Msgr. James Burke celebrates Mass at St. Paul of the Cross in North Palm Beach Jan. 20.

Senior shepherds continue to witness

WEST PALM BEACH | Worshippers in wheelchairs accompanied by aides began to fill the chapel for Mass, which began, after a short delay, with the main celebrant and four senior clergy wearing silk stoles and concelebrating from their seats near the altar.

Jim Fabyan, helping a friend to Mass, entered the chapel at Lourdes-Noreen McKeen Residence, a facility in West Palm Beach run by Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm. Several of the diocese’s retired priests live at the residence. Fabyan immediately spotted the priests in front with walkers parked near them and was moved by their presence.

The senior shepherds might be without the physical capacity of their youth, but they are still witnessing their love for the Mass and wholeheartedly taking part in the celebration of the Eucharist.
“It shows their great dedication to the priesthood,” said Fabyan, a parishioner of the Cathedral of St. Ignatius Loyola in Palm Beach Gardens. “It shows their love of God. It shows their commitment.”

The January Mass was beautiful, with retired Father Francis Reardon as main celebrant. The four elderly priests were not able to stand as priests normally do during celebrations. But in their own quiet way, with eyes closed at times, hands clutched and not a word spoken, the men showed great reverence and passion as they worshipped as brothers of Jesus Christ’s priesthood, to which they were first called in their youth, so many years ago.

People here in the Diocese of Palm Beach will have an opportunity to follow the call and do something to help men such as these this month. The diocese’s annual “Collection for Retired Diocesan Priests” is coming up Feb. 24-25.

Now in its third year, the faithful are asked to mark calendars, dig into pockets and support the collection that in turn goes to assist the diocese’s retired clergy residing in assisted living facilities or in homes, some alone without family support.

When the collection first launched, Bishop Gerald M. Barbarito said in a statement, “The diocese is responsible for the welfare of its priests who are in retirement. I know you will agree that after serving the people of our diocese for so long and so well, they deserve to be free of financial worries in retirement.”

Priests in retirement years continue to serve in parishes and ministries, and face challenges of any retiree on a budget. There are the usual expenses like electricity, water, insurance, trash collection and maintenance that go along with living in a house or condo. And there are, of course, food and everyday incidentals and the sudden unexpected expenses. Retired priests receive a pension. Payments of health insurance premiums and car insurance for those who still drive are also benefits.

St. Paul of the Cross has four retired priests, including two diocesan retired priests — Msgr. James Burke and Father Brian Flanagan, active and continuing to serve and help out at the parish. Father Thomas Lafreniere, pastor, said the parish is blessed to have the senior priests, who all bring so much to the parish community and to him as a fairly new priest, not yet marking 10 years of priesthood. “It is nice to have their presence and their counsel,” he said.

Parishioner Clint Johnson also had good things to say about the retired priests of St. Paul of the Cross, and all priests. “They bring a commitment like no other. A priest is committed from day one until he goes to heaven. They are role models,” he said.

Father Michael Edwards, 70, diocesan retired priests-episcopal delegate, has his own take on the golden years and retirement that are associated with visits to doctors and all the little things that pop up unexpectedly, like medical conditions, failing eyesight, senior moments and dependency. “Senior years are not for sissies,” he said.

A retired priest himself, Father Edwards is the former pastor of St. Helen Parish and School in Vero Beach. He now lives alone in a house on the parish premises. Healthy and active and almost as busy as before retirement, he continues to do God’s work. In addition to his diocesan position, he helps out at several parishes. He lends a hand at St. Helen, Holy Family in Port St. Lucie, St. Anastasia in Fort Pierce and St. John of the Cross in Vero Beach.

This year, he is aimed at taking time during the year to get the group of retired priests together in the spirit of brotherhood and to create a sense of camaraderie among them, making sure that nobody is left out or alone.

The special fraternity of retired priests continues to grow. At this point, the brotherhood includes 27 men of various ages. “It won’t be anything formal,” said Father Edwards about the casual reunions. “We will get together for lunch and to reminisce, and moan and groan.”

“They may say, ‘I’m fine,’ because they never want to be a burden,” he explained. “And they rightly want to maintain their independence. For most people, your extended family can look in to see how things are going. That’s what I’m going to try to be for my brother priests.”

Father Seamus Murtagh, 82, calls a condominium in Palm Beach Gardens home. He, like several of the diocese’s retired priests, celebrates Mass at Lourdes-Noreen McKeen during the week.

The former pastor of St. Ann Parish and School in West Palm also drives the distance to rural Indiantown, where he celebrates Mass at Holy Cross on weekends. He also continues to serve several charitable organizations, including St. Ann Place that he helped establish. As part of his service there, he makes sandwiches and distributes them to the homeless. He also helps raise funds and other resources for a service dedicated to homeless mothers out of St. Francis Parish in Riviera Beach.

“It is good for me,” Father Murtagh said about being active and continuing to minister and serve. “I find myself raised up just working with the people.”

While at Lourdes-Noreen McKeen Residence, we looked in on one of the diocesan retired priests in residence there. We caught up with Father Peter Van Nguyen, 85, after the late morning Mass to see how he is doing and to talk to him about retirement years.

Father Van Nguyen had a serious accident over three months ago. He took a tumble, hit his head and suffered a severe head injury. His active parish and community life came to a sudden halt. As a result of his injury, he suffers memory loss and has mobility issues.

During his convalescence at Lourdes-Noreen McKeen, he continues to perform duties of the priesthood, to which he was first called at the young age of 12. “I concelebrate the Mass every day,” said Father Van Nguyen about the top item on his daily agenda. He was one of the four priests we saw at the altar during the Mass.

Looking back to his youth, Father Van Nguyen’s 58 ministry years as a priest have been busy ones, and apparently he has touched many souls and has been part of people’s lives.

He was ordained at age 27 in Vietnam and came to Florida in 1983, where he was incardinated into the Diocese of Palm Beach eight years later. Over the decades, he served St Thomas More in Boynton Beach, St. Clare Parish and School in North Palm Beach, Sacred Heart Parish and School in Lake Worth, and ministered to and participated with the large local Vietnamese community. After his retirement in 2007, he came to Ascension Parish in Boca Raton, where he continued to service until his fall.
During our visit with him, Father Van Nguyen gave us a tour of his new modest residence: a large bedroom and a separate bath. The room’s south corner was the focal point, with a wooden rosary displayed on the wall in front of a cushioned kneeler which appeared worn from use.

A table held a Bible, books with spiritual readings, prayer cards, statues and a wooden box with a pyx to transport the holy Eucharist. A large room divider featured panels with images representing Christ at various stages of his life. “I credit my life to God,” said Father Van Nguyen. He’s thankful for his many years of ministry and for each day after making it through his accident and trauma and feeling better.
He is not sure how long he will be at Lourdes-Noreen McKeen, but has considered that it may be indefinitely. He spends his newfound time in prayer and is on a new path, unlike his days at the parishes and among his flocks, guiding and leading and helping his sheep renew and grow in faith and come closer to Jesus.

“I will use this time to renew myself,” he said about the big change. “I want to grow closer to God. This is a very nice place, and I would not be able to be here if the diocese didn’t help. I don’t know where I would be.”

As we talked with Father Van Nguyen, the telephone rang. An unexpected visitor was downstairs. Father Van Nguyen excused himself, grabbed his walker and slowly shuffled out of the room to meet the caller.

He returned about 10 minutes later. “It was a parishioner from Ascension Parish. She just came by to say hello,” he said with a big smile. “I am loved by the people.” He appeared very delighted and joyful knowing that people here in the diocese have not forgotten him.

All are asked to remember the retired priests of the diocese. Keep senior shepherds in prayers, and support them generously through the special collection this month.