Telling our Priest Stories
By Lindsey Townsend
"When One Child is Left Behind, the Whole Community Fails"
Don't let the collar and the gentle manner deceive you. Beneath the flowing black robes of Father Pete Byrne beats the heart of a fiery social and political activist. A Mary Knoll missioner since 1956, he has devoted his life's work to defending the human rights of children worldwide.
Born in Anaconda, Montana, Father Pete earned a B.S. in philosophy from Carroll College in Helena before deciding to become a missionary. "What drove me to Maryknoll was a desire to participate in the mission of Jesus as a man of peace who struggles to help the poor and powerless," he says.
He soon gravitated towards the issue of children's rights as the focal point of his lifelong ministry. Virtually every problem that afflicts children-from deadbeat dads who won't pay child support to child abuse to child labor-is on his radar screen.
"Jesus was pretty clear about the dignity and the value of children when he said that whenever you welcome one of these children, you welcome me. And when you give food to the least of my brothers and sisters, you give it to me," he remarks. "Well, who better fits the category of 'least powerful' than a child? Yet we have not lived out that Gospel very well."
Father Pete has worked closely with the Franciscan sisters to assist homeless boys at Santa Maria Home and homeless girls at Mercy House in Lima, Peru. During the 1990s, he founded "Your Rights-First World-Third World-Mission in the 1990s," a program that helps children understand their rights to live safely and free from physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
He joined forces with the Good Shepherd sisters to assist abandoned women and children with AIDS and to rescue and reorient prostitutes as young as 14. "There's probably nothing more degrading to the dignity and self-esteem of a woman than prostitution," Father Pete says. "These girls are out there working the streets because they have no other options."
Yet poverty, violence and abuse are by no means restricted to citizens living in Third-World countries. "At least 5-8% of children in the U.S. live below the extreme poverty level. 28,000 children die every day from curable diseases that don't have access to clean water, food or basic health care. And a large number of them are those on American soil...There are 40,000 animal shelters in the U.S., and only 15,000 shelters for battered women and children. That's one hell of a bad priority," he says.
Father Pete is now back in the states working to promote a Church response to formally recognize and support children's rights. But the recent child sex abuse scandals among Catholic clergy have made the institutional church hesitant to speak out about children at all.
"This scandal is not something that we can avoid or minimize or deny, but the fact is that it happened with a very small number of priests. The greatest problem has been the silence and the inability of church officials to deal with it openly and honestly," Father Pete maintains. "But we must speak to the issues that involve protecting children's rights --despite the fact that it ticks some people off."
In fact, he encourages fellow clergyman to discuss this difficult subject with their parishioners. "You really can talk to people about these issues with credibility because our parishioners recognize that they are receiving outstanding pastoral services in the huge majority of parishes," he says. "And the fact that there are more than 5000 reported cases of child abuse in the U.S. every day is an issue that the whole community has to deal with--not just the bishops and priests."
Father Pete believes that in order to create a world that is safe for all children, changes must be made on a socio-economic, cultural and moral level. But unfortunately, the welfare of children is not a top priority. The recent government cutbacks in children's educational social services nationwide, for example, frustrate him greatly. "What we're cutting out are the services for the people who don't vote. And a future built on the backs of children will be a future of destruction," he declares.
Another of his hot buttons: child labor. "There are 600,000 children around the world who are victims of child labor. And they're paying the guys who endorse the products more money than all the people who worked in the factory to produce the goods made in an entire year."
What can be done? Lobbying for children's rights across the board, from the
grass-roots level all the way up to the White House. "Ask your politicians," he
encourages, "what are you doing for abused and neglected children? Children
living in poverty and on the streets? Children with no healthcare coverage?"
Father Pete's ambitious vision is one of assistance for all people who work on behalf of the welfare of children, whatever their religion. "There are a lot of wonderful people out there who are working to help children in one aspect or another. And they are all worthy of our emotional, moral and financial support--and the proclaiming of the Gospel in their favor," he says.
By Lindsey Townsend
Helping Korean-Americans Find Their Way
So believes the adventurous and personable Father Joe Veneroso, who celebrates his 25th anniversary as a Maryknoll missioner in 2003. (Maryknoll is a U.S.-based Catholic missionary movement that represents U.S. Catholics in overseas missions and currently serves in 39 countries worldwide.)
Born in Amsterdam, Father Joe first went to Korea after college as a Peace Corps volunteer during the Vietnam War. "I wanted to serve my country, but I didn't want to kill anybody," he says.
While overseas he soon found himself falling in love with the Korean people: their loyalty, family values and work ethic. "Koreans taught me that true conversion requires a change of heart more than a change of religion," Father Joe says. "It's a privilege to walk with another people on their spiritual journey and to be open to new and different understandings of God."
He even found himself developing a taste for exotic foods he never thought he'd enjoy like fermented cabbage, seaweed and roasted grasshoppers. "You get used to it: eventually!" he laughs.
After studying the Korean language in Hawaii, Father Joe taught English at Kyungbuk National University in Korea for two years before deciding to become a Maryknoll priest. "I was so intrigued by what I saw. These missioners had very few of the modern comforts we were used to in America, yet they were so happy in the work they were doing," he says.
Following his ordination to the priesthood in 1978, Father Joe returned to Korea to work with high school and college students and later founded a new parish, Christ the Liberator, in the Hwoi Won Dong district of the southern port city of Masan. "It was an extremely poor and rural area. When I first started, it had unpaved roads, and residents still went to the stream to wash their clothes," he said.
After returning to the U.S. in 1985, Father Joe began a long-term relationship with the Korean community of the Brooklyn diocese, first working with them in Rego Park, Queens, and later at St. Paul Chong Ha-Sang Parish in Flushing.
There he soon became well acquainted with the trials and problems of the hundreds of ethnic street gang members who populate the city. "It seems strange to have to remind somebody, "Please don't bring a gun into church,' but sometimes that's what it takes," he says.
Father Joe now heads up a weekly discussion group for Korean-American students, where adolescents gather to explore how Biblical principles have relevance to modern problems such as drugs, premarital sex and violence. "I let them know what the Church's position is, and help them try to find a way to work those principles into the decisions they're making every day," he says.
Father Joe says that Korean-American youth face unique challenges in growing up in the U.S. "Many of their parents are from the old school in Korea, and these kids don't come from that world—yet they don't feel part of the mainstream American culture, either. I'm like a bridge between the two cultures," he says.
Since Korean families also typically place a high value on education, many Korean children and adolescents also have to deal with "positive stereotyping." "Their parents expect them to be straight A students, get into the best schools, and become doctors and lawyers—yet a lot of these kids have different dreams for themselves. But they don't want to disappoint their parents," he says.
Holding a master's degree in journalism, Father Joe is now director of MaryKnoll's social communication department, responsible for development of the organization's print publications, videos, radio show, educational materials and more.
While his impact now stretches far beyond the parish doors, it's the one-on-one relationships with his flock that Father Joe still cherishes most. With more than 30 years experience working with the Korean community, he has changed many lives for the better.
"I remember the teenager who came to a retreat one summer who was lonely, cynical and openly hostile to everyone. I didn't think we had reached him at all," he remembers. Five years later, the surly teenager walked into Father Joe's office as a totally transformed, confident young adult to say hello. "He had put his life together and told me that he had decided to become a Sunday school teacher. Knowing you've had an impact on someone's life like that—there's no better feeling."
By Lindsey Townsend
Finding the Sacred in LA's Mean Streets
EAST LOS ANGELES, CA—He's buried 117 young men and women, caught up in the chaos of violence and gang wars. He's become the surrogate parent to hundreds of Hispanic youth whose parents are neglectful, abusive, or battling alcohol and drug addictions. And he's created life-changing opportunities for these forgotten children to redirect their lives. "I just try to work as Jesus did—giving hope to those who need it most," the soft-spoken, gray-haired priest says.
Father Gregory Boyle, S.J. is a Jesuit priest who is Director of Jobs For a Future and Homeboy Industries, an employment referral center for at-risk-youth and economic development program in East Los Angeles.
Born in Los Angeles one of eight children in an Irish-American family, he was ordained as Jesuit priest in 1984 after realizing that working with the poor and the forgotten was his true calling. After obtaining an M. Div. from the Weston School of Theology, and an STM degree from the Jesuit School of Theology, he worked with Christian Base Communities in Cochabanba, Bolivia. He also served as Chaplain of the Islas Marias Penal Colony in Mexico and of Folsom Prison.
In 1986, Father Greg become pastor of Dolores Mission Church, the poorest church in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. The surrounding neighborhood has been described as a place where the "families of rival gangs pray and seek solace together even as their children kill each other in the streets."
Two years later, determined to create employment opportunities for ex-gang members, Father Greg founded Jobs for a Future in Boyle Heights. The neighborhood is home to the Pico/Aliso Housing developments, the largest public housing developments west of the Mississippi River.
Its only claim to fame: the highest concentration of gang violence in the city of Los Angeles. Within 16 square miles, 50 gangs claim 10,000 members, Hispanic and black. This is a bleak world of unemployment, overpopulation, broken families, drugs, crime, and violence. A place where everyone has a gun, and everyone uses it. Where the welcoming arms of street gangs can create an almost irresistible lure for abandoned kids running wild and looking for somewhere to belong.
"I've buried a lot of kids I love who were killed by kids I loved," Father Greg says quietly. "That's always hard to do. But I take what Jesus said seriously, which is that we should stand with those on the margins, with those whose dignity has been denied, and with those whose burdens are more than they can bear."
Jobs for a Future began its economic development branch, Homeboy Industries, in 1992. Currently it has six businesses: Homeboy Bakery, Homeboy Silkscreen, Homeboy Merchandising, Homeboy Landscaping, and Homeboy Graffiti Removal. More than 1000 "homies" pour through its door every month. Now former gang enemies, once at war, work side by side to bake bread, print designs on a variety of apparel, sell gear featuring the Homeboy logo, and provide cleaning services for movie locations.
Most with stories such as Leo Galvin, 18, who now works in Father Greg's office as a file clerk. Leo was serving time in prison for grand theft auto when he first encountered the compassionate father. "My dad and I were always arguing, and things were bad at home. I'd go out with my friends and steal cars for fun to forget about my problems—but I got caught," he says.
While in prison, he says, "I had a lot of time to think." Now he is off the streets, working a steady job, and planning to go back to school for a high school diploma. "If it wasn't for Father G, I'd still stealing cars" he says. "But he believes in me."
Father Greg has been criticized by some for administering Catholic last rites to slain gang members. But he maintains that the deceased's family and friends deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and to receive whatever comfort he can provide.
He also points out that such events provide an opportunity to bring his message of hope to other children who still have a chance to make better choices. "What I try to do is hold up the mirror to these kids and show them that they really have been created in God's image. As soon as they understand that they are exactly what God had in mind when he made them, then they begin to become that reality. And then their life begins to change," he says.
By Lindsey Townsend
Outside the Border of the American Dream
EL PASO, TX—Under the blazing sun of a vast blue sky, 92,000 children struggle to survive here every day.
On this most desolate of borders, Father Edward Roden-Lucero, pastor of San Juan Diego Parish outside El Paso, works tirelessly to give Hispanic immigrants a voice in a society that often prefers to ignore them. "A lot of Americans would be shocked to see what's happening down here on the border," Father Ed says.
Without access to health care, work or the basic necessities of life, conditions here can rival those of Third World countries. The poverty rate is almost 30%; there are 108,000 people living on food stamps; and more than 3,000 still live without potable water. "Those figures explain why we do what we do," says Father Ed.
"There's been poverty and injustice down here for decades, but the Catholic Church is providing not only spiritual leadership but also—in the ancient tradition of the church and as the Gospel demands—helping people with practical things," he says.
For the last 17 years the soft-spoken priest has been a Co-chairman of the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization, (EPISO), part of the community organizing network of the Industrial Areas Foundation. EPISO has spearheaded the ongoing effort to obtain water and wastewater services for the thousands of residents who live in the colonias—neighborhoods marked by poverty and lack of basic infrastructure. It also organizes around other issues that affect the lives of the Hispanic poor.
One of the poorest parishes in the Diocese of El Paso, San Juan covers 100 square miles of territory in the high desert east of city limits. Like the other hundreds of colonia parishes in El Paso, it is gripped by poverty, high unemployment, low wages, and neighborhoods without potable water. "That means no water, no sewer systems, no paved roads, no streetlights: nothing," says Father Ed.
Father Ed grew up Catholic in Albuquerque, New Mexico and felt the call to service while seeing ads on television sponsored by the Campaign for Human Development. "I clearly remember the images of the work being done by the Church in Appalachia. Having seen poverty in my own town, I started to see the connection between social problems and the Church's teaching," he says.
After attending Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Santa Fe, he graduated from the College of Santa Fe with a degree in social science; earned an M. Div. from the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio; a Licentiate in Canon Law from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.; and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Oblate.
His roots in Texas run deep. He has served as pastor of La Purisima Parish in Socorro, Texas, another colonia parish; Our Lady of the Valley in El Paso; Director of Communications for the Diocese of El Paso; and is a former Chancellor of the diocese.
He dreams of a future where prejudice and false stereotyping of the Hispanic poor no longer exist. "On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of these people are very hardworking and want to earn their own way. They just need a chance to improve their quality of life through education."
Such opportunity has become a reality through his efforts. Father Ed is co-founder and Vice-chairman of the Board of Directors of Project ARRIBA, a job-training program founded by EPISO. "ARRIBA is the only long-term, high-skill job training program that assures its graduating participants employment that pays a living wage of $10.50 per hour. There is no other living wage initiative in the city or county," says Father Ed.
That's critical in a city where one-third of the workforce earns the minimum wage of just $5.15 per hour. Living wages help create not only healthy families but a healthy tax base. ARRIBA helps people move out of poverty by filling high-skill, high-demand and high-paying occupations, such as nursing and management information systems.
"The reason it works and that it's so unique is that we talk to employers and find out what their needs are, then develop our programs around those needs...I consider my work in EPISO and ARRIBA a component of my pastoral work in the parish," Father Edward says.
Father Ed believes that empowering parish lay leaders is part of the solution to solving today's problems. He has trained countless local residents in social justice issues such as fair housing rights, Equal Opportunity education, healthcare, and the need for community education.
"Obviously, we don't do this work alone. I think priests, more than ever, are called to greater involvement in social issues. This is the prophetic tradition. We must fill the vacuum that exists in society regarding the defense of the poor and promoting their issues," he says.
By Lindsey Townsend
Speaking in Words that Youth Can Hear
INDIANAPOLIS, IN—"We have a cultural crisis in this country today. Rappers, rock stars and major league athletes are now the primary role models for our young people. And the values they're selling are that having money, the right clothes and possessions are what matters--and that having sex with multiple partners is the cool thing to do."
Father Charles and Chester Smith, SVD, are passionate about the youth of America, the Catholic Church, and their African-American heritage. They've already made history by becoming the first African-American twin priests to be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church in America.
While growing up in a tough neighborhood on the South Side, both brothers were strongly influenced by their mother, a social worker and community activist. "Every day she would tell us that we could become anything we wanted to be," says Chester. As members of the Society of the Divine Word, an international religious order, the brothers met and grew fond of several priests who were helping abused and neglected kids and working to rid the neighborhood of gangbangers.
"Essentially they challenged us to take on their jobs and become the "Jesse Jacksons" of the Catholic Church," says Chester. Both chose to answer the call. After they were ordained in 1988, Charles moved to San Bernadino, California to minister while Chester went to St. Anselm's Church on the South Side of Chicago.
Both also soon realized there was a great need in their communities for specialized ministry and programs focused on youth. "Many of our members were black female head of households whose children had no positive male role models. We felt we needed to reach out and evangelize more to these young people to reach them," Chester says.
That focus led them to direct the Bowman-Francis Ministry Project in Atlanta, Georgia, an innovative program that produces culturally relevant educational materials, fosters cross-cultural awareness, africenter approaches to the challenges and problems facing the African-American family and community.
After three years in Atlanta, Father Tony Clark invited them to return to their Midwestern roots at St. Rita's Catholic Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. As a World Church, St. Rita is inclusive of all ethnic groups, including the Vietnamese community and the many nationalities of the Divine Word Missionaries who serve there.
While helping all youth is a key mission, the specific needs of African-American kids remain a top priority for both brothers. They are co-creators and directors of the Ambassadors of the Word Ministries, an African-American youth program that educates and encourages youth in learning and exchanging their knowledge, culture, faith and skills. They have served in pastoral, education, retreat and revival ministries; have written Boyhood to Manhood, a rite of passage manual for African-American boys; and developed a manual for the African-American family Kwanzaa celebration, My Family our Family.
"What a lot of kids in the inner city today see around them is that they can
sell dope and make quick money. The gangbangers, the pimps and the hustlers look
successful to them. We show them that they have other options: to be a
businessman, a fireman, a priest, a fireman," Chester says. "When these kids can
sit down and talk with someone with their heritage who is successful, it changes
But while the twins focus on educating African-American youth about their cultural heritage, they believe that many of the problems that young people deal with today are universal: drugs, sex, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases. "It goes beyond a black and white thing. Kids everywhere are listening to hours and hours of rap music every day and watching these angry and violent videos. They're bombarded with imagery that demeans their character and their personhood. It's no wonder they're confused," Chester says.
To make sure he speaks the same language as his young parishioners, Father Chester even assigns himself homework. He regularly listens to popular rappers and singers like 50 Cent, Britney Spears, Snoop Doggy Dog, then leads discussions with his young charges about the lyrics and the messages they deliver.
Father Chester believes the Church is now at a crossroads where it must find new ways to communicate its values and traditions to future generations. Towards that end, he and his brother plan to continue their work, speaking in language that kids can relate to. "We're losing a lot of young people today because they go to Mass and find it boring and irrelevant," he says.
"We must understand the culture these kids live in and be able to communicate to them how the message of Jesus applies to their lives. The people will come if you meet their spiritual and cultural needs," he contends.
By Lindsey Townsend
Priest Shortage, New Expectations Place High Demands on America's Clergy
CLEVELAND, OH—For this CEO of a $2-million-a-year organization, the bonuses come not in stock options and golden parachutes but in laughs, hugs and heartfelt "thank-you's".
As pastor of St. Jude Parish in Elyria, Ohio, Father Frank Kosem's official mission is to proclaim the Gospel, provide comfort to the bereaved and dying, celebrate the Eucharist, administer last rites, and visit the sick and suffering.
That's the basic job description. But his To-Do list also includes serving a "client base" of 6,000+; long-term planning and strategy, supervising, training and leading a staff of 70; budget planning and forecasting, running a seminary internship program; building and property maintenance; nonstop fundraisers, meetings, counseling sessions; all with 16-hour days that could knock the hardiest Type A corporate executive flat on his back from exhaustion.
"While our primary role is spiritual, we must still be in touch with practical matters. But there are only 24 hours in a day. To survive, you have to learn to delegate," Father Frank says.
He's not alone in his struggle. With just one priest to assist him, the kindly 59-year old priest is just one of thousands of Catholic clergy finding himself working virtually around the clock to try to meet the never-ending demands of a growing congregation. Since 1965, the number of priests in the Cleveland diocese has dropped 40 percent, from 950 to 575 in 2002. Only 6 percent of those priests are younger than 40, and more of than a quarter of all diocesan priests are 70 or older.
While part of the problem is a lack of young priests coming up through the ranks due to diminishing seminary enrollment, another factor is the rapid expansion in recent years of many suburban Catholic parishes. Nationwide, suburban Catholic congregations are more than six times a s large as their Protestant counterparts.
Although some cities such as Pittsburgh, Chicago and Detroit addressed the issue several years ago by closing dozens of parishes, Bishop Anthony Pill decided against such radical changes in Cleveland in favor of evaluating other options. The diocese is now in the middle of the Vibrant Parish Life project, a three-year comprehensive evaluation of parishes and their staffing, to determine which services can be cutback or even eliminated.
Any decrease in services will most likely be received negatively by modern congregations who have come to expect an all-inclusive range of services from the church, everything from youth ministry to sports, education and counseling programs.
As old expectations collide with the new, Father Frank and thousands of others like him struggle to continue to deliver exceptional ministry with little or no backup support. He has become part of a vanishing generation of priests, one who grew up when clergy could still expect to work reasonable hours, be highly respected in the community, and enjoy emotional and physical support from peers.
Ordained in 1970, Father Frank was handpicked to serve as assistant to Bishop James A. Hickey in 1974 and became chancellor of the diocese in 1978. "It was a great joy to work with Bishop Hickey. We complemented each other well," he says.
Although Hickey, who later became cardinal in Washington, urged him to get an advanced degree in canon law in Rome and enter the church hierarchy, Father Frank ultimately chose a less public role. "I enjoyed those years downtown, but my heart has always been in parish life," he says.
He became pastor of St. Jude in 1984 and has never regretted the decision. "The people in the parish become your family. You're part of their ordinary life, sharing their joys and their tragedies, being present for the weddings, funerals, baptisms, celebrations...And the longer you're around, the more effective you become, because there's deep growth in those long-term relationships," he notes.
Father Frank is committed to continuing to provide the school's 500 parish school students with a first-rate Catholic education. Towards that end, St. Jude recently completed a $3 million, 24,000 square-foot addition that includes a new Family Center and Junior High wing addition. "Because of the tight economy, we ended up doing as much of the work as we could ourselves with volunteers and donated efforts," he says. "One of the biggest challenges for the Church today is stewardship: how to motivate people to share their time, their talent, and their treasure."
While Father Frank is justly proud of St. Jude's growth and ever-expanding congregation, what he cherishes most is the comfort he's able to provide by reinforcing the power, presence and healing of God. "You try to get everything done, but ultimately what people remember most is whether you were kind, pastoral, and present. Were you there for them when Grandma died? Were you present when Aunt Mary was in the hospital? That's what people remember most."
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