What does it take, in the 21st century, to be a good and faithful priest? This question should force each one of us, laity and clergy, to stop and reflect on the current situation we face as Roman Catholic Christians. Is it at all possible that today, in our very midst, a single man might be able to help us to see the changing face of the Roman Catholic priesthood? As a product of Catholic schools, I have, over the years, seen a change in the role and also in the model of the priest, always retaining a certain respect and admiration for one who has given his life in service to God for God’s Holy People. I have been asked by The Pilot to compose this reflection as someone who has been nurtured by faithful religious of the Diocese of Fall River and one who has seen much change take place in the Church over the past 28 years of my own life. I compose this reflection having been personally transformed by the example of the new Archbishop of Boston, His Excellency, The Most Reverend, Seán Patrick O’Malley, OFM Cap.
I first came to meet Bishop Seán when I applied to begin my studies for the diocesan priesthood. After a lengthy admission process, Bishop Seán assigned me to study at St. John Seminary College located in Brighton. I remember the first time that I met Bishop Seán. I was, as one can imagine, so nervous. I felt as if I was standing in the presence of the Holy Father. I truly believe that Bishop Seán could sense my apprehension with regards to discussion. I had been asked to meet with him at the bishop’s office in Fall River. Those who know me, know that I am never at a loss for words. Just the contrary is true. I sat across from this man wondering what he was thinking about me as he looked at me and questioned me about my educational background, family and friends, and even interests. As I think back on that first interview, I view it as the first true test of stamina that I have ever undergone. Bishop Seán was kind, caring and compassionate during that first interview. Despite the countless meetings that he and I have had over the years, I still find myself always in awe when in his presence. It is nothing that he says or does; it is simply who he is. His gentle style and warm personality should automatically make one feel at ease, yet I never have been able to overcome the feeling of being mesmerized by his physical appearance, diction and sense of humor. He is frightfully blunt which makes Bishop Seán so amusing. I remember one seminary visit that he made to St. John’s early in the semester of my first year. Bishop Seán had telephoned the senior theologian to inform us that he would be in meetings in Boston during the day but would really enjoy taking the seminarians out to dinner. I remember the occasion as if it happened only yesterday. We met at Vinny Testa’s on Beacon Street at six o’clock in the evening. Bishop Seán informed us that he was famished so it was decided that we would have appetizers. He proceeded to glance over the menu and chose several items. Among them was one appetizer that as Bishop Seán ordered it, I winced. He had ordered fried calamari. At the time, one could consider my palate less than experienced. Just the thought of eating fried calamari was reprehensible. How could anyone possible want to eat squid? There is an unwritten, unofficial rule among seminarians; a rule that I quickly came to understand. First year seminarians do not speak unless spoken to first. Well, Bishop Seán had obviously seen my less than enthusiastic expression on my face and asked me if I had ever had tried fried calamari. I quickly responded in the negative but he reassured me that I would thoroughly enjoy it. I informed the bishop that I really did not have any interest but he quickly countered by saying that tonight would be the first time and he guaranteed me that I would like it. Well, the waiter came to the table carrying several items, among them, the one I least wanted: fried calamari. I took from each plate as it came around, a small piece of bruschetta, a stuffed mushroom, a piece of fried mozzarella and then it happened, the fried calamari were staring at me. Bishop Seán very gently told me to take some and so, hesitantly, I did. I ate every piece of food on my plate, everything except the fried calamari. Bishop Seán asked me why I had not yet tried it and so, at that moment, I knew my fate that evening was inevitable: I would be forced to try, for the very first time, fried calamari. I pierced the small fried piece of squid with my fork after having doused it with lemon juice and ate it. It wasn’t that bad. Actually, I had enjoyed my very first experience of eating calamari. By this point, everyone seated around the table was keenly aware of the pleasure that Bishop Seán was having watching a fastidious young man from Fall River eat squid for the very first time. I remember saying to Bishop Seán that my father always wanted me to try different things but I was always scared to broaden my horizons. Bishop Seán simply smiled and said, “Father always knows best.” I don’t know if Bishop Seán would even remember that evening, after all, he has met thousands of people since that night, all of whom I am most certain he has put at ease in a similar way.
Bishop Seán was truly instrumental in my own seminary career. The Code of Canon Law specifically points out that a diocesan ordinary must familiarize himself with the seminarians prior to their eventual diaconal and presbyteral ordinations. Therefore, he must become a part of their formation and a part of their lives. Bishop Seán faithfully and dutifully fulfilled his role as the primary shepherd of the Diocese of Fall River. He was present as a father is present to nurture and to help his seminarians grow in faith. Bishop Seán truly cared and still treasures his seminarians seeing in them the hope for tomorrow. As Bishop of Fall River, each and every summer, he would gather the seminarians of the diocese together for a convocation. He, of course, would speak but he also listened. Listening is one of his great gifts, a gift which is truly God-given and he used it wisely. Bishop Seán sought to understand each of his seminarians personally, a task for which he should be commended. He was always available and willing to help one in need whether it was simply listening or offering a bit of sound advice. Bishop Seán is a truly kind man, a good and holy priest who should be seen as a model and as a good example to any young man either contemplating a vocation to the priesthood or currently studying for the priesthood. His zeal for assuring that the needs of Christ’s faithful are met is evident by the ways in which he takes priestly formation seriously. Despite the current crisis in our Church, Bishop Seán has painstakingly insured that people are made aware of the great evil that has unfortunately taken place but also has reinsured us as followers of the Lord that “with Christ, all things are possible.” Indeed “all things are possible with Christ,” therefore, with his help and with the help of those who dispense his care and compassion, Bishop Seán will lead the Church “out of darkness into newness of light.”
Archbishop Seán O’Malley is a man of integrity and, as the chief shepherd of the Archdiocese of Boston, I implore you to pray for him. This humble Franciscan friar, who, in imitation of St. Francis of Assisi, renounced the world of pride and selfishness, in order to promote a greater good, namely the Gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ, has a truly daunting task ahead of him. St. Francis of Assisi heard the command of the Lord and listened, “Francis, rebuild my Church!” Archbishop O’Malley has heard the voice of the Lord and now, he arrives in Boston to restore faith, hope and love in an institution and in a local Church which has suffered greatly. In order to succeed in this new venture, the archbishop will need the constant support of those within the archdiocese, as well as the support of those beyond, in order to re-establish trust; trust in a God who has promised that He will never abandon His Holy People. He certainly has been missed in the Diocese of Fall River and we are thrilled that he has returned home.
Archbishop O’Malley is truly a father figure. He cares and loves his people as a father cares and loves his own children. I beg you, give him a chance. Father certainly knows best. It is my personal belief that with the constant support of the good people of the archdiocese, and with the collaboration of the clergy and lay minister’s who faithfully carry out the work of Jesus Christ, one day, and one day soon, the voice of the Lord will once again be heard and each member of the Body of Christ will resume the call to “go, therefore, and make disciples of nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Father Thibealut was ordained to the priesthood in 2001 by Archbishop O’Malley for service of the Church in Fall River. He is parochial vicar at Corpus Christi Parish in Sandwich.