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ATTLEBORO -- Anna Rae-Kelly saw the Catholic priesthood becoming embattled as a result of the clergy abuse scandal that rocked the Church beginning in 2001.
Suffering from a decline in prestige and reputation among the general public, the priesthood frequently became the butt of jokes and the center of calls for change in longstanding traditions and practices including celibacy and an unmarried clergy.
That is why Rae-Kelly felt a call to action.
“If they are under attack, we don’t receive the Eucharist and the sacrament of reconciliation,” Rae-Kelly said. “After the abuse scandal, they were weakened and we were weakened as a result.”
She organized what has since come to be an international phenomenon called the Lay Fast for Priests.
“For some time, I had felt called to pray for the priests in America and all over the world,” Rae-Kelly said.
This year, the Lay Fast for Priests will be held on Oct. 24. The fast is to be observed until 3 p.m. that day, the hour when Christ died on the cross. Participants refrain not only from food but from anything else that is “significant” to them. For example, Rae-Kelly has known of people fasting from talking, television, or other aspects of everyday life.
At 3 p.m., the fast is broken with prayer. Past fasters have prayed in their own homes or held services in their parishes.
Some people who have expressed interest in fasting have told her they will pray a Divine Mercy Office in honor of priests. At the National Shrine of Our Lady of LaSalette in Attleboro, there will be a 3 p.m. closing service that will include the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, an international rosary in five languages representing the different continents in the world, and benediction.
“Then we go home and have something to eat,” she said.
International unity, for Rae-Kelly, illustrates the fast’s impact.
“All the people of God -- the Body of Christ -- are all fasting at the same time and praying for the same intention,” Rae-Kelly said. “That’s what gives it such power.”
When Rae-Kelly introduced this concept four years ago, she encountered her share of cynics who said it would not work; nonetheless the idea gained credence.
After obtaining permission from Bishop George Coleman, bishop of her home diocese of Fall River, she announced the fast at the La Salette shrine.
“I did a two-minute talk,” she recalled. “201 people signed up.”
At the closing service that year, she remembers a man arriving in his bare feet. The man had walked the nearly 8-mile trek from Pawtucket, R.I. as a sacrifice for priests.
“It was just moving and inspiring,” Rae-Kelly said.
Since that time, people have taken Rae-Kelly’s idea and brought it to their own parishes. It has won the blessing and approval of many, including Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley.
It has also gone global.
Last year, Rae-Kelly said, a lady arrived at the shrine dressed in traditional Korean clothing and is now organizing a fast in her native land. Last week, Rae-Kelly received an email from a woman in South Africa who translated the sign-up sheets into Zulu to bring the fast to her village.
Over the coming weeks, laity will be speaking at their parishes to promote the fast and enroll the parishioners. However, Rae-Kelly said, Catholics should not expect to hear about this from their parish priests.
“It shouldn’t be a priest who promotes the fast,” Rae-Kelly said. “This is our gift to them. If they promote the fast it’s like me asking a friend to take me out to dinner.”
For more information on the Lay Fast for Priests, visit Rae-Kelly’s website, www.annaprae.com