Both of my parents were in the union. My dad was an elevator mechanic, my mom was a teacher, and they raised my brother and me in Parma, Ohio – a blue-collar, first-ring suburb of Cleveland. In 2003 I was ordained a priest and my bishop decided to send me to one of the wealthiest parishes in the diocese, St. Mary’s in Hudson. It sounded like a joke, as Hudson’s collar couldn’t have been any whiter. But out of obedience I went.
At St. Mary’s I did all the things that parish priests do – I offered Mass, heard confessions, visited the sick, buried the dead, taught, preached, worked on annulments, prepared couples for marriage, witnessed wedding vows, jumped rope with kids at recess, baptized babies, and sorted the parish mail. But perhaps my very favorite thing about being a new priest was ministering to the young people of the parish. Life Teen was already in its tenth year when I arrived and the pastor had recently hired an excellent youth minister named “Ron,” so all I had to do was jump in.
Ron and I had different gifts, but our gifts were complementary. He threw the nets wide and I threw them deep. He would make sure we got about two hundred teens to make the Spring Retreat, and I would hand-select twelve of those young people to make a Poustinia. (A Poustinia is a twenty-four hour retreat where you basically lock yourself in a room with a bible, crucifix, icon, journal, pen, bread, and water.) Ron would host fantastic Life Nights for our young people (and he’d often have me offer the catechesis), but later that night, after the majority of the teens went home, there would be a small group of faithful young friends who stuck around to pray Night Prayer with their priest in the Blessed Sacrament chapel. In time, praying Night Prayer became our nightly routine. I affectionately refer to that small group of disciples from my first parish as my “young friends,” and I’ve been thinking a lot about them lately.
There are two very interesting things about my young friends that I only noticed a few years after I left the parish. First, none of the young men I befriended and mentored had an older brother. I won’t list all their names here, but I can think of at least ten of them off the top of my head – two are now priests, and a few more will be priests very shortly, four of them are married, a few of them want to be married, and a couple of them need your prayers. But none of them had an older brother. And guess what? I didn’t have a younger brother. I don’t know how all that works out other than saying that, as much as I was a father to them as their parish priest, since we were only a decade or so apart in age, I became their older brother too. Second, all the young women whom I intentionally befriended from our little Night Prayer community had good dads who were married to their moms. There was something palpable about these young women that let me know that all they needed from me and wanted from me was to be their priest-friend, and that made being their priest-friend easy.
One of the greatest joys of being a priest so far has been witnessing my young friends answer their vocations. In the last two years I’ve watched Ryan C. and Ryan M. literally lay down their lives on the cold marble floor of St. John’s Cathedral and be ordained priests for the Diocese of Cleveland. God willing, in the next two years I’ll get to witness two more young friends do the same. But I’ve also been able to see four young friends – Alison, Elizabeth, Claire and Brad – enter into the vocation of marriage, and I’ve been honored to witness their wedding vows. Alison (whom I still call Alie since she still calls me “FD”) married Taylor back in 2009, and they have three boys: Teague Damian, Finnian Jude, and Pax John Paul. Elizabeth (whom everyone else calls “Bitsy,” but likes that I call her Elizabeth) married Zepherin in 2011, and they have two boys: Finnian Leonidas and Maximilian Thomas. Claire (whom I still call “Claire Bear”) married Patrick in 2012 and named their firstborn “James Lucas.” And Brad, whom I was honored to bring into the church at the 2007 Easter Vigil, married Bess (her baptismal name is Elizabeth) in 2013 and named their daughter “Frances Flannery” – Brad and Bess met Pope Francis on their honeymoon and they are both fans of Flannery O’Connor.
In the past week or so I’ve been reflecting deeply on how tough, Catholic, and cool those fours moms are – Alison, Elizabeth, Claire and Bess. First, all four of them married young, dropping their nets when they heard the Lord’s call. Second, they all married good men, but they only moved in with them after they married them. It practically goes without saying that they know the value of chastity before and within marriage. Third, they’ve all somehow become more of themselves since they’ve been married, and especially since they’ve had children. There’s a very healthy confidence and strength that I’ve witnessed in these four women, even a few hours after they’ve given birth, that has blessed me. Fourth, they’ve all figured out how to be the best wife and mother to their family at this given time – two stay at home, and two of them continue working. Fifth, all four moms have become models for siblings, friends, parishioners, and even strangers, showing what the vocation of marriage and motherhood look like according to the Catholic worldview. Sixth, they are beautiful women, inside and out. They tend to their spiritual lives and their physical lives, making Catholic motherhood look cool. It’s human flourishing at its best.
One of the best things about being a priest is probably one of the best things about being a parent – watching your kids do better than yourself. That’s been my story lately. As my young friends are growing up and into Catholic adulthood, I’ve been finding inspiration in ways that I’ve never found before. And I don’t imagine it’ll stop anytime soon, as there are more ordinations and weddings in the near future. Of course, I’ve also got a few stray sheep that I pray for daily, by name. But I trust that Jesus was telling the truth when he said that “I should not lose even one of all those he has given me.” After all, he’s the Good Shepherd, and I’m just one of the help.