Father John Murray
Pastor, St. Bernard's Church

Age 66

Interviewed June 28, 2001

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.

Concord's Faith Community

Father John MurrayI became a priest because I wanted to help people, and I thought this was the best way I could do that. There are other ways to help people but for me the spiritual dimension was the important one and the last one. No matter how great the medical doctor might be the person is still going to die, but the soul is forever. What I can do from that standpoint is for eternity, and to me it was the best way I could help people.

My family never mentioned being a priest to me. When I kind of thought this through and went to Boston College High School where I was taught by priests and thought a lot about that religious thinking, I began to decide more and more that this was the thing for me. When I told my family that, they said we always knew that but we wanted you to say it first. They didn't push it, but they supported it and society supported priests in those days. It was an honor in those days for someone to be a priest, not only for the family, but in the neighborhood. I found out that a neighbor used to call her kids to the window to say, "See that boy," as I would be walking by going to my job, "he's going to be a priest." They were very supportive. Unfortunately now, it is not supported.

It was very much a part of my family's values. I had an aunt who was a nun. My father really, really struggled with the decision whether to go forth being the priest that he wanted to be. He met my mother and he really wrestled as to what he really wanted to do, and finally decided he wanted to marry her. And they say these things always come out in another generation. My father was going to be a priest until he met my mother, and my grandmother was going to be a nun until she met my grandfather, and her daughter became a nun.

There is such a difference in being a believer. People tell priests things they don't tell anybody else. I'm often at the bedside or at the home of some person who has had some terrible setback or tragedy. If they are believers, they have that hope, that vision, that they are going to go to God and everything is going to be wonderful in the next life. Whereas if they're not, there's just this desperate panic. We see things when people are geared in their life for the spiritual things, they've got the message, then all the material things tend to be unimportant, but when people put all their hopes in the material things, they are panicked. If they are building up the spiritual things, not spending every nickel they get their hands on, looking to the future and taking care of their souls then these things are what get them through it.

Catholicism is very much a religion of salvation. No matter how terrible a person's past life may have been, the wonderful news or good news is salvation is there for anybody who asks for it. There are people who hold off and return to the church and think their life has been so fouled up spiritually that even God can't forgive them. My role is to find those people and get them in the frame of mind where they are willing to let go of the things that frighten them and to go back to God. And the one thing I can do is to absolve them. One of the Catholic sacraments is to absolve a person no matter what their sins may be. If they are sorry for their sins, I can absolve them and take all the sins away in God's name. It's part of what the powerful is all about. That is exactly what I mean by really being able to help people. I can do that, but nobody else can do that who is not a priest. I love doing that kind of work.

Easter is a time of salvation. We celebrate the Holy Week in which we celebrate Holy Thursday. We say that is when the holy eucharist or communion was first instituted and also the first priests, the apostles. Good Friday we go through the suffering of the Lord's own passion and death, but Saturday comes along with this whole new life as he is risen from the dead and that whole emphasis is on that wonderful aspect. We don't use or sing the word halleluah at all through the whole Lenten period. That word is not in the liturgy. Then that first day it comes out and it is a wonderful celebration, halleluah proclaiming the risen Lord. It's a wonderful time to be around. These services are not very long but very participatory. Those who come to these services are just here because they believe it and they really want to be a part of it. They get swept up in all the liturgy. I'm happy to say every year more and more people come. It's a time when people have other things going on in their lives and they choose to do this.

The service starts off in total darkness and then gradually we light things. I carry down a large candle called the passover candle that has the year on it. From that candle each individual has a taper, and they light their taper from that candle and then the whole church is aglow of light, of candle light, while this beautiful prayer is sung called the Exulta. It exults the candle and what that stands for. During the ceremony all the lights are put on as well that just keeps adding to the light as we have the whole place blazing in light. We sing the Gloria, Glory to God in the Highest. People bring their own bells and ring them during the ceremony. We have the chimes on the organ and all that, so it's a big thing and they all get involved in that. There is a lot of enthusiasm taking place then.

The Catholic Church teaches that the body and blood of Jesus Christ is truly present under the occurrence of the bread and wine. Other religions have this as a reminder of the Last Supper, some of them emphasize the disassociate of the loving family gathering, but only the Catholic Church teaches that we say this is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, not a reminder, not a suggestion, not a hint, but it is that under the occurrence of bread and wine. People are invited to come forward to receive the eucharist and they are receiving the body and blood of Christ in their hearts and souls because he said so. They carry from the church service that truth, which is spread from the Lord to the world. It is a great sense of sadness when a person feels as though he or she shouldn't receive communion or hasn't received communion and they don't want to reconcile that even though it causes much pain. My job is help them work these things through so they do come back.

Faith is a gift. I think I met one person in all my years as a priest, which is 40 years now, whom I instructed to be a Catholic and decided not to be a Catholic. I'll teach them what the church teaches and then at the end of that teaching, if they want to accept it and become a Catholic, that's fine. Everyone I have had has become a Catholic but one person who sat back and said "I'll have to think about this some more." In the following weeks he still didn't know and then said he just didn't believe in that. I've met other people like that in my life. There was a next door neighbor of ours, a wonderful man, but an atheist. And he would say, "God bless you and believe what you believe, but I just do not believe this." There was a time in my life when I thought if I present enough information to you, you will say oh, I've got it. But it really isn't. You can present the information of so called proof of God's existence and the reasons why he really does exist, but that's requires a step in faith to say well, therefore, because of all of that, I believe. Those who don't have the gift in faith, don't believe. Some will say I don't know if I believe or not. Well, I say pray about it, pray that you will come to that. Ninety-nine out of one hundred will come around.

The Virgin Mary is not only the mother of Jesus Christ the human being but the mother of God. That was an issue that was debated at great length in the early councils of the Church. When I say councils, I'm not referring to the Second Vatican Council as that is the most recent one, but there have been many, many councils over the years, and there have been real donnybrooks and battles over these questions. The Church has been very clear on that she is not only the mother of the human being Jesus Christ but the mother of God as well. Therefore we say of her that many graces come through her and many people pray to her to ask her to speak to her son on their behalf. She is one from whom all graces come. So she is a very, very important part of the Catholic faith.

I'm sorry to say that there was a store right in Concord a few years ago which displayed various candles and they were all blasphemous attacks on the blessed Virgin Mary. They used the Blessed Virgin Mary to account for mood swings and things I don't want to repeat in public that were really crude. You would light these candles and pray to the Virgin Mary to overcome these things. Well, I got wind of it. I went to the owner and I said this is a terrible assault on something that is very precious in our faith. She felt this was just human life. I told her this was not a funny thing. There was a whole gang from the church who were going to come en mass and say you just can't do that. So before all that came about, she had the good sense to take the display down. While we Catholics try to keep low key, we don't like demonstrating and carrying on, but if our faith is attacked you must speak up.

The rosary in which we continually repeat the Hail Mary to Mary for her intervention is a big part of our belief. We say the rosary every day in our church after mass. And we have a statue of the Virgin Mary in back of the church. We are accused of idolatry sometimes because we stress things like statues and holy pictures, but they are nothing more than representatives of the ones that we're thinking about just like you would have a picture of a deceased relative at home or somebody you wanted to keep in your mind around the house. And if there is a fire or something, what is the greatest loss? You lose all the keepsakes. We have these statues to remind us of all these people in our lives.

Catholics in Concord are 40% of the population. Everybody else added together is 60%. And it happens that the principal of the high school and the principals of all the grammar schools as well, town manager, police chief, fire chief are all Catholic. I think it has kind of dawned on people that we are here to stay and that we are conscious of contributing to the good of the society of the town. I'm always urging people to vote which is part of their responsibilities. I know in the old high school days we spoke in Latin, dei patriae, "for God and country." We always stressed this. You are citizens, you owe things to the country in which you live but to God first. We try to instill that to our people, to act in such a way that your life reflects what you believe. Some people foolishly say keep religion in church. When that's over, then get out there and deal with the real world. We say what you believe about your faith should influence or control what your actions are. You believe something that is true then you act accordingly. You don't just put it into a little pocket and not have that affect your life. So that's all part of what we try to get across.

The original structure that is now St. Bernard's Church was built in 1840. The Catholic Church bought it in 1863. We've been building on and enlarging it since then. Before that time, believe it or not, the mass was celebrated in the Town House. The Irish went to church there and it got to be an embarrassment because they wound up overflowing out on the green here because they couldn't get them all in. So something had to be done to make room for these people who were coming forth and proclaiming their faith. Before we had the church here, the Catholics walked to Waltham to St. Mary's Church and thought nothing of it. If the priest would happen to come from Waltham out here, he'd find someone's house to say mass in.

In my own family, my mother's family were protestants from Nova Scotia and nobody married a Catholic. You know in those days you lived in the farmhouse, you just kept adding wings for the next generation. Well that didn't go over very well at all that she married a Catholic. Every time anyone came to visit she was not allowed to sit with them. She was okay if no one was there but if a neighbor came to visit, she was not allowed to sit with the family. Every year she would walk 10 miles to church and if they had any children during that year, take that child with her to be baptized, and introduce them to the faith. They thought she was crazy, but they all did admire her a lot for doing that. She had very strong faith.

We happily have a portrait of St. Bernard. We came across that by accident. Of course, there were no cameras back in the 12th century. But he agreed to sit for a portrait and we discovered that in a book at a seminary library. In doing research on it, we were able to get somebody in Germany to copy that picture and it's a very good likeness of St. Bernard. We had the grand unveiling. He was a monk, and he did a lot of writing and teaching. We're happy to have the picture. People will often mispronounce his name and call it St. Ber'nard. We're always correcting saying St. Ber'nard is a dog, St. Bernard' is a person.

Our membership has been increasing. People move into town and we know they're out there. Sometimes they don't sign up and then something comes up like a baby and they want to baptize the baby and we kind of catch them then. So we know there are more out there than are actually registered. In our bulletin every week we're welcoming some new family. We have about 1000 families in our membership. It comes and goes but that is a round figure.

It is true not only here but everywhere where we have people who come and want to pick and choose what they want from the faith. We call them cafeteria Catholics. Here we go to the education again and the wealth. If there is a down side to democracy, this is the down side -- I want to decide what I want to do, you're not going to tell me -- if enough people vote for a particular thing, then we're going to get it through. So there are those who will pick and choose what they will believe. The big hot button issues are abortion, women priests, and married clergy. People will say I believe we should have these things and therefore if I believe it then I'm going to tell the church to change. They're not going to change abortion because we have a great respect for life. But if it changes thinking about women priests or married priests then fine, but as I tell people we can't choose that. There can be other things as well. A person not living in a moral way. "I'm justified in doing this because I don't have a happy home life, and it's okay for me to have some person on the side who's not my spouse." Well, they can't. People are inclined to do that sometimes with an arrogance that says look you can't tell me what to do.

People will say go find the alienated. Well, how do we find them? And then we have to get to a situation where they can hear us. It's not going to be in church if they don't go to church. Finding these people who are out there hurting in some cases, angry in other cases, how do we locate them and get them back to the church? I have people who are very staunch Catholic who used to be part of other religions who in their wildest dreams never thought they would ever become baptized let alone as a Catholic. Then things came together and they came for instructions, and the converts are some of the strongest ones because they come to the faith as an adult. Some of my best helpers here are people who have become Catholic from other religions. We also have Catholics who have left our church and become part of another church, and we know that. The big surprise to me is if people get angry enough, they will not only switch churches but switch religions. To me that is unthinkable. But they will do it. "I'll show you," and off they go. I really feel we are the religion established by Jesus Christ and anything less is less, it's not fact.

I have been at St. Bernard's for ten years. The good part about this is that after a while you get to know people by their first names and a family connection. Regularly people are tooting their horns and waving going down the street. There is a real human interaction going on. That's why I always dress this way. When I'm in the parish, I dress in clerical clothes because the priesthood is not just a job, it's a way of life. It says things about what I believe, and I want to represent that by wearing things that call attention to the fact that there is another world out there other than the way you are living now. The black represents the depths of the world focusing on the future which is what we stress. By wearing that it gives people something to reflect on.

In a town that is growing in wealth it is a challenge to focus on values. Some people think that the value consists of how much money you make. I preach these things. If you heard a person saying to you oh, some relative of mine married a person with a very good job. Would that mean to you that that job made a lot of money? Probably would mean that to you. I would like to think that they were saying that very good job meant it was one in which he developed his talent, helped other people, be in a situation where good could be done, but chances are when a person says he has a very good job, they're talking about making a lot of money. That's how we identify what's worthwhile. So people go along in the cars they drive and the clothes they wear and the places they shop and the labels they display are all supposed to say pay attention to me. I'm a wealthy person, I deserve something better. It's not so humorous. On the radio right now there are several people talking about how they drive in Boston, the terrible driving conditions. One lady is saying "I drive a $80,000 vehicle and I own the road." Well, it is supposed to be funny, and it is, but it's not funny ha, ha, it's funny sad. That's the attitude some people have. To maintain a humble attitude despite your wealth is a trick. I know people who have done it. They are very wealthy and most generous to society and to the church and you'd never know by their actions or how they dress that they had lots and lots of money. They use it for very wonderful and charitable things. So it can be done. But the chances are it's not going to be there.

There has always been a very materialistic culture, the haves and the have nots. The ads are geared toward that. You hear things like what will you spend your money on? You have a television set, well get a newer one, a bigger one. People talk about redecorating your house now and that means throwing your furniture away. They want to convince you that you have to do that. People will advertise clothing and refer to it as the essentials. Essential means necessary. That's not something I might have or not have or could have or didn't have to have. These are the essentials, you must have, this color, this style, this label. Six months later that color will no longer be in. Throw those out and start again. It's a perpetual debt. What a terrible treadmill that is to be on. People are just in debt all their life. I'd go crazy that way. I'm happy to say even though I don't make a lot of money to be sure, I don't owe anybody anything. I live in a way that I make my money last. If something comes along that I need like a pair of shoes or something, I can get them. It's a very freeing thing to not be caught up in the material things.

The Catholic Church as an entity has the greatest social program anywhere next to the State of Massachusetts itself. Once you get past the state aid, the Catholic Church is right up there. We are so programmed to humility that we have kind of shot ourselves in the foot. We don't talk enough about what we do. There are all sorts of outreach programs and social services. If any woman discovered herself being pregnant and couldn't take care of the child and was thinking of abortion, she should just come to us. We'll take of her from beginning to end right straight through, physical care, hospital care, the whole thing and she wouldn't have to pay a penny. There are many things out there that we provide to people. Right in this individual church as many churches have particularly around Thanksgiving and Christmas, we put Christmas trees in the church with little tags on them that have the name of who you should get a present for. Say it says get a present for a nine-year-old child. People take a tag and buy the gift and bring it back. You can hardly get down the aisle of the church the gifts just spread out across the whole floor of the church as the weeks go on toward Christmas. Or anybody in need, like an earthquake in Peru, the Cardinal has typically said to the pastors take up a collection and people will get their checkbooks. Thousands of dollars will go in from this parish alone. In the whole archdiocese will be hundreds of thousands of dollars sent down to these bishops in Peru, which happened to be the latest disaster. People are really quick to respond to the needs of other people. That's great because that is the social message of the church. The down side of this is it could be as they write the check, they feel they are absolved. When it comes down to physically going and doing that sort of help, that would be take an even greater commitment.

The vestments that Pope John Paul II wore in his 1981 visit to this country were made of gold lamme. It was like wow. The vestments, which are the clothing the priest wears when celebrating mass, over the years have become grand things. The people who built the churches, the poor immigrants that came here contributed whatever they could scrap together to build this magnificent church, it was the only place they could go to that had some grandeur to it. They had terribly difficult lives. The church was the only grand place they could go to. And with the church came these grand things, the clothing and so forth. Then as things kind of caught on and people gathered more wealth, it swung the other way. The clothing became plainer and plainer. The plainest vestments were what you then wore. So it kind of swings back and forth, the pendulum. I personally think we gave away too much too soon. So when the Pope came along, I think there was a great desire to kind of reform things and just kind of pacified things that I wish we hadn't pacified quite so fast. It brings the sense of pagentry if that is the right word. The liturgy should be the real expression of faith. But to help it happen that way, flowers, music, singing, what we wear all helps to make that take place. On a human level, a wedding has a lot of effort put into that day, the most important day in their lives, and they want to dress appropriately, and have the so called perfect wedding. Well, you can bet people aren't going to come with their shower clogs on and their shorts and bathing suit attire. No matter how hard it may be to the world, these things are important.

Cardinal Bernard Law reflects that when he celebrates mass. He is the senior Cardinal in the whole United States, and when he speaks people listen. When we had him here several times, we had him for the rededication of our church in 1997, people were just overawed as the procession was coming up the sidewalk and across the street and up the stairs of the church. The way a procession goes, the bigger the dignitary, the closer to the end they are. So the last one coming was the Cardinal with the clothes. He's great at meeting people and great in crowds and great at setting people at ease. He's great to talk to personally and he's great to get him going in a situation like that. He just really relates to people.

St. Bernard's Church is the first church and Our Lady's Church in West Concord and St. Joseph's Church in Lincoln are missions of the first church. As the members increased and had difficulty getting to the first church, new churches were built and the pastor here was responsible for the other churches. I'm told the original pastor that went to St. Joseph's would take the train one stop to Lincoln and get off and toss hard candies to the kids, something like Santa Claus coming. Our Lady's was the same way. Built a long time ago it was a mission of St. Bernard's. Then there were people up toward Carlisle and they eventally went to St. Irene's. As the numbers of Catholics increased and the churches were built, those were on their own. This church was originally a mission of St. Mary's in Waltham. So that's how the thing keeps spreading out.

We have fewer people going into the priesthood. It's difficult because we who are the priests are trying to continue the same services that at one time three or four priests would have been doing. People don't quite get it. I can recall when I was first ordained back in 1962 you would not even leave the house, the rectory, to mail a letter, you were in that building on duty. Anything that came in that door 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, was handled by a priest. If a priest was called out on an emergency, there was a backup priest. There was always someone there. Some people feel 24 hours a day I can ring the doorbell and a priest will be there for me. Now that should be true. But to get that message across that that is no longer true, we preach it enough, but its hard for them to absorb that. It makes them nervous that it might not be true.

I will tell someone look if you recognize you need to go to confession to straighten out your relationship with God, do that now, don't wait until you're stricken and rushed to the hospital and then they're calling for a priest because I might not be here. I might be someplace else. Don't play Russian roulette with your soul. Make sure you take care of those things ahead of time so when some emergency strikes, you'll be all set.

There is an increased use of laity now and thank heavens for that. They take many burdens off me. I have a business manager for example. I have a parish council as all the churches do, and they are a group of people elected by others in the church to represent them. They take a lot of burdens off me. They meet with me and apart of that and take care of issues that I shouldn't have to take my time up with, financial issues or whatever, do research on things. We're going to be hiring a new person for example to provide our confirmation program. We're in the process of that. The committee does all that. There will be ads in the paper, they've collected resumes, and they meet with the people. The last person to be involved with this is the priest. They do all the work ahead of time. It's a wonderful example of using their talents and abilities to do what they are able to do and then we can say okay it's time for me to be involved too.

Cardinal Law has said he will not close a church where there is only one church in town. The collaborative that we are associated with includes five towns. Only Concord has two churches. We think what's going to happen is the churches will always remain open, but there might not be a priest in each one. But we want to keep the churches open and serve the people, but it won't be with a resident priest at each one. Our Lady's is involved in this plan so we can keep everything open with just three priests running it. Three priests for five parishes -- St. Joseph's in Lincoln, Our Lady's, St. Bernard's, St. Irene's in Carlisle and St. Michael's in Bedford.

It makes us kind of nervous, but we want to keep them open. The alternative is to close them. We would all live in one place but we would go out to the various needs that are there. For example, Father Fleming at Our Lady's has been sick now for the last six or eight weeks, so what do you do? Well, I'm going up there again on Saturday for a funeral. Here's an example, this Saturday I have mass here at 9:00, I have a funeral up there at 10:00, and I'll be going to the wake the day before, and then we'll go to the cemetery for the last prayers, and then I'm supposed to go a person's graduation lunch at noontime, back here for a wedding mass at 2:00, the people don't speak English, they're from Puerto Rico, and then I'm supposed to drop in at someone's 85th birthday celebration, back here again for confession at 4:00, make sure the 5:00 mass is off the ground with a visiting priest there, and then my own sister's 50th wedding anniversary is that night and get to Holliston in time for that. That's just the things I know about. That doesn't count the things I don't know about. That's an especially busy day, but that's typical. You have to really hustle to get this done. Of course, it takes a toll on a priest and that's what the people don't quite get. They say, well, can't you come to this? Old-time parishioners, can't you be here for this? People see themselves in their relationship to us and not our relationship to them. Of course, priests live where they work. I understand the difficulty of commuter traffic, but the other side is you're always here. The ministers in town all have homes apart from the church buildings and they go home after they work. We live here, so there's no going home.

I'm part of the Clergy Laity Group. We had a meeting just yesterday with a very sad death of a young fellow in the parish and we thought it was a chance to have a get together and talk about what we can do in the community rather than reinventing the wheel. Who has what in the way of services for people to come together, to meet people who are new in the town and provide them with what they need, and take care of issues that may be out there? We were able to get a lot done. The town really hops to, to help people, like the Hugh Cargill Fund, the Silent Poor Fund, these are some of the things that people thought of to make it available to others that aren't as fortunate as we are. These funds still exist and we draw on them to care of those who are in need.

Father Johh Murray

Text mounted 20 February 2008; image added 4 May 2013 -- rcwh.