Backstory: Keeping faith in a sea of prejudice

How one young priest in an era of Catholic church scandals stays on a spiritual track.

Kevin Gallagher bounds down the rectory stairs at 8:25 – cutting it close as always – a few steps away from ready for weekday morning Mass. He's every Irish mother's son – dark hair thinning and freshly combed, ruddy face scrubbed and shaven, polo shirt neatly tucked in over a frame beginning to show his love of cooking.

He jokes with staff, and yells a greeting out the open window, pulling himself into his vestments. Double-checking the Scripture passage, he finally gives the nod that it's time to begin.

In the 31-years since Fr. Gallagher was born, the number of Roman Catholic priests in the U.S. has dropped sharply, from about 59,000 to fewer than 44,000 today.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, where Gallagher ministers, is no different. In 1975, 15 men were ordained for the archdiocese – but Gallagher was one of only five in his 2002 ordination class. That same year, emerging national news of sexual abuse of children began to thin congregations, fuel cynicism and foster mistrust among clergy and lay people alike.

But anyone who thinks the Catholic priesthood is dispirited should take a look at the Fr. Gallaghers of the church.

"I just want to say how happy I am," he declares unnecessarily. "And I think most priests are."

Gallagher is second in command at St. Denis Parish, a compact complex of church, rectory, convent, school, and cemetery serving a congregation of 2,600 families here in this Philadelphia suburb.

After Mass, the priest moves quickly through the rectory's big, comfy kitchen, gulping cereal, making introductions, absent-mindedly shoveling errant strawberries into the mouth of a visitor whose cerebral palsy makes her hand shaky. This morning, like all mornings, starts with a list of good intentions. Most of them get tossed as the day progresses, interrupted, as it is, by the never-ending beeping of voice mail, e-mail, intercom, phone, and the tuition payment queries, and church maintenance questions. There's a 9 a.m. spiritual direction appointment, which no one seems to notice is slow getting underway. There's the new family to register. There's a trip into Philadelphia to help prepare for the installation of a bishop. There's a meal with the family whose loved one Gallagher buried not long ago.

But first he's sitting down with a couple he has never met to plan the funeral of their 18-year-old son, the victim of an apparent drug overdose. The tragedy is compounded by news that the friend at whose house the man died has apparently taken his own life. Not parishioners, they came to St. Denis for the funeral because "we were the first place they thought of," says the priest.

Many who tussle with the ways of the Catholic church wonder how a celibate, all-male priesthood can adequately minister to a rarely celibate, often-female church. On this day, though, one wonders what a boyish and relentlessly positive 31-year-old can possibly do for a mother and father in shock. After the meeting, he appears unshaken. He says, he considers it a "blessing" to be able to minister at funerals – even gut-wrenching ones like this. "This is what I was ordained for."

Being dismissed as "young," with its implication that he's unqualified, drives Gallagher crazy. After all, this is a man sure of his mission, in full agreement with the teachings of his church, which undergird his every activity. By virtue of his ordination, his calling is to act – in however flawed and human a form – as the person of Christ for his flock. "You want to spend yourself for others," he explains.

"We often, often, often get called in the middle of the night. The callers don't want to see me," he says. "They want to see Christ." To Catholics, the sacraments an ordained priest administers are signs of the presence of God. As a priest, he says, "You're everything and you're nothing."

Gallagher was ordained into a post-scandal church, one far different from the church that nurtured him. "You just need to be professional, and that's something we've lacked." High school girls don't answer rectory phones in the evening any more, nor do priests chaperone youth service trips alone. Office doors often remain open when there's a visitor, and, if not for the aesthetics of it, Gallagher would have his solid door replaced with glass. "Am I afraid of being accused falsely? Yes. But it doesn't overwhelm me. You can't be afraid of [ministering to] children."

On a personal level, the scandal has been heartbreaking, says Gallagher, who recalls being awoken just prior to his ordination with news that a trusted high school principal of his had been accused. "The pastor knocked on my door and said he didn't want me to hear this on the radio." The release in 2005 of a damning grand jury report on sexual abuse in the archdiocese of Philadelphia brought a two-inch-high stack of mail to St. Denis, some angry, some supportive. The three priests serving the parish resolved together to remain visible and outspoken.

Keith Chylenski, a seminarian working at the parish, recalls that students at the archdiocese's St. Charles Borromeo Seminary banded together as well. "We felt a sense of resolve that the only way to bring any type of healing to this situation is for us to look honestly at ourselves and grow in holiness. The authentic love of Christ is the only thing that's going to bring peace to anything."

Finding that peace was easier said than done, Gallagher recalls: "Going through the scandal and the grand jury [report] was enough to shake your faith. You didn't want to pray, but you had to."

Then and now, he's had no qualms about wearing clerical dress, even after receiving some "eerie" looks when first the scandal broke. "You [wanted to] say 'stop staring at me. I'm not a pedophile.' "

Neither is the priest a scholar, a mystic, nor a ruminative sort. His greatest struggle in nine years at the seminary was having to take Latin, Greek, and Spanish simultaneously. A high school athlete, he still loves his golf. He's made himself fully at home at St. Denis, peeling off paneling to restore the walls of his office, and, on a hot summer day, ripping up stairway carpet to refinish the steps.

An unapologetic "people person," the priest consciously surrounds himself with family, parishioners, and friends, taking care to avoid isolation and to head off the acute loneliness he felt when he arrived at the parish. Gift money from his ordination went to a down payment on a house at the Jersey shore he owns with two other priests, where the talk is sports, politics, current events, and the funnier side of parish life. He also remains close friends with several women, one of them a high school crush who married recently. His one fear, he acknowledges, is the passing of his parents. "They are everything to me."

These days, his praying comes more easily. "If you don't pray, you fail," he explains.

So, before he hurries downstairs in the morning, he reads the breviary prayers that all priests recite daily. "Quiet time is sacred," he says. "Sometimes you even say your prayers faster so you can have your quiet time. Because once I come down those stairs in the morning it's all over."

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