by Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter and Boston City Paper, 5/2013
Each year around this time, I’ve made it a tradition to write a piece about spirituality, about faith, religion, or clergy who have made a difference in my life. While this column is not “church chat” and is intended toward folks of all faiths (or none), I’d like to talk today about three members of the clergy who make a difference, and encourage you, if you are so inclined, to thank your clergy or spiritual leaders as well.
Here in Foxboro we have many churches of different denominations, and each plays a vital role, not just for an obligation to “go to church” but to be part of a family, part of a community, to pray together, and share common faith.
At my beloved Saint Mary’s, we have been very fortunate to have a string of compassionate and excellent priests shepherding our flock. I remember Father Boyle, Father Casey, and of course, Father Tom Reilly, whose affability and remarkable sense of humor made him welcome the moment he made Foxboro his home so many years ago. Around that time, a young priest named Steve Madden came along as well, and he made such a profound difference at Saint Mary’s, first as the “new priest” and then, after a reassignment to another parish, he returned here as Pastor when Father Tom retired.
Through the years, with Father Steve at the helm, other priests have come and gone, and Father Steve has often pastored the church on his own. Of course, he has staff and volunteers and occasional priests from other parishes to assist with masses, but often, he was on his own, everything on his shoulders. I am sure it was never easy, but he always “kept the ship steady.”
He has done an incredible job as pastor.
So with that introduction I’d like to talk today about three members of the Saint Mary’s Clergy. My usual disclaimer applies; no one asked me to do this, but sometimes you need to let people know publically the difference they make. A public thank you note, if you will. So here goes.
First, Father Brian Smith. This young priest joined the Saint Mary’s family a few years ago as parochial vicar and instantly made about 1000 friends. Articulate, personable, a great writer and speaker, he made an instant connection with the congregation that takes some clergy years to establish. You met him, you liked him, and it was that simple. And his sermons are incredible: A movie buff, he loves quoting some of his favorites and sometimes includes movie quotes into his homilies. And he won me over when he quoted Star Trek (2009) and the line Captain Pike says to a young James T. Kirk: “I dare you to do better.” Whether he is speaking of NCIS, or some other movie, or just current events, his sermons are always on-target and make an instant connection. His signature line at the end of mass, “Isn’t God so good?” demands a loud YES, and if doesn’t get it, he’ll remind us we can do better! From the moment he arrived here, he became our friend.
Now, you may know that Father Brian is quite ill, and in the hospital. I would like to take this opportunity to say in this very public forum that I am asking everyone who believes, and everyone who can, to do, as my mother says, “storm heaven with prayers” for Father Brian. We need him healthy, and we need him back at Saint Mary’s. Prayers, good thoughts, healing energy — send it his way. We want him back healthy and whole! Let him feel your love!
Next up is the Reverend Deacon Paul Kline. I love that deacons play such a large role in the church these days, and as a husband and father his homilies can speak to experiences that priests cannot, such as the joys, and the challenges, in every marriage, and the miracles — and again, the challenges of raising children. He will often begin a talk with a personal experience, perhaps a family conversation around the dinner table, or something one of his children said, and springboard into the topic of the day with an “I’ve been there” vibe. He has a gentle way about him, but when he starts speaking, you’re captivated. Not only is Deacon Paul a gifted speaker whose homilies have stunned me, he has a way of projecting how much he LOVES being part of the mass, part of the congregation. It’s like he can’t stop smiling. But then he’ll begin speaking about the issues of the day — and some of them are hard to hear, and some really make you think — but he has a fatherly way of preaching that makes you want to hear every word. He’s unafraid of the tough topics, and whether he speaks about current events or gospel stories 2000 years old, you listen with a fresh perspective.
I am so very grateful he is here at Saint Mary’s.
And finally, I would like to celebrate Father Steve Madden, one of my personal heroes. The young man of years ago — so instantly likeable, so much one of us, the gifted speaker, has only grown better at the job. Our pastor of Saint Mary’s is everywhere he is needed, 24/7 on the job, celebrating sacraments, weddings and saying funeral masses, overseeing the myriad of youth programs and religious classes, giving spiritual guidance and comfort and love to this parish, not to mention all of the administrative work he does to keep Saint Mary’s running.
He is a priest of incredible skill, genuine humility, and I cannot think of a better man for the job.
I have told him this in person — his homilies are always relevant, always captivating, and every time — every single time — as he ended a sermon with his signature, “God Bless You All,” I have the same thought: “Message received.” He’s that good.
Celebrating his 25th anniversary of the priesthood in June (and he looks so young !) he is the epitome of what a priest should be — approachable, kind, stern when he needs to be, knows what to say and when, but always emanating that very human, “I am one of you” vibe.
He seems to love being a priest — he seems to love the job. And he’s so personable, so friendly. At Communion, he says your name before he presents the Eucharist wafer. I love that. During mass, he’ll say the name of the person who read the intentions — “We offer our prayers that Pat has spoken and those in our hearts.” It’s like a family, very one-on-one.
Unlike some of the priests I knew as a kid, who seemed a little stand-offish, Father Steve is so very human, the first to say he too has his own questions, his own doubts, and he is on this journey with us. You can see sometimes the burdens he carries on his shoulders — the weight of all OUR cares, OUR confessions, OUR sadness, OUR trials — and somehow he always seems to say the right thing.
His job cannot be easy — it’s a job so few can do, and fewer can do well, but I am so glad he does it.
Yes, he is a priest first, a man of the cloth, but he is our FRIEND.
And sometimes I don’t think he has any idea just what a difference he has made in our lives. Much like Father Kierce, God rest him, who was the soul of my Saint Kevin in Dorchester, Father Steve, at least for me, has become the soul of Saint Mary’s. Yes, priest assignments come and go, and there may come a time when he is reassigned — I hope that day never comes unless he wants it — we need him here. We need his type of leadership, we need him.
I once said to him, and I’ll say it publically here, that I thought the best way I could explain how we feel about him is by quoting, of all things, a TV show (Father Brian will be so proud of me!). The show is a British TV program called Vicar of Dibley, in which a female vicar arrives at the fictional Saint Barnabus Parish in England, and over time is so welcomed by the community, that when she considers leaving, her congregation won’t let her go. She’s made such a difference they won’t allow her to retire. To paraphrase what the congregation said to that vicar, I say to Father Steve, “It is because of YOU that the church is full, not empty, and it is because of YOU that our hearts are full, not empty.”
Y’know, I’m the first to admit that I can be overly sentimental, and I try to watch that because it can come across as insincere — so it bears repeating — this is for real. This is from the heart. And it needs to be said.
So many priests and clergy have made such a positive difference in my life, and it’s nice to have the privilege of this forum to write so public a thank you note.
Being a priest, a member of any clergy, has got to be one of the most difficult jobs on the planet. And yet, people like these three great men, and so many others, do it for US.
So friends, if you’re a church goer or if you have a religious person or some sort of spiritual leader or guide in your life, thank them now for all they do. Let them know that you know their job isn’t easy, and let them know the difference they make. You will make their day.
And also, please keep Father Brian in your prayers.
And to Father Steve, Father Brian and Deacon Paul, thank you for welcoming the prodigal son (me) back in 2010 after a few years of “church sabbatical” and making me feel so welcome — YOU make the difference and I am profoundly grateful.
Thank you to the three of you — and all clergy of all faiths who make the difference.
And how else could I end this one but to say:
Update: Our friend Father Brian Smith passed away early in the morning of Monday, June 3, 2013. We grieve at his passing at such a young age, but his suffering is over. May he know God’s tender mercy and be with Our Lord in Heaven this very day. Please keep his family and friends and Saint Mary’s parish in your prayers – we have lost a great priest and a brilliant friend. I have left this article as originally published; I was told that Father Brian’s family read it to him in the hospital and he gave it a “thumbs up.” I also heard that he received a ton of cards and letters from friends and parishioners. I’m very glad he knew how much his parish loved him.
Rest in peace, Father Brian – we will never forget you.