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Golden jubilee priests ‘would do it all again for the sake of the Kingdom’

LOS ANGELES, CA (The Tidings) - The year 1958 was a wonderful year to be a new priest in Los Angeles — especially for Msgr. Patrick Reilly, who like so many professional baseball-starved Angelenos fell immediately in love with the Dodgers.

“I tell people the greatest thing besides my ordination was the Dodgers abandoning Brooklyn and coming to L.A.,” he notes with a hearty Irish chuckle. “I became an instant fan. I caught one of those ‘Moon’ shots that Wally Moon hit over the Coliseum screen after I was just ordained.”

The pastor emeritus of St. Robert Bellarmine Church, Burbank, was one of 13 priests celebrating their 50th anniversaries of priesthood in 2008 who were honored last month at the archdiocesan Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

“What a great joy,” Cardinal Roger Mahony remarked as the assembly applauded the priests who, together, represent 650 years of ordained priestly life. They included Fathers Abelardo Bailon, Brian Cavanagh, Hugh Crowe, James Toal and James O’Grady, and Monsignors Henry Gomez, Patrick Reilly, Edmond Renehan and Ronald Royer — all diocesan priests — as well as Augustinian Father Thomas Behan, Congregation of St. Joseph Father Claudio De Agostini, Comboni Missionary Father Joseph Forlani and Scalabrini Father Raniero Alessandrini (the latter ordained in 1957).

Other golden jubilarian diocesan priests not in attendance at the Chrism Mass include Msgr. Joseph Cokus, Father Edward Johnson, Msgr. Edward Soto and Msgr. Jon Won. A number of the golden jubilarians were interviewed by The Tidings and reflected on their years of ministry.

‘Years full of life and challenges’

Young Patrick Reilly’s vocation came about from his “very simple, devout” parents, who struggled to raise eight children in County Longford, Ireland, including an older daughter who became a Daughter of Mary and Joseph Sister and was missioned to Los Angeles. It was the urgings of Sister Mary Concepta and Msgr. John Sheridan, a neighbor from the next parish who had also journeyed to Southern California years before, that brought him across the pond to study theology at St. John’s Seminary.

Father Reilly’s first assignments were St. Ignatius, St. Gregory, St. Brendan and Nativity in Los Angeles. In 1973, he was appointed administrator of Sacred Heart parish in Covina, where he served as pastor for seven years. Then in 1986 he became pastor of St. Robert Bellarmine in Burbank, where he retired as pastor emeritus in 2002.

“For me the 50 years have gone by so quickly, and they’ve been full of life and challenges far beyond my wildest dreams,” he reports. “The first great joy was living through the Second Vatican Council, the changes it made for us as priests. We were young enough in the business to be flexible.

“What I think I liked most about the changes was that so many more lay people became involved with the Church,” he adds. “It was an opportunity for them to express their vocation of priesthood received through baptism. And that was very exciting.”

Another exciting – and frightening — event in Father Reilly’s early priesthood was being caught up in the Watts riots in 1965. He was at Nativity parish in South Los Angeles all alone because the pastor happened to be on vacation. Nearby two furniture stores were burning and Sears was being looted.

“So I had the Blessed Sacrament and everything in the trunk of my car ready to go if the church or the rectory caught on fire,” he recalls. “But I stayed through the whole thing. I remember it was August 17; that Sunday, I said all the Masses. We didn’t have many people, but I did my best to encourage the folks. It was rather scary.”

‘Consoling ministry’

Two of the veteran priest’s favorite ministries were — and still are — visiting the sick and celebrating funerals. In his old pre-lay-Eucharistic-minister-days at Sacred Heart, every First Friday of the month priests would bring Communion to all the homebound sick in the parish. He calls it an “extremely consoling ministry” for the ill, plus it made him appreciate his own good health.

Today, in residence at St Robert Bellarmine, Msgr. Reilly remains active. He celebrates his regular share of weekly Masses, hears confessions and — as the “old guy” in the rectory — does a lot of funerals and graveside services. “I think it’s a great ministry to be able to offer consolation and, of course, the message of the Resurrection to people who are mourning,” he points out.

He also enjoys accompanying pilgrims on trips to Rome, Ireland and other far-flung locales. “I’m there to give cheap advice,” he quips.

But would he do it again?

“Oh, yes,” he says about his half-century of priesthood. “I would do it all again for the sake of the Kingdom. God has given me a great gift of pragmatic faith, and I mean by that God doesn’t work miracles without our help. And our help is prayer of petition. He’s been very good to me.”

Family and friends in formation

Father Thomas Behan, a member of the Order of St. Augustine, says his vocation sprung largely from his parents and parochial school teachers. His father was a strict Irish Catholic, while his mother converted from the Baptist faith when they were married.

“But religion was a big part of our family growing up on Staten Island, New York,” the 75-year-old priest reports, “going to Mass on Sunday and receiving the sacraments.”

The nun who impressed him the most taught first grade. Sister Perpetua was right out of the novitiate and Thomas’ class was her first in 1939. He was impressed that she was going to school herself, attending Fordham University every weekend and summer.

“I had a friend next door who went to the Augustinian High School and I used to go visit him,” he notes. “The life very much attracted me. It was right after the war [World War II] when books were coming out like Thomas Merton’s ‘Seven Storey Mountain.’

“And a lot of guys were coming back from the war and promised God they would give themselves to religion and going into the seminary. So I thought I’d try it. And the school had a good reputation, so if I didn’t like it I’d at least graduate from a good high school.”

But Thomas did like it and went on to the novitiate on the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie and then to Villanova, an Augustinian university. After he studied theology for four years in Rome, going over to Europe on the ill-fated SS Andrea Doria, which sank a few months later.

’I could bring God to people’

Father Behan’s first assignment was in a suburban high school in Philadelphia, where he taught biology. Then he served in a parish in Troy, New York, before moving to California. Here he’s done parish work in Los Angeles, Hollywood, San Diego, Oakland and Ojai, where he was pastor of St. Thomas parish.

Since 2003, he’s been in residence at Our Mother of Good Counsel in L.A.. “This I’m calling my ‘launch pad,’” he says with a laugh. “‘Cause it’s from here to eternity.”

In the meantime, he takes his regular turn at the Los Feliz parish celebrating Masses, administering sacraments and doing counseling. “The thing that really inspired me as a child, and it has never dimmed, is the fact that I could bring God to people,” he explains. “That was mostly by Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

“I still like hearing confessions, especially if the people are really interested in counseling. If they just want to get their list of sins off and you’re supposed to white-wash them or hose them down, that type of Confession is hard.”

The other challenges for Father Behan have mostly been concerned with his health, starting when his appendix burst while he was studying in Rome and he developed peritonitis and almost died. He’s also had a number of surgeries, including both of his knees replaced. And his basic stamina has been declining ever since he turned 60.

“You just run out of energy,” he reports. “You want to do all the things that you used to do as a priest, but can’t. You just have to pace yourself. The days that I don’t have a nap, stay far away. I’m grumpy as heck.”

“I’ve had bouts with depression, but I would still do it again,” he adds. “Everybody has problems. I never had a problem of whether I was in the right vocation. I always loved being a priest, and still do.”

The astronomer priest

Msgr. Ronald Royer agrees that being a so-called “retired priest” is wonderful — especially if you’re living in the foothills of the Sequoia Forest outside Springville, California.

“I’m sitting here right now and we’ve got wild flowers all around us,” he reports in a phone interview. “The horses and mules are grazing on the opposite hillside. I’m looking up at Mount Moses and it’s full of snow up there. And I’m seeing the giant redwood sequoias. It’s just wonderful here. And I have a nice dark sky at night.”

Dark sky has special meaning for someone named one of the top 10 astrophotographers in the world in 1988 by Astronomy Magazine. The priest, who was born in Santa Monica in 1932, says he’s never had a conflict juggling religion and science, pointing out that Galileo, Louis Pasteur and Georges Lemaite, a Belgian physicist and Roman Catholic priest whose research backed up the “Big Bang” cosmological model of the universe, were all good Catholics.

“It’s among religious people that real science develops,” he points out. “The way I look at it, both sides are purifying each other. We’re trying to keep each other on track for the truth.”

Msgr. Royer says it was his eighth-grade teacher at St. Monica School, Sister Paraclita, who “put the bug in my ear” about being a priest. A graduate of St. John’s Seminary, he was an associate pastor at St. Hilary in Pico Rivera, St. Joseph in Hawthorne and St. Frances of Rome in Azusa. He served at St. Pancratius in Lakewood as an associate, then administrator and from 1983 to 2002 as pastor, when he retired.

“The main challenge we all faced was the parishes kept growing and the vocations kept declining,” he reports. “The workload was just so heavy at times. I remember when I was in Hawthorne, every Sunday you would do about 25 baptisms — every week, and that was just one aspect of your job.

“People had the idea that priests worked on Sundays and took the rest of the week off,” he adds with a knowing laugh. “But that certainly wasn’t true in any of my ministries. It was just constant, just constant.”

He notes that the Second Vatican Council, which opened up many formerly priestly ministries to lay men and women, ironically for a time increased the workload for parish priests, who had to recruit and train them. “It wasn’t as easy as it sounded,” he remembers.

Delayed rewards

Still, Msgr. Royer says his life as a priest has been satisfying and rewarding. He felt privileged to be there at significant moments in people’s lives such as births and deaths.

“It’s hard emotional work, but there’s always a joy in doing hard work,” he says. “Most of the funerals, however, I found were not that sad because they give people a time to think and reflect on their own lives. So there’s much more spirituality at a funeral than say a wedding, which is usually just all fun and games.”

Msgr. Royer remains active, helping out at St. Anne parish in Porterville, about 24 miles away, and taking care of his 97-year-old mother, Violet. And he’s still photographing the skies.

“The joy of being a parish priest was knowing that we were doing some good, which is what society needs - even more so now,” he says. “And the joys are hearing from people I encouraged as youth to think about careers in science or being a priest or people I married.

“I think,” the scientist observes, “that our joys are delayed — like the whole Christian faith.”


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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Tidings (www.the-tidings.com), official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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