by Father Arlen Harris, O.F.M. Cap.
The smile. It is warm, and it is gentle. And it continues to inspire this still “green” priest even in the present day.
I first met Msgr. Paul Jervis, pastor of St. Martin de Porres parish in Bedford-Stuyvesant, five years ago at Our Lady of Victory Church. I was a newly-ordained priest. I had been ordained just three days when I received word that my uncle Francis died, and I was asked to celebrate the funeral Mass at Our Lady of Victory, a notion that made me feel anxious because I had not celebrated one before then.
“What do I know about a funeral,” I asked myself, “except how to spell the word?” I called Msgr. Jervis a couple of days before the funeral to introduce myself, and he assured me that everything would be okay.
“It will be a great comfort to your family to know that you will celebrate the funeral Mass for your uncle,” he said. He assured me that he and Father Christopher Coleman, who was parochial vicar there at that time, would assist me.
I was grateful and impressed that they would be present since I was sure that they had many other tasks to be concerned with that day. Not only did they assist me by helping me to prepare, but they were also kind enough to concelebrate the Mass with me.
Five years later, as I concelebrated the Mass of Ordination of eight new priests for the Diocese of Brooklyn at St. James Cathedral on Saturday, June 29, this memory came back to me. Msgr. Jervis’ smile was just as comforting when I saw him at St. James as it was when I first met him.
In speaking with him, I was reminded of an important aspect of the priesthood that I learned in a tangible manner at my uncle’s funeral, that of priestly fraternity. Priestly fraternity signifies those moments when priests care for and help to support one another. It may take several forms: going on retreat together, having a meal together, talking through a challenge in the parish together or two priests with some years of experience helping a new priest at a funeral Mass.
Because we know the joys and challenges of the priesthood personally, we are able to celebrate or support another priest when the need arises. This kind of fraternity is not limited to those priests who belong to the same diocese or are of the same age but can be experienced by all priests at all times. As a member of a religious order, the Capuchin Franciscans, I do not belong to the Diocese of Brooklyn in any formal or canonical way, despite being born and raised there. But somehow I felt right at home at St. James Cathedral at the Ordination Mass because I was with other priests from Brooklyn and Queens.
This past June 7, I marked five years as a priest. Often I am asked, “What made you want to become a priest?” I think about those experiences and people that many priests have in common such as the example and support of my parents, devotion to the Mass, a kind parish priest and a love of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
But of late, I have found the question developing from “why did I want to become a priest” to “why do I wish to remain one?” I find that ornery personalities, frustrating pastoral experiences and moments of self-doubt can tempt me to reflect on such a question. And when I sit before the Blessed Sacrament with my Rosary in hand and these experiences and questions in mind, in the grace of the Lord’s time, I rediscover the answer: the Word-of-God-made-flesh, the answer that trumps all others.
He gives to me some experience to help keep me going, a little bit of encouragement at anxious moments, such as the presence of two priests at a funeral Mass when I needed them most.
I do not know why God chose me to be a Capuchin Franciscan priest, but He did. I am continuing to learn that this is a part of the mystery of our faith. And that, along with a warm and comforting smile from a priest in my home Diocese of Brooklyn, is enough for me to keep believing in His grace.[hr] Father Harris is a native of St. Francis of Assisi parish, Crown Heights.