As days dwindled, priest let his life be his lesson

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / July 14, 2010

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Tucked into the benches at the Parish of the Incarnation of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on the last Sunday in June was a letter written by the Rev. James A. Field. Diagnosed two years earlier with pancreatic cancer, he had news to share in Melrose that day.

“Under my promise to always tell you the truth, I have discontinued chemo and other treatments,’’ he wrote, adding, “I’m beyond the place where chemo can help me. I have come home to die. I am near the end of my journey.’’

Father Field, who had stood in the pulpit month after month, performing pastoral duties through intense pain, sat in a wheelchair on June 27. Speaking into a microphone, he asked if anyone had questions. There were none. Instead, the parishioners took their turn to stand. They began to clap, their applause echoing through the church for minute after minute, as if to prolong his time with them.

A masterful teacher who deftly discovered new insights in familiar Gospel passages, Father Field spent the past two years using his own life as a lesson in how to let life shine in the shadow of death. “I am in a place of great peace and gratitude,’’ he wrote. Father Field, who lived in the church rectory, died Monday. He was 59 and had celebrated his 20th anniversary as an ordained priest last month.

“He taught us all how a Christian should face death: with hope and trust in the mercy and love of God,’’ Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley said in a statement yesterday. “Today we join his parishioners in mourning his passing and we give thanks to God for his life. We pray for the repose of his soul and we celebrate the enormous and positive impact he had on our Church and our faith.’’

For the past eight years, Father Field was pastor of Incarnation Church, where he last attended Mass on July 4. Concerned about how his death would affect the youngest parishioners, some of whom never had a pastor other than him, he consulted with parents and called the children forward that Sunday for a final lesson.

“He talked with them about dying and how he wasn’t afraid and how he was kind of excited because he had never met his grandfather, and he was a golf pro, so that maybe when he got to heaven, his grandfather would teach him how to play golf,’’ said Linda Swett, Father Field’s pastoral associate at Incarnation Church. “That was the teacher in him. He was always finding these moments here, there, and everywhere, and we all benefited from it.’’

Before becoming pastor in Melrose, he directed the Archdiocese of Boston’s office for worship, and previously was parochial vicar at Gate of Heaven Church in South Boston. He also had been parochial vicar at St. Paul Church in Cambridge, which is known for its musical offerings, though Father Field often sensed a more powerful melody in voices raised in prayer.

“There was an artfulness to the way he celebrated the liturgy, to the preparations he made for the church praying together,’’ said Michael J. Cedrone, an associate professor for legal research and writing at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., who attended St. Paul Church in the early 1990s. “He was a wonderful preacher, but he also had an artistic eye for the way people should come together in prayer. To me, in many ways, helping the church pray was his life’s work.’’

Born in Salem, Father Field grew up in Marblehead as the oldest of three sons. He graduated from the Xaverian-run St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury, and received a bachelor’s degree in 1974 from Salem State College.

He became a Xaverian brother and taught in Connecticut and at Malden Catholic High School. Father Field graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1979 with a master’s in liturgy and later entered the Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, where he finished his studies in 1990, the year he was ordained at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston.

Although he was only 59, Father Field was the last of his siblings. His middle brother John Gerard, who was known as Gerry, had died, and Father Field said the funeral Mass in April after the death of his youngest brother, Martin.

“At my husband’s Mass, as Jim was speaking, he remembered when Marty was brought home from the hospital,’’ said his sister-in-law, Maura Field of Marblehead. “He saw the little baby there, and he went over at 8 years old and blessed his brother.’’

Despite his own illness, Father Field was worried about how his sister-in-law would fare.

“He wanted to make sure I was taken care of and he brought so many people into my life in the past couple of weeks,’’ she said. “I so hold onto all the fond memories of Jimmy. God brought him into my life, and it’s just been wonderful.’’

In his final two years, Father Field lived intensely. He traveled to Florida and Hawaii, and in May he joined a group from church on a vacation in Italy.

“He was always optimistic,’’ Swett said. “He always saw the best in something. Even when he got this diagnosis, he used to say to me, ‘It’ll be good. I’m going to travel and live my life every day.’ ’’

In his final letter to parishioners, Father Field wrote, “The last eight years have been the happiest season of a happy life.’’

O’Malley will preside at a funeral Mass at 11 a.m. Friday in Incarnation Church. Burial will be in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Salem.

Contemplating the finality of his diagnosis, Father Field told the Globe a little more than a year ago that “it’s just part of the daily life of a priest that death is never far away. I recognize now that, very often, the dying are teaching me.’’

While he said his illness provided “a teachable moment’’ for parishioners, it also helped him live a lesson he had taught, and learned, over and over.

“I believe we go into the hands of the God who loves us, and what’s next, we just can’t imagine how wonderful it must be,’’ he said in the interview. “This is a time when you have to figure out — do you believe this or not. You’ve been saying this your whole life. Is this really the truth or not? And, so far, it feels like the truth.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at

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