Listen to the show:
Today’s host(s): Scot Landry and Fr. Mark O’Connell
Today’s guest(s): Fr. Paul Soper, Pastor of St. Albert the Great Parish, Weymouth
Today’s topics: How an astrophysicist becomes a priest; helping Catholics cope with reconfiguration; Catholics Come Home; St. Albert the Great Parish
A summary of today’s show: Fr. Paul Soper joins Scot and Fr. Mark to talk about being an astrophysicist who became a parish priest; the remarkable response of a parish to being closed; and how his current parish became an example of helping Catholics come home.
1st segment: Scot welcomes Fr. Mark back to the show. Fr. Mark said that as it’s Friday of Memorial Day weekend, we might be the only people left in the building. A very special event happened in Fr. Mark’s family yesterday. His sister Margaret Mary graduated from Harvard University with a Master’s degree and intends to become a teacher in the inner city. It’s a great time of year.
Scot said Cardinal Seán said at the ordination Mass last weekend that they were holding a rapture party. He used it very cleverly, poking gentle fun at those claiming the end of world would be last week.
Fr. Mark was at St. Athanasius in Reading this week for a talk on issues related to the work of the tribunal, especially related to marriages and annulments.
2nd segment: Scot and Fr. Mark welcome Fr. Paul Soper to the show. Fr. Paul grew up in St. Jerome’s Parish in Weymouth. The pastor when he was a teen was Fr. Dan Quinn, very open and loving man and effusive in his love of God and the Church. One day, he asked Fr. Paul at 15 years old to think about being a priest. Fr. Paul said he wanted to be an astronomer. He made him promise to consider it briefly before doing anything final.
Fr. Paul went to college and began to apply for graduate schools, but yet had been feeling something gnawing inside him. He went to St. Paul’s, Cambridge, to speak to a priest there about these questions coming up. He thought it was just to honor the promise and put it to rest, but it lead to him deciding this was a serious call.
His family was supportive, but probably not very surprised. His parents were very wise and their reaction was wanting to support him if that’s what he wants to do. They later told him he was very pleased, but didn’t want to influence his decision.
Scot asked about those who want to pit science against faith. Fr. Paul has a degree in astrophysics. He asked Fr. Paul how studying science affected his faith. The Psalmist says the heavens proclaim the glory of the Lord. He doesn’t look to science to lead him to direct conclusions about God. But go outside on a starry night to observe the immensity of the universe to observe how glorious they are, and yet they are entirely incapable of knowing what they are and why they were created. If he can study the star, and it can lead him to glorifying God because of it, then he’s helping it to fulfill its purpose.
Fr. Mark said some scientists cannot connect their faith to their livelihood. They can’t measure God and so eliminate him from their belief. Fr. Paul said science asks questions about what and how, but is very poor at asking questions about why. The scientific method is harsh, demanding, rigorous and limited. Questions of why are really fundamental questions. They go well with the how questions. For example, the Big Bang can be investigated as to the how, but the why question which goes hand in hand with it, needs to be investigated in the chapel and in prayer and in Scripture and human interrelations. The universe is pulsing with meaning that cannot be investigated by the scientific method.
One of the astronauts Pope Benedict spoke with last week said you can’t help but pray when considering the fragility and beauty of the earth. Fr. Paul said one of the beautiful unfoldings with human history, with each age new ways have come forward for us to be able to understand our relationship with the Lord. In the 20th and 21st century has brought a deepened understanding of mathematics and physics.
Scot said in his own life, when he went from working in marketing to the seminary, they couldn’t how someone could go from the “devil’s work” to the Church. How did scientists react to his entering the priesthood? Fr. Paul said he was able to continue his work with a team of scientists and they continue to research and publish papers together. He is the only religious person in the group, but they are respectful and intrigued and fascinated by the questions that are raised. One of the men died a couple of months ago and he was a self-described “religious junkie”. They would often talk about religion. He was Jewish but he was fascinated by the questions.
Fr. Mark said he gets a kick out of the papers Fr. Paul publishes because he can’t read them because they are all very scientific. Among the academic credentials mentioned, Fr. Paul’s always says St. Albert, Weymouth.
Fr. Mark said in seminary that Fr. Paul has never flaunted his intelligence. He is a wonderful man who do anything for anyone, Fr. Mark said, and is his greatest friend.
Academically, moving to seminary was a surprising transition, said Fr. Paul. He went from problem sets and computer programs to writing papers and doing lots of reading. He had a close group of friends in college who were very supportive and in the seminary he experienced the same. The best part for him was the community, which has continued to stay in touch. Fr. Mark said Fr. Paul was the only seminarian with a computer at the time. they started out with 42 classmates of whom 21 were ordained, 11 of whom were for Boston.
Scot said that rate is not uncommon. Fr. Paul said seminary is a place of discernment, where one discovers whether they have a vocation to the priesthood. There is a particular vocation to being a seminarian as well, which some of the men who left might have had. It is a vocation of hope and is a vocation in and of itself within the Church. One of their classmates who left is now Fr. Tony Medeiros, rector of Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary in Boston.
3rd segment: Fr. Soper has served in many parishes and at campus ministry at UMass Lowell. He has covered all five regions of the diocese. Most priests stay primarily in one region or another. Fr. Mark said he and Fr. Paul made a commitment that whatever the cardinal asks, they will do. They do not ask for assignments. Scot said that’s not unlike Cardinal Seán who’s taken on one difficult assignment after another as a bishop.
Scot asked him what it’s like to serve in many different parishes. Fr. Paul said it’s been a great adventure, in part because never having chosen any of them, and so each one is a great surprise. He’s grown in each place he’s been and he’s been happy there, making wonderful friends. In 2004, he was pastor at St. Alphonsus in Beverly and not long after, during Reconfiguration, the parish was designated for closing.
Fr. Paul said it was a parish that took the concept of stewardship very seriously. They had wonderful leadership in that. Every Sunday after the prayers of the faithful, the parish would say together the stewardship prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess You have given me: I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more.
When reconfiguration came and they saw themselves as a small parish surrounded by large parishes, they brought to the committee considering it that they offered to be closed. This occurred after many meetings within the parish. He had come to Beverly from St. Anthony, Revere, and an opportunity had arisen at that parish to build a church in a remote area of the Dominican Republic. The parishioners at St. Alphonsus decided that if they were to close their own parish, that they would go to the Dominican Republic and explore the idea of building a new parish there. They worked with an architect and decided to build a beautiful place, not just something inexpensive and easy to build. They had many parish fundraisers that raised $30,000. They managed to sell every piece of furniture from the rectory for this purpose. They brought many sacred goods, including statues, altar linens, vestments, nativity sets, etc., from Beverly to the new church called San Alfonso, which opened about 8 months after St. Alphonsus closed. They ended up having to carry them up a mountain because the rains prevented the truck from climbing the hill.
Scot said it’s very far from the common reaction of those whose parishes were closed. Many people were attached to their parishes and wanted to hold one, but this reaction was to become giving. Fr. Paul was very moved by what he saw. On the day they closed the church they had a procession around the church, finishing with the St. Ignatius prayer. There were tears of sorrow, but also tears of sacrificial love.
From there he went to Bl. Mother Teresa Parish in Dorchester and the St. Albert in Weymouth. St. Albert also suffered a lot from reconfiguration and gone through a lot of pain. The parish closed for 10 months and the parishioners had stayed and then it reopened. Fr. Paul said when he arrived at St. Albert, Fr. Larry Borges had been taking care of the parish after it had settled into the idea of being opened again and trying to normalize itself. They’re maintaining the enthusiasm and zeal of fighting to stay open while doing all the ordinary things a parish does. During the time it was closed, extraordinary lay leadership come forward. The parish continue to function in many ways and those leaders stayed after it reopened. It provides a model for how parishes should function in coming days when priests become to rare to do the things priests don’t need to do. Lay leadership brings a depth to parish life even if there were many priests available.
Fr. Paul said there is no paid janitor. They have volunteers who take care of that. They have volunteer pastoral associates. They just had a big spring cleanup. Part of that is because they don’t have huge financial resources, but they also don’t need them because they have an activated lay leadership.
Scot said stewardship is giving time, talent, and treasure and time and talent are more important. Fr. Paul said it’s healthier for a parish to have people who love the parish to do those things, than to hire someone to do them.
Scot said the painful chapter of St. Albert’s history was a source for a unique way to launch Catholics Come Home. Fr. Paul said last fall, as they were planning for Christmas, the parish council considered what does a welcoming parish look like. They were already doing many significants part of that. After every daily Mass and Sunday Mass, they would have hospitality in the parish hall. Another aspect of being welcoming would be welcoming to those who were coming for Christmas Masses. The parish council wrote a letter to explore the reasons people might have left the Church and sympathized with those reasons and then told the people that they would be missed. They put the letter in the hands of every person who came to the church on Christmas.
They also decided to have Ash Wednesday as a focus for Catholics Come Home and decided to have the church open for 24 hours that day. Well over 1,000 people came through the doors of the church. They had welcoming teams of at least 4, but often many more. As people came through the door, somebody met them, walked them up to where the ashes were being given, talked to them, gave them a prayer card, and invited them to come back on Good Friday. They heard many confessions. Many meetings with people who came through the door, including many would be candidates for RCIA.
Fr. Paul said they believe it was a great success.
5th segment: Each Friday we look forward to the upcoming Sunday’s Gospel to reflect on it and prepare for the Sunday homily.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
And I will ask the Father,
and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always,
the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept,
because it neither sees nor knows him.
But you know him, because he remains with you,
and will be in you.
I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.
In a little while the world will no longer see me,
but you will see me, because I live and you will live.
On that day you will realize that I am in my Father
and you are in me and I in you.
Whoever has my commandments and observes them
is the one who loves me.
And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father,
and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”
Scot recalls to himself that this is before Pentecost and Apostles must have heard this as a complicated riddle. He finds it moving that Jesus talks about leaving them a second time and He must have known their fear about being “left orphans”.
Fr. Paul said the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church connects with evangelization. The Spirit is a gift given to the Church, not for the Church, but rather for the world. We weren’t given the Spirit not for ourselves. We are to carry the Spirit out to the world. We can be comfortable inside our walls, but we need to move beyond them to bring the Spirit to those places. The disciples at Pentecost never went back to the room in which they had been hiding in fear. They go out into the world.
Scot said the first and primary Advocate is Jesus. We should ask prayers of God in the name of Jesus. So he’s giving us another Advocate, which is the Holy Spirit.
Fr. Mark said this is how God loves us. How do I love God? Fr. Mark thinks of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity who said don’t sit there and manufacture feelings. Think of how you would show love to God and go do it. God loves us by giving us the Spirit we can rely on and which is enough for us. The Holy Spirit can answer any question in our heart.
Scot said Jesus repeats himself. If you love Me, you will keep My commandments and then says it again at the end that if we love Him we will do it. With repetition, Jesus is driving home the point. How do I love Jesus? Do I keep His commandments?
Fr. Paul said Jesus gives us the example of true love. The Commandments are precious and we need to long to follow the commandments. Realistically we do that better sometimes and poorly other times. But Jesus didn’t just teach us, didn’t just tell us what to do. He also saved us. He died to hold us up when we don’t do what He told us to do. Jesus himself is the commandment. He dies for those who won’t do what you want them to do.
Pope Benedict’s first encyclical was “Deus Caritas Est” (God is love). Love is not just a feeling; it’s an action. Fr. Mark says you see in Fr. Paul’s parishes that by the actions of his parishioners they show love. Loving others is to the good of our enemies ahead of our own good, said Fr. Paul.
That will conclude today’s presentation of The Good Catholic Life. For recordings and photos of today’s show and all previous shows, please visit our website: TheGoodCatholicLife.com. You can also download the app for your iPhone or Android device at WQOM.org to listen to the show wherever you may be. We thank our guest, Father Paul Soper. For our co-host, Father Mark O’Connell, our Production team of Rick Heil, Anna Johnson, Justin Bell, Dom Bettinelli, and George Martell, this is Scot Landry saying thank YOU for listening, God bless you and have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend!