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Spotlight Report


Becoming a priest in a time of turmoil

By Rich Barlow, Globe Staff, 8/24/2002

The demands of celibacy, heavy workloads, and a sexual abuse crisis that has shattered trust in the church: The tasks facing Catholic priests-in-training, always demanding, are even more daunting now. Mike Fitzpatrick is one of a dozen seminarians from the Diocese of Fall River who gathered recently in Wareham for the diocese's annual retreat. Fitzpatrick, 32, of Wrentham, entered Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Maryland three years ago and is to be ordained next spring.

Q. How and when did you realize you wanted to be a priest?

A. It is something I have always known I was supposed to be. I wound up going to St. John's Seminary college in Brighton. [But] it seemed more like destiny than I had any choice in the matter, and I was becoming uncomfortable with that. So I decided to take some time off to make sure I was making the choice out of freedom and felt mature enough to give myself in that kind of life commitment. ...

I worked in two group homes. The first one was working with juveniles in a residential treatment facility.... There were issues from sexual offenses to breaking and entering one too many times to murder charges. [Then I was] doing rehabilitative teaching for children recovering from traumatic brain injuries. Those jobs were incredibly important to my maturation, to know what talents I have and the general dynamics of human beings. That's definitely the hand of God. The experiences I've gleaned will make me better able to minister to his people ...

Q. What was your greatest hesitation about priesthood?

A. I would love to be a father. Not having children is painful. There are a couple of aspects of celibacy that are difficult; that's one of them. Not that I won't have the opportunity to be a father to many children - that's kind of the idea [of ministry]. But there is an element of sacrifice there. The church teaches that if you have the calling to the priesthood, the Lord will supply you with whatever support you need. ...

Q. Did the crisis over the sexual abuse scandal come up at your conference?

A. You'd really have to have your head in the sand not to mention it. One evening, we had an opportunity to share our feelings about it, from - well, frankly, anger at the men who have done this. Children are the most vulnerable members of any society. The betrayal of trust is horrible. That makes me angry, for the damage that's done to the victims. This has a direct effect on me. The potential fruitfulness of my ministry, particularly with children, has been mitigated even before I have one.

Q. Has the church's response to the crisis been adequate?

A. I find myself most dissatisfied with some of the comments made that are not pastoral; they're lawyer-speak. That said, they're being sued. You press have done a great service in bringing this to light. I can clearly see the hand of God. This is an opportunity for the church to open the windows and let some of this stuff out. The fact that it is a scandal really says something about the way men have run the church of God. That's where I'm more hurt and upset, and consequently hopeful, that this is going to lead us to more fully ministering to the people of God.

Q. Has seminary life changed because of the crisis?

A. At the Mount, I would say no. The Mount's formation program is highly refined.

Q. Maybe your approach could be a model - don't have folks go into seminary straight out of high school, but give them a few years to mature?

A. [That's] the pulse of the current dynamic. At the Mount last year, I was dead smack in the median age. Most guys are around 30.

Q. With so few men becoming priests, are you intimidated by the workload you'll face?

A. The workload is more daunting [because] society is very comfortable. If we're hungry, we go to the refrigerator and get what we want. It's difficult in this environment to feel like you need God. I hope to be a good homilist. But no matter how charismatic I am, people who don't want to hear what I have to say are going to just fold their ears over. The way we convert someone's heart is one person at a time. As a priest, I have to be Christ for all the people of God.

This story ran on page B2 of the Boston Globe on 8/24/2002.
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