Listen to the show:
Today’s host(s): Scot Landry
Today’s guest(s): Fr. Jack Graham, parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Arlington
Links from today’s show:
- St. Agnes Parish
- St. Agnes Music Ministry
- St. Agnes School
- Arlington Catholic High School
- Fidelity House
Today’s topics: Priest Profile: Fr. Jack Graham
Summary of today’s show: Today, we enjoyed another in our popular series of profiles of the priests of the Archdiocese of Boston, this time with Fr. Jack Graham, parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Arlington. Scot and Fr. Jack talk about Fr. Jack’s beginnings in Quincy’s Germantown neighborhood through the first inklings of a vocation in college at UMass/Boston to seminary and then priestly assignments in some of the largest parishes in the Archdiocese with some of its most well-known priests. Fr. Jack and Scot also discuss what its like to celebrate so many funerals (St. Agnes has the most of any parish) to the parish’s culture that promotes frequent confession, as well as the parish’s unique status of having not one, but two parochial schools.
1st segment: Scot welcomed Fr. Jack Graham to show. Fr. Jack is parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Arlington, which is Scot’s home parish. He asked him about his background. Fr. Jack grew up in Quincy, in Germantown, St. Boniface parish. He said it was the poorest neighborhood on the South Shore. They had exceptional priests. Fr. Jack said he grew up next door to the church.
When he was a kid, Fr. Gerry Osterman was there with Msgr. George Carlson and he was altar boy for them for a number of years. They were followed by another great pair of priests.
Fr. Jack has two brothers and two sisters. He’s the youngest. Fr. Jack said they used the church parking lot to play games, but they also were shanghaied the kids to work in the parish setting up for events. He said knowing these four priests as examples of the priesthood had a lot to do with his decision to enter the seminary.
He went to public school because there wasn’t a Catholic school. He graduated Quincy High School in 1980. Scot said in the seminary now there are as many guys who didn’t go to Catholic school as there are. Fr. Jack said the college seminary, which was open at the time, was mostly Catholic school graduates, while many of the public school guys went to other colleges first.
Fr. Jack said it was as he started to mature in high school and college he started to think about the priesthood. He worked his way through U. Mass Boston, working full time and going to school full time. His job was 3-11pm at an alcohol detox right next to Quincy Hospital. It was mainly for people living on the street or couldn’t otherwise afford it. He did that for five years, doing intake, helping people clean up, washing floors and the like. He found the people to have great compassion, to be very interesting, but just struggling with an addiction. He had a thought one day that no matter what else he did, how much money he made, he wouldn’t do anything more important.
Scot asked if the priests he knew explicitly planted a seed. Fr. Jack said it was never explicit, but just the way they lived their priesthood. They were always supportive when he asked about it and they had kept in touch over the years. Scot and Fr. Jack talked about Msgr. frank kelly, who helped found the Pine Street Inn.
Fr. Jack said the call to the priesthood was really a call. It wasn’t something he had particularly wanted. He had already planned to have a family someday and actively tried to push the call away. He decided to go to the seminary to put it behind him and he ended up getting ordained five years later. Seminary is a time for discernment. Fr. Jack said he saw many men discern they didn’t have the call. Scot said when he attended seminary, they told him half of the men would leave and that should not be seen as a failure.
Fr. Jack said if you are truly called, it is a great life. If you’re not called, you can end up miserable. Scot asked Fr. Jack when he really knew God wanted him to be a priest. Fr. Jack said at one point he had left the seminary for the summer, thinking he wouldn’t go back. He worked at State Street Bank in Quincy and had a lot of prayer and discernment. He ended up going back to the seminary and that was when he had decided. Every year the faculty votes on the seminarians and decide whether they can stay.
Scot said it’s common for him to hear religious or priests say they entered seminary or religious formation not sure whether they had a real call. God’s will is often revealed over a long time and a slow pace. Fr. Jack said he was ordained in 1990. He said it was a great class of priests, including our Friday co-host Fr. Mark O’Connell.
2nd segment: Fr. Jack’s first assignment was St. Richard’s in Danvers, which seemed like being on the other side of the planet for someone from Quincy. His first pastor was Fr. Paul Keyes, who is now retiring from St. Michael’s in Andover. He was wonderful as a first pastor. St. Richard’s had grown with a lot of young families under Fr. Keyes’ leadership. He is a very spiritual man who helped Fr. Jack with his prayer life. He enabled people in the parish to get involved and take ownership of things. It wasn’t just the paid staff running programs, but hundreds of people getting involved.
Fr. Jack was there for five years. (His second pastor was Fr. Charlie Higgins, who is now in Kingston.) When he had first moved to St Richards, there was a retired priest there, but eventually it was just him and the pastor. From Danvers, he went to Sacred Heart in Roslindale with Msgr. frank kelly. The area was just becoming popular again. They had many Irish and Italians, but also a growing Spanish-speaking community. They also had a large West African community, and they had a priest from Africa there. Fr. Jack was there for seven years. During his time, they merged with St. Andrews parish in Forest Hills. He spent an extra year in the parish to stay after the merge.
Fr. Jack said he loves city parishes. The parish is the hub of the neighborhood, even for those who aren’t Catholic. In Danvers, his first weekend he had people come up to him and say how lucky they were to have him. At Sacred Heart, a woman told him that he was lucky to be there. There is a real pride of parish.
Scot and Fr. Jack discussed being assigned to a parish with a priest who’d been in his own parish before ordination. They’d had a mentor relationship before Fr. Jack entered seminary.In Roslindale, he learned about running a very large parish.
From there, he spent two years at St. Anthony in Allston. This was during the heyday of the scandal and during the first part of the archdiocese trying to figure out what to do with reconfiguration. Originally he was covering the parish for a sick pastor, and ended up spending two years. After that he came to St. Agnes. Most of his priestly ministry has been in very large, urban parishes.
Scot said they had the kickoff for the Catholic Appeal about four years ago at St. Agnes. He learned that St. Agnes is number two in the Archdiocese for the number of funerals. Scot listed the top 10 parishes in number of funerals. cot asked what it’s like to celebrate so many funeral Masses. Fr. Jack said they’re not all old people.
He puts funerals, baptisms, and weddings together as an opportunity to evangelize people because there are a lot of people who haven’t been to church in a long time and you can teach what we believe about life and death and eternal life and apply it to our lives. It’s a great place for ministry because they often start ministering to the people weeks before they die when they get sick. The families are looking for something: Someone to comfort them or someone to be mad at. He said funerals are busy: There is a commitment to the wake, to the Mass, to the burial at the cemetery.
He said the music at St. Agnes is exceptional, led by Michael Vaughn.
Fr. Jack said he directs his homilies to all the different people by going to the fundamental beliefs we have. He often uses in funeral homilies St. Paul’s message to the Corinthians in Second Corinthians because he’s also addressing a varied community. He tells the community at Corinth that they must walk by their faith, not by their sight. So he says at funerals that we want to give people a sense that a good and loving God wants us to be happy here, but there’s more and we have a responsibility to pray for this person as well.
Scot said it must be a logistical challenge to cover so much in the parish. Today, for instance, he couldn’t go to the cemetery in Malden for his funeral today so he asked another priest in that area to do that. Fr. Jack said the busier he is, the more fun it is. This is what he wants to be doing.
3rd segment: Scot what makes St. Agnes distinct is that it has two Catholic parish schools plus Fidelity House, a parish-based boys and girls club. Fr. Jack said it’s hard to describe what Fidelity House is.
Scot said there are a lot of young families in the parish. Fr. Jack just following the sports team makes you busy. Two schools brings life to the parish. Sr. Barbara is the full-time chaplain at the high school and takes the lead there. Arlington Catholic has about 700 students. Fr. Jack takes more responsibility for the grammar school while Fr. Flatley takes the high school. When Scot first moved to Arlington, there were four parishes, and now there are two, so Fr. Jack said doing confessions in Lent and Advent for all the students takes longer than it used to.
Scot said his experience is that a lot of men don’t go to confession. Many don’t go after first confession, but at St. Agnes is to make sure it’s a habit to go regularly. Fr. Jack said they want to make sure that they don’t become conditioned that confession is just a school or religious ed thing. Fr. Jack said just the regular parish confessions are packed. They have two times on Saturday and they have a constant line during those availabilities. Confession is a big deal there. They also have a lot of people who make appointments. The good thing about an appointment is that it gives them more time to talk than on Saturday.
St. Agnes is a very large and faith-filled parish. Fr. Jack said someone on the early history of the parish, some priest must have made it seem like confession was to be a tradition of the parish. He said at St. Richard’s in Danvers, there was something similar about the culture being that everyone stay at the end of Mass to pray because a priest had said it was important decades ago.
Fr. Jack said they just went through First Confessions for the kids. Most of the kids are nervous to talk to the priests. You get to teach them how to examine their conscience. If a kid says he has nothing o confess, then you can lead them through some potential problems. For second-graders, you just lead them through the relationships in their families.
For adults who want to come back to confession, Fr. Jack said don’t worry about remembering how it goes. The priests will lead them through it. The idea is to just to get there. He remembered as a college student where hadn’t been to confession in four or five years. He got a notion to go to ST. Anthony’s Shrine on Arch Street in Boston. He sat in the pews for an hour and a half and ended up leaving because he was so nervous. He went back the next day, and finally went in. The priest was so kind and he left feeling like a million bucks.
The sins that people confess that they think are heavy or dark are the ones that make the priest have admiration for the courage of the penitent. The best priest-confessors are those who go to confession a lot. The best way to help people get back to confession is to kill them with kindness and make it a very positive experience.
Scot said the Archdiocese for the past couple of years has been doing The Light Is On For You, where every parish is open for confessions on Wednesdays in Lent from 6:30-8:30pm. Fr. Jack said he sees it builds momentum through Lent and by the last week, there is a very big crowd for confession. Scot said a lot of people tell him that confession on Wednesday night is a lot more convenient than Saturday. Fr. Jack said he agrees, but it’s hard with the number of priests we have now. Fr. Jack thinks The Light Is On For You will become a tradition in the archdiocese.
Scot said there were more than 600 people at the Cathedral for the Rite of Election yesterday. He asked what it’s like working with people entering the Church. Fr. Jack said it’s a lot of joy. He learns something every year during the RCIA program. Everyone in the RCIA program wants to be there and are excited about it. This year they have two people, although they usually have more. They are always very different with interesting backgrounds. Scot said converts often know their faith better than most of the people they go to Mass with. Fr. Jack said they’ve learned how to use the Catechism and the Bible. Next year, they will be using Fr. Robert Barron’s “Catholicism” TV series and book. He said after RCIA ends, the people want to keep learning and he always maintains relationships with them that are uniquely like father and children.
Fr. Jack said he loves the readings of Lent and it’s a great opportunity to teach people. He tells people we do things for a reason and explains them. They have a couple hundred extra people attending Mass on Sundays in Lent.