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Jerry Costello

A Young Priest’s Challenging Parish Assignment

The headline over the article from a recent issue of Our Sunday Visitor caught my eye at once: “The difference one priest can make.”

                “The difference” indeed, I thought. A great headline. I looked back at some men I had known, and thought of the way that one priest can make a telling difference—in a life, an assignment…a parish. It takes a special dedication, true enough. But it can be done.

                It turned out that the priest in this article had made a difference, a huge difference, in his rural parish…so much so that he was named winner of the Lumen Christi Award of the Catholic Extension Society—a high honor, and certainly reason to read on.

                It turns out, too, that at 41, Father Fredy Angel was the youngest priest to have won the honor, which is given in rural dioceses to one priest “who demonstrates how the power of faith can transform lives and communities.” By the time I finished the article, written by Emily Stimpson, I decided that Extension could not have made a better choice. Read on and see if you don’t agree.

                Father Angel was from Colombia, where he had begun his priestly studies with the Salesians. He came to the U.S. as a seminarian for the Georgia Diocese of Savannah, with an ill-formed idea of becoming a missionary priest. The idea was still taking shape when he was ordained a diocesan priest in 2005, and he spent the next two years in a large Savannah parish, learning the ropes. 

                Then he was sent to Queen of Peace parish in Lakeland, Georgia, a central rural community with three mission churches. At first the young priest thought he had realized his dream at last, the dream of being a missionary pastor in a rural parish. But when he looked around he soon discovered that he had inherited a mess.

                “I’d been in mission parishes before,” Father Fredy said, “but this was really bad. The rectory was awful. The bathroom was full of mold. The parking lots were terrible, and everywhere you looked, every corner was filled with things—donations that people didn’t know what to do with. It felt like a garbage can.

                “For me,” he added, “it was shocking. I thought, ‘Really, this is going on in this country? It’s worse than Colombia.’ At first I thought maybe I did something wrong to get sent there.”

                The spiritual state of the parish was hardly better. The people who came were faithful Catholics, true; faithful in the middle of a Protestant stronghold. The problem was that not many came at all. The central church had a great many pews that remained empty, Sunday after Sunday.

                That was the point at which Father Fredy took stock of the situation, and discovered that he had two choices. He could wallow in his disappointment—the high hopes with which he’d greeted the assignment; the reality of learning what he’d gotten himself into. Or he could look at the whole thing as a challenge, and make the parish a better one. He decided, of course, to do the right thing. He’d have his dream after all. He knew he had to roll up his sleeves and get to work, he told himself—but where on earth to start?

                Next issue: a reversal of parish fortunes; how empty churches started hanging out the standing-room-only signs. 

 

For a free copy of the Christopher News Note STAYING POSITIVE AROUND NEGATIVE PEOPLE, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: mail@christophers.org