. We assisted at weddings. To be sure we were on time for daily Mass, he arranged for the 6:30 a.m. train to Boston, which passed right by the church, to give us a few toots of the horn to make sure we were all up and ready for Mass each morning! Each night we went to a different family’s home for dinner.
Father Morgan told us to listen to what people said and to ask questions about their family, their struggles, and their faith. He taught us the “care” principle: “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
By 9 p.m. each evening we had to be in Bill’s room. Then he began to question us: “What did you learn today? What did this person say to you? What does it mean? Why did this person say what he said? Can you describe that person’s faith? How do they believe in God?”
I remember one poignant moment when one of us spoke about being “embarrassed” that people had such attention and respect for us. Father Morgan stopped the conversation, “Do you understand how our Catholic people respect priests, even a lowly seminarian like you? If you only learn one lesson this week, learn this: Our people respect you, not because of you but rather they respect the priesthood of Christ and its central place in the life of the Church. You share this priesthood for a few decades. Do not take yourself too seriously.”
Father Morgan did not learn from books. He learned by conversation, questioning, listening to others. He challenged our learning in ways our professors never did. He was making us apply our learning to the Catholic people of St. John Parish.
That week was the beginning of our entrance into the priesthood of Jesus Christ as well as a lifelong friendship with Bill. Still today we look back on that week with fondness and gratefulness to Bill. One priest summed it up this way, “I wanted to be a priest, but after that week I knew I could be a priest. Bill taught me that I could do this!” That week of parish work put the studies, the testing, and the difficulties of seminary life into a larger perspective. We now knew where we were headed. The call of Christ to be a priest had taken flesh among us and we were not afraid of it anymore.
Msgr. Francis H. Kelley is the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Roslindale.