Part of Concord's Faith Community series
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
Click here for audio in .mp3 format
The first homily I preached I said to the folks here at Our Lady's that the assigning of a Catholic pastor is the closest thing we have in American culture to an arranged marriage. A third party says you and you are going to spend a good deal of time together. We expect you to work together, to grow together, to love each other. This is the beginning of this arranged marriage. You don't know who I am, I don't know who you are yet, but we're going to find out pretty quickly. We need to pray if we're going to be able to work together to make it work. Like all marriages they just don't romantically happen, it's the product of work together.
Seven years into our arranged marriage I think things are really very fine. Just this past Sunday in my homily I said to the folks, where do we find our security? And I told them my greatest security is in the relationship I have with them. They are my family, my friends, my home, my work, my community, my parish, my joy, my job, they are everything for me. We only share that because we all happen to believe in God. I doubt that I would be able to afford to live in Concord if this parish didn't provide me with a beautiful home on Main Street. So it's our faith that has brought us together.
I think it's my ability/willingness/desire to communicate with people on that level that has ignited this relationship between a pastor and the people. I think folks want preachers to preach scriptures but to their experience. They want to hear not only that I believe this too but here's how it's working in my life. And that makes it very real for folks. And that means that you have to get up on Sunday morning and sort of reveal yourself, bare your soul in front of folks. That's a daunting thing, but at the same time the fruits of that are so immediate and so powerful that it just helps me each Sunday to be able to do that more and more. I don't want to give the impression that I get up and preach myself. I don't. My task is to preach the scriptures. My homily is breaking open the scriptures so we can understand it in the terms of today's life.
Lest it sound like I'm the mastermind here in this arranged marriage, I was fortunate enough to be assigned to an incredibly warm, inviting, generous community. They are not all those things because I'm here. The first Sunday I was here I could just feel the warmth in this parish. Today you meet people after mass who are coming out of church and they'll say they are visiting from New Jersey or something and the two things that visitors comment about immediately almost without exception are the music was beautiful and I could tell that this is a community. These people are together.
That has something to do with West Concord apart from anything Catholic or Presbyterian or Episcopalian or Congregational. That has something to do with this part of town, this town, this town's history, how these folks happen to come here, where they come from. I didn't put all that together. That was all here when I came.
We're a young parish. We only have 12 to 15 funerals a year. In a parish of about 1000 households, that's a small number of funerals. So we're a young community. It's not that we don't have senior citizens with us but I guess they're very healthy, they don't die. We have a combination of folks who were born in West Concord, grew up in West Concord, married somebody down the street in West Concord and still live in West Concord, and we have folks who have been here anywhere from two months to 15 -20 years. We have a lot of young upwardly mobile families. We're putting up a new building behind the church for office and meeting space and our building fund goal was $1.2 million. But within five months we raised $1.6 million and the folks here are very generous that way. I wish I could get 10 hours from people as easily as I can get $10,000. The life of the people in my parish is extremely busy -- young families with young children who play three sports, in drama club, take ballet lessons and horse riding. A faith community competes for a family's time. Unfortunately, you don't put "I went to church on Sunday" on your high school resume when you're applying to colleges, so we often lose in the competition. I think time is the most valuable commodity in this community.
The cornerstone for Our Lady's was laid in 1903 and the parish was established as a faith community separate from St. Bernard's in Concord Center in 1907. In 2007 we will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the parish although the cornerstone is 1903 because the building preceded the establishment of the parish. It began as a mission of St. Bernard parish. When the population in West Concord was evolving from primarily Yankee to a lot of immigrants and children of immigrants settling here and working in the mills, it required the presence of another parish of a faith community be established.
When I first came to West Concord seven years ago, people were quick to tell me the difference between Concord and West Concord. I think in the past that was a fairly marked difference at least in people's understanding. There are folks in my parish today who say "Well, I went into Concord yesterday." And I was thinking well, where did you go, I mean we're in Concord. "Oh, no we're in West Concord. I went into Concord on the other side of Route 2." In a lot of folks minds there is that historic mentality.
But I think folks on either side of Route 2 at this point no longer refer to West Concord as the Junction. We're more than a train stop and it has become a vibrant community. The shopping area is not quite as boutiquey as Concord Center, but has a lot of lovely stores in West Concord that people come to. And I think there's a kind of West Concord pride. That's not in competition with Concord Center you know but people are happy and proud to be from West Concord. It's an identity. And it's a hot real estate market, I can tell you that.
To get back to Our Lady's starting as a mission, St. Joseph's in Lincoln was also a mission of St. Bernard's. Father Paul O'Brien who used to be stationed at St. Bernard's always reminded me that St. Bernard's was the mother church and we were but a daughter of his.
We have a good working relationship with Father Murray at St. Bernard's now. The Archdiocese of Boston is encouraging in a programmatic fashion parishes to work together, so in the last three years St. Bernard's and Our Lady's have combined their high school confirmation programs and our youth ministry programs. We have hired jointly a youth minister for the two parishes. Our directors of religious education work together pretty closely. I think especially in the areas of youth and religious education for youth we will see even more joint programming between the two parishes particularly at the high school level. The parish distinction in Concord is a sort of false one in terms of Concord life. For instance most of the kids in town go to Concord-Carlisle High School. So for us to have two confirmation programs, two youth ministry programs, it doesn't make any sense. So it's a win-win situation for both parishes. I think probably in people's minds the historical reality plays itself out that St. Bernard's would be perceived as the senior or older parish. I don't mean senior citizens because they have a large young community, but that the style of life and worship are different in the two communities. Not to say one is better than the other. They are just different. As it would be different for St. Joseph's in Lincoln and St. Michael's in Bedford.
Nothing affects the style of Sunday worship more significantly than the attitude and the style and the personality of the pastor. I preside over prayer here. I preach at prayer here. I work with musicians with music. So it's going to go through me in one way and through Father Murray in another way. Father Murray is a little more reserved than I am. We had something for the children during the mass last Sunday and I had about 20 second graders in the sanctuary. I was trying to get them lined up in some orderly fashion as quickly as possible, and I literally tripped over myself and fell down in front of the whole congregation and bounced right back up. The response of the folks was good. Everybody laughed because I was laughing. I made a stupid little bumble there. That's the kind of personality I have. Other pastors might fall down and people would rush up and say, "Are you okay?" I don't think it was that people didn't care if I was okay, it was just the way it is here.
There has been over 100 years of history of sort of a tide washing back and forth over Route 2, and it's depending on the pastors actually. Different folks warm up to different pastors in different ways. I think today there is no problem going back and forth between the churches. When I was growing up, and I'm 54, and during my parents generation, folks would never think of crossing parish lines. If you lived in that parish geographically, that's where you went to church. But it is interesting that more and more on a monthly if not weekly basis I am meeting new families in my parish who move to Concord within the last three or four months and prior to their move here they got on the Internet and they started looking for parish webpages. And they went from parish to parish to see whether they were going to buy a house in West Concord or in Acton or Maynard or Stow, but they were going to choose their parish. So I'm very fortunate that we have a wonderful webmaster who has done a wonderful webpage for us. People are looking around. You know that thing that young couples do in buying a house and check the school systems and that happens also with the faith communities. That shows a real seriousness of the role of faith in their lives and how much they want that component in their life to be vital for them. So it's exciting.
I was ordained in 1973. The second Vatican Council happened while I was in high school during the mid-60s. So at the time I was in seminary preparing to be a priest was a time of incredible change. But even then we had no idea of what it was going to look like 25 almost 30 years down the road from that. So much change has happened. I grew up in a parish that had four priests assigned to the parish. There used to be three priests at this parish in West Concord and now I'm here by myself. A day will come, I would say in 15 years, when there will be one priest in Concord to serve both parishes. That is an incredible change. Something that comes with that not only did the Vatican Council encourage greater participation by the lay people, it is now essential. I just can't do it all by myself, so even if we weren't encouraging it, we'd have to come that way anyway.
Fewer people are going into the priesthood. There was a time when if you wanted to enter into a service profession, you became a priest or a minister, a doctor or a nurse, or a teacher. But now, the opportunities to make a career in servicing people are just a myriad and most of them don't require celibacy. Most all of them I think except the Roman Catholic priesthood invite women to part of them. The little door that you have to get through to become a Catholic priest gets smaller and smaller. The bright side of this coin is that the shortage of clergy in the Catholic church has helped lift up the lay people to where they ought to be and to where they have been in many Protestant traditions for centuries. So that's the good side of that.
I am assigned here for two six-year terms, so I'm just finishing the first year of my second term which means I have five years to go. Actually I'm hoping that since 2007, the year after I leave, is the 100th anniversary, they will let me stay for that. But my agenda for the next five years is to try to ready this parish both for my successor whoever he might be, and for the day when I wouldn't be surprised that my successor doesn't have a successor. I'm confident that I'll be replaced but I think when his term runs out that might be the time when there is one priest in Concord for both parishes. So that means the lay community here has to take much more in depth serious ownership of the parish life. We're on the way to that. It's not an easy thing to do in a church that has a history of clergy ownership. It's not in our past. It's not what we grew up with. But we're getting there.
I feel blessed to have been born in 1947 because I've had the opportunity to live in two different Catholic churches, the one before the Council and the one afterwards. So I remember a time when I was growing up when we knew what the church taught and we believed that. It was a sin to question it so nobody did. And now, not only in the church but we've seen the bumper sticker "Question Authority." Be suspicious of authority in general, question them. That is an attitude that's abroad in society, in our culture, and it focuses on church too. So now we are in a period where everything is questioned. That is a good thing. That is a healthy thing because blind acceptance of things we really didn't understand was not adult. You wouldn't want people to have that attitude going into politics, to go into a voting booth with not really knowing what's going on. So the questioning is good. The kinds of questions that Vatican II asked in the '60s were the seed questions if you will, that God is questioning. So we live in a time of ferment when some people buy that but they don't buy this and they're not sure about that but they are sure about this. Two weeks ago we welcomed four adults who are candidates for becoming Roman Catholic and we have three more in a couple of weeks. One of their first questions always is do I have to believe everything that the church says? Of course, there is a hierarchy of truths in Catholicism and some things are much more important than others. The creed that we recite on Sunday is the core belief system of our church. Whether you think priests should be married or not, that's a debatable point. Some of the apostles of Jesus were married. Peter who was considered the first pope was married. So we have a history of married clergy although we don't presently have that kind of opportunity. There is also a point where Catholic folks have to look at what the church teaches and say at the heart of things, am I with the church? We have some folks who sort of want to keep the membership card in their pocket, but dismiss everything the church says. Anybody has any right they want to disagree with what their church teaches. I happen to disagree with some political parties and so I don't vote for them. I don't register under their name in the town. But it's part of the times. I'm not put off or frightened by it. I think it's healthy and we'll survive this too.
It's a church of salvation. That is tough to preach in a society like ours, in a economy like ours, in a community like ours where we are in need of so little and where virtually all of us have more than we need of stuff and things including myself. We have a parish outreach to a community in Haiti, and we send a group of about 10-15 people down each January for 10 days. People of Haiti have nothing. They barely have homes. Haiti is the third hungriest country in the world. But they have happiness. Suicide is virtually unknown in Haiti. All they have is God. Now I'm not suggesting we need to alleviate the human needs there and that's part of why we have the outreach, but there is a lesson for us there. The more we fill ourselves up with stuff, the less we even think about a need for being saved from something. It's tough to preach in a community where almost everybody has almost anything they want. I want to walk that line between preaching to be challenging in a way that engages people and not that sends people out, turns them off, sends them away because it's too harsh. Part of that is my own preaching in the fact that I am one of those people who have too much, and I've got to look at that in my own life. I think related to the salvation question is why are people coming to church in West Concord? Something I hear from folks over and over again words like this, "When I walk in church on Sunday morning, I feel like I'm home. It's a haven. I feel safe there." I don't hear this as sort of retreat from the real world or something like that, but that folks are finding something in faith community together that they know they don't get any place else. When a community, a parish is able to provide the time, the place, the service, the opportunity for people to engage at a substantive level, it feeds something in the soul. Once you get fed there, you realize it is one of the few places you get fed like this and if you develop a taste and a hunger for that, then you want to come back. And I think that is salvation. That is being in touch with my need for God, and for my need for other people who share and are able to say I need that too.
It is a time of evolvement. Sometimes I'm amazed at what the average person in the pew on Sunday does know about what's going on in theological circles in the church. Then there are other times when I'm amazed at "Wow, you haven't heard about that?" But by and large the typical person who worships in our church on Sunday morning in this parish is not torn by the issue of women's ordination. They may have a view on it. They probably have a view on it, and they're probably willing to express that view. But it's not much of an issue for them. For some it is. There is a group of moms in the parish that I'm in a kind of ongoing conversation with them about the question of how do they raise their sons and daughters in a church which in so many ways appears to exclude women. I'm so grateful that they trust me to talk to them about this because I'm part of the problem. I am that white male celibate ordained guy in this community. I do have the position and the authority. I can get in the club. Their daughters can't. So I'm grateful that we have a relationship of trust to sit down and talk about that. I'm also grateful that they love the church so much that they want to stay with this but there are these things in the way.
There are other issues that Catholic folks have just settled on their own. The issue that the church still stands opposed to artificial birth control, but most Catholic folks use artificial birth control and have simply made that decision of conscience. The church needs to pay attention to that because that isn't some willful disobedience or reckless disregard. So much of what you read in the papers about conflict in the church at the theological hierarchical level, so much of that doesn't filter down to the parish life. I don't for a moment suggest that it's unimportant therefore. It's because Pope John XXIII had theological questions about the church that the Council happened and so much wonderful growth has happened, so it's very important. But if folks are being fed spiritually on Sunday morning in their parish, that's really what they want from the church. And other stuff slips out to the margins.
The Catholic education system has experienced a huge change with fewer priests and fewer nuns. Cardinal Law would love to have a Catholic school in very parish but the cost of that is just incredible. Suppose I were a pastor that wanted a parochial elementary school in my parish, not only is there cost there but I would need to compete with the quality of the Concord school system, and you know what that would mean. I need several millionaires to endow the school to get near that. There was a parish school at St. Bridget's in Maynard, there was a boys high school and a girls high school in town, and they have all closed. They closed because of dwindling enrollment. Now there are a lot of folks in town right now who wish those schools were back. But we can't afford that financially. There are fewer priests and fewer nuns or sisters and they were, if you will, cheap labor. We would staff whole schools with sisters whose monthly salary was $30.00. In those days they were happy with that and could live on that. The convent provided for their other needs. The women who are in religious life now by a large part aren't in teaching ministries now. They are much more in social action ministries. I went to a regional Catholic high school and about 80% of the faculty were sisters and about 20% lay faculty. It just happened last week I was invited back to celebrate mass at Bishop Fenwick High School where I graduated 35 years ago, and I think there are now three sisters in the school and two of them are not in teaching positions. So that Catholic school is paying salaries for lay people. As you may know, we pay awful salaries to lay people in Catholic schools, and it's hard to keep them because we can't afford to compete with local school systems.
People in Concord tend to be across the board, socially aware and conscious, and that's certainly true in the community here. Our outreach to the poor and the needy both locally and nationally is wonderful but there's always room for more growth. Probably our most active parish commission is our social action commission. They have over the last seven to ten years structured this incredible program of outreach. They have structured ways for individual parishioners to be constantly involved today. That must always be there because of the nature of our gospel, the nature of the church's mission, and to make sure that when folks come to the haven on Sunday morning that it not be a warm, fuzzy place to curl up and feel nice. My preaching needs always to have that cutting edge that we must look outside ourselves and that's another difficulty. We've got wealthy powerful people as members of this parish who run corporations, who make decisions that impact the lives of people around the world, and again I want to preach the gospel to them in a way that they really hear what Jesus is saying but not in a way that says "Oh, you're just not being realistic." It's so easy to dismiss a preacher that way. "You don't know what the real world is like, father. This is what I have to pay the people who work in Taiwan." I have to negotiate that road where you can stay in conversation.
The full title of our church is Our Lady Help of Christians. Mary in the Catholic faith, mother of Jesus, has a variety of titles -- our lady of assumption, our lady help of the poor, our lady comfort of the afflicted, our lady help of Christians. When I was growing up in the '50s and early '60s, Mary and devotion, prayers to Mary, devotional life around Mary was a huge piece of parish life. Part of that is that in those days all that stuff was in English and mass was in Latin, and historically we've seen that rise of Catholic devotional life was often because it was something people understood. Now our whole prayer life is in English and so some of that devotional stuff has slipped into the background a little bit. But interestingly enough, some of the moms who are in that group that I'm in conversation with are very anxious and active about making sure that their sons and daughters know who Mary is in the life of the church. Out of that ongoing conversation I had over seven or eight weeks through advent season preparing for Christmas season and preparing for Christmas, each week I had in the center aisle of the church a different image of Mary. It got to the point that people were anxious to see what we were going to see this week. I know we're doing a special program in April with our children about who Mary is. Of course the simple phrasing for Catholics is that Mary is the mother of Jesus, Jesus is our brother, so in a real way she is our mother too.
I've been part of the Concord Clergy Laity Group now for seven years. Ecumenical life in Concord I think on a scale of one to ten, ten being really great, I would give it a six or seven. The reason I give it a kind of low score is that each of the individual faith communities in Concord is so vital and busy that I think it's difficult for us to pursue something we want to pursue. I complained a few minutes ago about being able to get money from my parishioners but getting time is a much harder task. Try to get the leaders of the faith community to give you their time for a meeting. It's tough and not because they don't want to, but because they are so maxed out in their schedules otherwise. We have the annual Thanksgiving eve prayer service which is a wonderful thing. There is a new pastor, John Hudson, at West Concord Union Church right across the street from us, and he and I are working consciously together to try to develop a better relationship between our two communities. We are fortunate that we already had a bridge in that both our churches share the same music director and our schedules are such that on Sunday mornings he can come across the street, back and forth between those communities. John is a fireball and as much as I loved working with Jim Keck his predecessor, I think this is going to be even more productive for us.
The unity of Christians should be one of the highest agenda items for us. Sometimes the Catholic church is a great help in that direction, but sometimes we shoot ourselves in the foot. So it's a hard road to travel with folks. But it's got to be higher on our priority list. It's not easy for Father Murray at St. Bernard's and I at Our Lady's to get Catholics to cross the Catholic parish lines. We try to have a joint penance service before Christmas and Easter for confession with one year at St. Bernard's and one year at Our Lady's, and you hear, "I have to go all the way to St. Bernard's for that?" And that's a Catholic church. So it's not easy to move folks out of the places they're in. I think we have a long way to go in helping folks in different faith communities to understand what those other faith communities are, who they are, what they do, what do they believe, how do they pray on their sabbath? The groundwork is done but we have a long way to go. I have a long way to go. It is the Concord Clergy Laity Group so there are clergy and lay representatives from each faith community, but I tell you at the monthly breakfast meeting the majority of people who show up are the lay folks. They are more faithful than the clergy. They also outnumber us, but I'm not talking about raw numbers. Generally speaking they are more faithful to this than we are.
I'm happy to have the relationship I do with Rabbi Michael Luc kens. I think we are very comfortable with each other and respect each other. We don't do enough together and we should do more together. In my own community, the issue of Jewish-Christian relationship and the evidence of persistence of anti-Semitism in our culture, and in the Roman Catholic and in people's minds, in what folks heard in their families when they were growing up, there is so much of it still there. So I make an effort and I don't even know if Michael knows I do this, every Sunday we have a list of things and people we pray for. I watch the Jewish calendar fairly faithfully and always try to include our Jewish neighbors who are celebrating Passover or celebrating Hanukah or celebrating Rosh Hashanah to keep in our prayers and for my people to know that they are our brothers and sisters. They're celebrating their days right now. This is one of those years where Passover and Easter are going to be right next to each other which I love when that happens because our Christian liturgy is so deeply embedded in Jewish history and prayer and there are too many ways in which Catholics are ignorant of that. I think some of them just don't believe it, so that's so important. The archdiocese is making a concerted effort right now to make sure there is a program element in the religious education of Catholic children to help them better understand our relationship with Jewish people. I haven't read James Carroll's book, Constantine 's Sword, but I've seen him interviewed on TV on PBS a couple of times about the book. It's only in the early 1960s at the Council that we really stood up as a Roman Catholic church to say some powerful corrective things about our relationship with the people of Israel. It is, as Carroll has said, a scandal. That 1960 years after the death of Jesus we are finally getting the right scoop on this. So we have a long, long way to go.
Concord is an educated community and I think that there's a way that education helps us to understand. Although there have been some awful incidences of anti-Semitic behavior or graffiti and that sort of thing in the seven years that I've been here, I think generally there is a good relationship between Christians and Jews. We always feel welcome at Kerem Shalom. There is a gentleman who is very active in the life of Kerem Shalom, Larry Frey, who almost every year brings his children to midnight Christmas mass. He was here this past midnight mass at Christmas and as the procession was coming into the church I walked by him and I just choked up to see him there. He comes because he wants his family to know what we are doing on Christmas eve. That's where it really happens and in some ways that's much more important than Michael Luckens and I sitting down and having a dialogue. That's good too, but it's neighbor to neighbor. Larry's knowing that he is free to come here at Christmas eve and he knows that he is welcome.
The archdiocese has its own television station, Boston Catholic TV and over the last seven years I have done three series for Catholic TV. The first one was a 13-week series on engagement and marriage and weddings in a Catholic community. Then we taped here a series of evening prayer services for advent Christmas season. That was five years ago. It is rerunable material so it's still plays every advent and Christmas season. Then two years ago I did a 13- week series called Open by the Boards which was an interview show where each week I interviewed folks from different archdiocesan offices, agencies and ministries to help people understand all the kinds of ways that the archdiocese reaches out to people in addition to parish life. They want to do a series on worship which I want to do as soon as I have time to do that. Also once a year I celebrate a Sunday morning mass that is televised, and then four or five times a year I celebrate the daily mass. I love doing that stuff. I wish I had more time to do it. Thirteen half-hour shows takes a half-hour to tape the show but it takes a whole lot of hours to put that show together. That's what takes the time. But I want to do more of that.
It's amazing for me - the outreach. That and the website, and maybe the website even more, is astonishing to me how many people look at it. We're very fortunate to have a parishioner who works on the website every week. A lot of parish websites change about once a year. Ours changes at least twice a week. All the new information from the parish bulletin is on every week. I write a letter in the bulletin that is on the website. My Sunday homilies are on the website including parish life and pictures. It's wonderful to know that the message is getting out through the Internet. The joint youth group between the two parishes has its own website. They just did a new webpage. There are kids who will get on-line and look at the youth group webpage who would never look at the parish bulletin when their parents bring it home. Our Lady's website is www.olhc.org and the parish youth group website is www.concordteenfaith.com.
Music should be an integral part of Catholic worship everywhere. This is an instance where we don't have a long history of that and so it's been about the last 40 years that music in typical parish life has come alive. I am fortunate in that I have some musicality myself so that comes easy to me and I love it. I'm also blessed in Jim Barkovic who is our music director who is a superb musician and works so well with folks. We have two beautiful cantors whose voices just make you pray when they sing. Over the last seven years we have become a singing community which I'm thrilled about. The best side of this to me is that most Catholic parishes have an early Sunday morning mass and characteristically there is no music at that mass. Over seven years we have gradually introduced music, and our 7:30 community on Sunday morning is one of our best singing masses. I'm just so thrilled with that.
I'd like to sing some of the text from the mass that I don't do all the time. I sometimes do it around Christmas and more often in the Easter season and that is the Eucharistic prayer. The Roman Catholic Sunday mass has two major parts, the liturgy of the word which is scripture reading, some songs, and homily and the Eucharist which is preparing the altar or the table for the bread and wine, praying a prayer of Thanksgiving and the sharing of Eucharist. The heart of that Eucharist is the Eucharist of prayer which is the church's formal prayer of thanksgiving to God in which we remember what Jesus did at the Last Supper the night before he died. So at different times of the year I sing that and I thought I might do that because that text is the heart of our prayer as Catholics. [Father Fleming sings the Eucharist.]
Latin remains the international language of the official church. Documents that come out of Rome to the church at large around the world are written in Latin and then translated for different conferences and bishops around the world into their languages. I grew up in a church where mass was in Latin. It was when I was in high school through the Council that we started to move from Latin gradually into English. I have never myself celebrated mass in Latin. There's a small movement in the United States to return to Latin. I don't think it will gain a lot of adherence. What we used to say was well, we don't understand it but any place you go in the world, it's going to be in the same language. Well, so that means anywhere I go in the world I won't understand it. Understanding mass is so important. You might like a movie with subtitles or go to an opera and there are those things above the stage to help you understand, and those things are helpful, but I don't think we should have to come to church on Sunday and have a translation in my hand so I can understand. I can't imagine that was the Lord's intent to have a translator to understand the scripture.