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Happy Anniversary Father Jim!

Everyone knows Father Jim. If they don’t, he will leave an impression soon after the first time they meet him or see him say mass. As those who work closely with him say, “Father Jim’s compassion, humility, authenticity, inclusivity, sense of humor, spiritual guidance, and accessibility contribute to his popularity at St. Francis of Assisi, endearing him to parishioners and making him a beloved figure within the community.“ But as we celebrate his 25th anniversary as a priest, we discover he didn’t feel destined for parish work.

Father Jim himself says, “My time as a priest was not ‘typical.’” Which is not a word associated with Jim. “The friars enabled me to train for teaching,” continues Jim, “and that is what I did. I never considered doing parish work nor saw myself as a parish priest, so I did not go the ‘diocesan route.’ I wanted to engage as many people as possible, and I thought education and academia were my best outlets. The liturgy drew me because of its power to connect us with God and one another, so I focused my study on liturgy.”

But why the Franciscan life for an ‘academician?’ “I found the Franciscans by mistake in a way,” remembers Father Jim, “I was looking at the Jesuits, and when that didn’t deliver as I felt it should, I ended up taking a youth ministry job with a parish that was Franciscan. Still, I never thought I’d live my priesthood in a ‘garb,’ too weird, but God had other plans. I found an affinity with the Franciscans, especially with the idea of community and living with others who felt like I did about the relevance and power of faith in our lives.” However, he says he did take one thing from the Jesuits, “Karl Rahner, the great Jesuit theologian, said that priests were not angels sent from heaven, they are men with an impossibly ridiculous calling from God to preach good news; sometimes getting it right, sometimes wrong, sometimes they adulterate it, sometimes they misunderstand it, but shouldn’t there be someone to talk about God’s love and forgiveness, and hope and justice, and vision for the world? I wish more priests got this message of priesthood!”

“The Franciscans taught me about priesthood in a unique way,” continued Father Jim, “priesthood is often seen by people as a magical life of men dropped down from heaven. The Franciscans have a simpler and perhaps more humble way of viewing priesthood as a community of brothers where our relationship as brothers is most important. Priesthood is offered to some, but it is never a way to stand apart or above others. My formation was to see the priesthood as walking with, guiding, and as an encouraging and supportive stance. Franciscans understood priesthood as one of many ministries the church offers, and priests were not to be ‘little gods’ or ‘moral arbiters’ of human society.” 

His fellow staff members in ministry at St. Francis couldn’t agree more that he lives in this ‘Franciscan way.’ “Father Jim’s steadfast presence at St. Francis of Assisi serves as a cornerstone in preserving the Franciscan culture within the parish community. His decision to remain underscores a commitment to continuity and maintaining Franciscan values and traditions. By providing stability and familiarity during a transition period, Father Jim ensures that the spirit of the friars remains alive in the parish, thus enriching the spiritual fabric here. His ongoing leadership fosters a sense of comfort and reassurance among parishioners, sustaining personal connections and promoting community cohesion. His tenure at SFA post-friars facilitates adaptation and renewal within the parish, allowing for the integration of Franciscan principles into evolving needs and circumstances; through his dedication to continuity, preservation, and pastoral care, Fr. Jim exemplifies a profound commitment to upholding the Franciscan tradition at St. Francis, ensuring its enduring legacy.”

The affection the parish has for Jim is reflected in his feelings for the parish. “These last years spent here in Raleigh and as a part of the St Francis community have shaped my understanding of the ‘presbyter’s role’ more than academia alone could have. I have truly fallen in love with the people here at Saint Francis, this being perhaps the only pastoral ministry where I could ever have found a home, and I am forever grateful for the joy and beauty I have discovered here. It is a place that has reinforced the presbyteral ministry as taught to me, a vision that teaches that priests are not successful in their ministry by denying their humanity or trying to be all things to all people. Rather, priests succeed by not being afraid to be who God has created them to be, by sharing in the lives of others, and by letting others share in their lives. We realize our beauty and wonder by striving to remind people that God ‘creates in goodness’ and never letting them forget this fact. We cannot be afraid of the world, progress, or the many ways the Holy Spirit challenges us to look beyond the horizons we falsely construct for ourselves. By letting ourselves die to those ideas, and the concepts of priesthood and religious life, and by living radically, as Christ did in the gospels, we can faithfully live each day.”

This affection for the Parish and ‘radical’ priestly lifestyle is seen best in Father Jim’s interactions with the schools here in our community. As many have observed and commented, “Fr. Jim demonstrates an exceptional level of engagement with the students at the school and engaging them in conversation. His consistent presence at morning prayer and involvement in school activities, such as greeting students during carpool, reflects his dedication to fostering a welcoming and supportive environment. Moreover, Father Jim ensures that school masses are conducted in a language comprehensible to students, enhancing their understanding and participation.” While some may say ‘humble’ as a descriptor of Jim may be a reach, he shows humility when interacting with the students. “Perceived as approachable and affable by the students, Father Jim’s demeanor exudes positivity, fostering a sense of joy and enthusiasm within the school community. His homilies resonate with the students, who eagerly anticipate his presence during mass,” said Jim Wahl, director of liturgy and music, and Joanie Madormo, the school mass MC, who are often present at the school masses, adding, “Father Jim actively encourages student involvement in the school’s faith-based initiatives, such as discussing the role of altar servers, resulting in a remarkable response with 150 students expressing interest in training for this role.” Through his actions and encouragement, Father Jim inspires students to embrace their faith and actively participate in the liturgical life of the school. 

Reflecting on his 25 years as a priest, he embraces his countercultural role. “In the end, I am happy not to be a typical priest, or at least a priest as envisioned by a culture that does not bother to understand why this life exists at all. It could be a source of wrongful pride thinking this way. Still, I hope in some ways that it takes priests off a pedestal they never should have been on in the first place and allows them to move among the people of God in ways that allow for discovery and appreciation of all that is God in this world! I want people to remember that we are human beings, first and foremost, and priests, second or even third or fourth. What we do for the people should always prevent us from becoming sideshow attractions of a vision of a God out of touch with the humanity God comes to save.” 

We all understand that Father Jim is a different kind of priest, but perhaps that is not because of him or us. Maybe, in his 25 years of service, Father Jim has embodied all that the priesthood was ‘designed’ to be for God’s people; undoubtedly, many of us believe deeply that this is true! Thank God, and the Franciscans, that you are here for St. Francis of Assisi parish! 

Happy anniversary, Father Jim!

Author: Mike Watson