by Msgr. Joseph Nugent
LIKE A COUPLE falling in love and feeling a deep call to be with each other for the rest of their lives, I too felt a call to serve the Lord and His Church as a priest. In the old admonition before marriage, the couple was reminded that they “would take each other for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health – until death.” I said “Yes” to the Lord and His Church and experienced all of the above as a priest for more than 46 years.
My “yes” brought me to the inner city for the first 21 years of my priesthood. I served the needs of the poor as a parish priest, hospital chaplain in three different hospitals, alcoholism counselor, provider of services to the homeless and prison chaplain, where I offered Mass each Sunday for those imprisoned and ministered to the needs of members of 12-step recovery programs. I also earned a master’s degree and became an EMT so I could better serve the needs of others.
Wisdom of St. Francis
And the result of all this? Joy in His service. I learned what St. Francis said long ago: “It is in giving that we receive.”
Then I served in a Queens parish, located between two New York City housing projects, where I had started out as a deacon. I had to go back to school to learn Spanish so I could celebrate Mass and the sacraments in the language of the people. Once again, I found joy in His service. After five years, I faced two serious illnesses; through the prayers of the people, I was restored to health and to ministry in a Brooklyn parish where the people of Mexico taught me true devotion and a love of Our Blessed Mother.
At that time, I asked to go back to serving in the inner city, and my request was granted. During the attack on Sept. 11, 2001, I was at the morgue at Ground Zero ministering to the needs of the firefighters and first responders. With a broken heart, I was happy to be of service as a priest.
Love Transcends Language
Next, I was asked to go to another parish where I could use my Spanish, but it was too much for me at the time. I asked that a Spanish-speaking priest replace me for the good of the people. I went to a Haitian parish instead. And even though I did not speak Creole or French, the language of love came across and I had a fruitful ministry. My initial “yes” continued to bring joy to my life as a priest.
My final assignment is serving in two churches – one parish – in an area that was foreign to me, but my vocation continues to challenge me to live up to my initial calling many years ago when I uttered my first “yes.” I continue to be happy in His service.
If you are looking for happiness in this life, forget about yourself, concentrate on Him. Follow Him and His call to you. Say your “yes” to the Lord and His Church.
Msgr. Nugent is the pastor of St. Paul-St. Agnes parish, Carroll Gardens.