Last summer, I wrote about my family’s friendship with Father Bill Sullivan, who had recently retired from being a pastor — our pastor — in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana. The headline of that column was (and still is), “Saying goodbye to our favorite priest.” While I’ve been blessed to know many other wonderful priests, he’s still our favorite. That part hasn’t changed.
But what I didn’t know then that, thankfully, I know now is that the reception after his final Mass at St. John the Baptist in New Haven, Indiana, in June 2021 wasn’t a goodbye at all; it was a “see you later.” I assumed (wrongly) that our friendship was built exclusively on him being our pastor and we being among his flock, and once that connection was severed, so too, I thought, would our friendship. That has proven not to be the case, thanks be to God.
In late June, we had Father Bill over for dinner. We hadn’t seen him in some time, and it was clear that retirement suited him. Many of us can only imagine the stress that today’s priests are under. It is a unique and blessed vocation, to be sure, but one in which those who answer its call are duty-bound to wear many hats. While a priest’s primary responsibility is to tend to the souls of his parishioners (largely through the administration of the sacraments), the scope of the job does not end there. The priest is his parish’s CEO, to be certain, but often he is also its accountant, its human resources executive, its maintenance man, its school administrator, its therapist and the list goes on. Relieved of all of these duties, Father Bill looked 10 years younger. It was clear that the tremendous burden placed upon his shoulders for the better part of 50 years had been removed.
Over the past week or so, I’ve thought often about Father Bill — about all our good and holy priests and the fulfilling yet difficult lives that they lead. And about how we lay men and women must continue to pray for an increase in vocations so that lives can continue to be touched by their presence.
First, on Aug. 4, the Church celebrated the feast of one of my favorite saints — St. John Vianney, the patron of parish priests. I read an excellent piece in The Priest magazine (published by OSV) that detailed his life and drove home his love for the people to whom he ministered. The article’s author, D.D. Emmons — a frequent contributor to Our Sunday Visitor, wrote: “John Vianney was endowed with and practiced all the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Everything he did, every decision conformed to the will of God. He was devoted to the people of Ars, giving them every day of his life. His charity was obvious to all who knew him.” Emmons then quotes the great saint, who wrote that the benefits of God “would be of no avail to us without the priest. What would be the use of a house full of gold if you had nobody to open the door? The priest has the key of the heavenly treasures; it is he who opens the door; he is the steward of the good God, the distributor of his wealth.'”
This passage came to mind days later when we gathered together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Father Bill’s ordination. Clearly, my family is not alone in having our lives touched deeply by the presence of this holy and humble priest. At the Mass, we were surrounded by hundreds of others who shared a special relationship with the man who witnessed their marriages, or baptized their children, or heard their confessions, or fed them the bread of the living God.
Before the Mass began, our 5-year-old, Gemma, asked where Father Bill was. It’s likely she wanted to get one of his patented fist bumps that she’s become so accustomed to when seeing him. “He’s in the back of church waiting for Mass to start,” we told her, pointing. It was then we realized that, in the narthex, he was joined by dozens of his brother priests, all vested similarly to concelebrate with him. Seeing this sea of holy priests, all there to honor the legacy of their brother and our friend, Gemma said, shocked, “Whoa, that’s millions of fathers.”
From her lips to God’s ears.
Scott Warden is managing editor of Our Sunday Visitor.