As I am travelling to Brazil to participate in the World Youth Day events there, this week I am introducing another newly ordained priest as a guest blogger to reflect on his life and vocation, as it may inspire others to follow in the same path.
This week, I invite you to read the reflections of Father Jacques McGuffie, who has been ordained to the priesthood later in life and offers a beautiful testimony of God’s love and providence.
– Cardinal Seán
A journey to the priesthood
I was born in 1946 in Haiti, West Indies, in the small seaside town of Grande‑Saline, in the Artibonite part of the country. Haiti does not have compulsory education, so the determination of my parents to see their children educated required that I leave my hometown at the age of nine to attend school in Port‑au‑Prince. A respectable family friend provided a home for me while I attended school. I would return home every year for summer vacation. Church attendance was a requirement at the elementary school I attended. When I was in secondary school, my guardian expected me to go to church every Sunday.
Ever since I was a young boy, I had a burning desire to become a priest. I remember vividly oftentimes setting up a makeshift altar in my parents’ backyard, dressing up in my mother’s clothes, and playing priest with my sister Win as an acolyte. After I finished secondary school, I initiated the process of admission to the Seminary to fulfill my childhood dream of becoming a priest. I even met formally with my parish priest and the bishop of my diocese. However, in spite of my attraction to the priesthood, I chose a different path in life; I went to Law School for four years and raised a family instead, but still actively practiced my Catholic faith.
In September 1971, I married Marie Clorette Péan in Port-au-Prince. Our first daughter, Daphnée, was born a year later. I was working at the time at the National Bank of Haiti, in the Capital City.
In 1975, my wife, our daughter and I came to Boston where Bianca added to the joys of our new life in the United States. Although we now had to adjust to a new language, climate, and culture, my wife and I soon found jobs. We enrolled the children at St. Patrick Grammar School, and I myself went about bettering my education. In spite of working full time and carrying a full load, first at Northeastern University as an undergraduate, and then at Boston University as a graduate student, my concern for the well-being of my compatriots here led me to become involved in assisting newly arrived Haitian immigrants in their quest for a better life.
Although my family ties and love for my native country kept me in touch with events in Haiti, Boston became my home of choice. Both of my parents would come to the States to visit every now and then, and I communicated by telephone or by mail with the rest of the family. There was no internet at the time. My mother, Léonie, died in April 2009 in Haiti at the age of 88, survived by my father, Dickens, who, himself passed on in November 2011 at 94. My paternal grandparents died before I was born. I have five sisters and one brother, two of the five still living in the old country with some of my nieces and nephews.
In 1996, when my daughters Bianca and Daphnée were respectively 20 and 24 years old, Davidson and Marie Théreine became members of our household. My wife and I had adopted them after their mother, one of my sisters, had died. At the time, David was 8 and Marie T. was 5. They both lived with us as part of our family until my wife passed away in 2009. And thus began a new chapter in my life.
Looking back on the past 38 years, I am grateful for having been able to realize most of the dreams I had when I first came here in 1975: a home of my own, a good education for myself and my children, and a life free of the hardships experienced by most Haitians.
I have always been working. My previous employment includes a junior accountant position with the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, and then a senior accountant position with Massachusetts Department of Social Services. Before I entered the seminary to begin my priestly formation, I worked for twenty-two years as an Independent Certified Financial Planner and Accredited Tax Advisor with an office in Dorchester, Massachusetts. I gave up all that in 2009 to answer a higher calling.
Development of my Religious Life
As I looked back on my life, I have often asked myself if I had done God’s work. Until probably 1985, I did not have a clear sense that I was serving the Lord. I was born and raised in a very devout Roman Catholic family. I myself was the head of a Catholic family. I read the Bible and other devotional materials; I attended worship services regularly, but I was doing very little to become involved in the life of the Church. Although I did not necessarily do anything bad, I did not do much in terms of participation in carrying on the work of Jesus Christ.
Then, one day, I woke up from my lethargy. While my two daughters, Daphnée and Bianca, were attending St. Patrick Grammar School in Roxbury, I began to exercise the ministry of ushers at the Sunday Mass, and also volunteered to lend a hand at the many parish activities throughout the year: festivals, bazaars, and other fundraising efforts, clean‑ups, picnics, and the like. In time, I became a Lector, then an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion at the Sunday Liturgy.
October 1998 was a turning point in my life. After much consideration and pondering, and with the encouragement of my wife and my Pastor at St. Patrick, my love for the Church prompted me to seek admission to the Permanent Diaconate Formation Program. I attended classes for four years in the evening, and in 2002, I was ordained a Deacon in the Archdiocese of Boston. My assignment was St. Patrick.
What a privilege it was to serve God and his people as a permanent deacon! What a joy of being able to serve in my home parish! The initial enthusiastic support I received from the parishioners of St. Patrick when I was first ordained made for a much easier transition into ministerial life and lasted until the end of my assignment there. Their continuing support, and my wife’s, added immeasurably to the performance of my diaconal duties and gave more meaning to the ministry of service, love, and justice to which I was called. I had a happy family life and a satisfying diaconal ministry.
After I became a widower, I started to ask the Lord for guidance in discerning how he wants me to live the remaining days of my life. It was during one of those prayer moments I realized that the “priesthood seeds” planted in my heart in my childhood, though dormant for so many years, had sprouted again. I then began to inquire about the possibility of entering the seminary. Blessed John XXIII in Weston welcomed me as a new seminarian, and over a four-year period, provided me the human, spiritual, academic, and pastoral formation I needed to serve God’s people as a priest. I received the grace of priestly ordination in Boston on May 25, 2013, surrounded by family and friends, priests and parishioners from the various parishes where I received my field education experience during my four years of priestly formation. I celebrated my first Mass at St. Patrick Church, in Roxbury, the next day, Sunday, May 26.
I’ve come a long way in a short time since May 2013 when I left the confines of Blessed John XXIII National Seminary. My classroom is now the wider world ‑ the Parish (the parishes, that is, I have three of them), hospitals, families, and the neighborhoods. There has not been a shortage of opportunities to serve God’s people since ordination. Notwithstanding my initial apprehension when I first entered the seminary, I am amazed at the changes that have taken place in my personal and spiritual life during my years of formation and since ordination.
Initially, my biggest concern was: Can I really do what I think I am being called to do? Not so much a matter of age, because even in my secular occupation, I have always thought that I would continue to work beyond the normal retirement age. However, honestly, age was a factor in the decision-making process, on both sides of the table. Then, considering the fact that I had been away from school for so many years, I wasn’t quite sure I would be able to endure the rigors of formal day-to-day classroom instruction over an extended period. In addition to that, I had some concerns about the workload of a priest: counseling, homilies, night calls, and all the demands of priestly life. Other questions I asked myself were: Will I be able to serve God effectively as a priest? How can I speak of freedom to an inmate in prison? What will I say about God’s love to a hospital patient with a terminal illness? Is it possible to adequately express God’s providence to the hungry and homeless, or a young mother with two small children living in a shelter?
In the initial stages of my spiritual journey, one other problem was my inability to sustain any personal prayer, as if the evil one was trying to pull me away from serving God and convince me not to pray. It seemed like I was hearing words like: “prayer doesn’t work,” or “you’re wasting your time,” or “there are so many other things you can do.”
To remedy this situation, I introduced into my daily routine certain facilitating conditions for deeper life. For instance, I disciplined myself to rise at the same time each day, early enough to “raise my mind and heart to God” and give direction to my day, and to conclude the day with a pause of gratitude, repentance and self‑surrender.
Another element of my spiritual growth had been my “full, active, and conscious participation” in the Eucharistic celebration. I listened more attentively to the Scripture readings and homily in order to become more deeply immersed in the most central mysteries of my Catholic faith.
I gave all my worries to God, and he gave me peace of mind. Whether at the seminary or in the parishes, God always gives me the words, the energy, patience, kindheartedness, enthusiasm, and whatever else I need, day-by-day, to fulfill the enormous task He has set out for me. And above all, He accompanies me, step by step, on the way to bring Jesus Christ’s healing and comforting word and power to the physically, economically, and spiritually needy of our day.
I feel that I am presently living in a closer relationship with God than I ever did before. Certainly, it has not been a smooth ride all the time, but regular prayer helped me make a positive step toward a healthier and happier life.
Patience, compassion, tolerance, endurance, these positive signs of growth are becoming more prominent in my life, gradually but steadily. Through my words and deeds, my kindness and thoughtfulness to others, my willingness to sacrifice, my Christian example in daily living, I want all to see that I am "in Christ," and therefore, "a new creation" (2 Cor 5:17). What people see is nothing loud or boisterous, but simple acts of love, service, and obedience to show my faith.
As "the light of the world" (Mt 5:14), I am always trying to find new ways of showing my ability to be a "light" to others. This is accomplished by going out of my way to be a really wonderful neighbor, to be understanding, patient, and always ready to be of service to others; by cultivating an attitude of joy and peace at all times, and by trying to make others feel comfortable in my presence.
I am constantly learning to develop my personality, my capabilities, and my ability to influence other people for good, so that, as the apostle Paul said, I can "become all things to all, to save at least some." (I Cor 9:22)
I am well on my way to overcoming selfishness, becoming an example of love and service to those around me. With these new interests and abilities, with the joy that comes from actively helping others, my life is more exciting, more full and abundant than ever before. This way of living faith and action has no doubt prepared me to better serve the people of God as a diocesan priest.
As a priest, my task is to know the Word of God ever more deeply. How many people are starving to hear this good news of God’s love? Will I keep the good news to myself, or will I share “the Bread of Life” with others?
God has called me again to preach the true Gospel as a witness to the entire world, to be able to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass, and exercise all the other gifts of the Holy Spirit. By drawing closer to him in diligent Bible study, earnest prayer, and fasting, I am certain that the grace I received at ordination will help me to carry out my mission in a way that other people cannot help but notice.
I have a deep sense of God’s closeness and presence in the ordinary events in my life, a genuine desire to do his will, and a willingness to forego anything which interferes with my desire to remain faithful to his call. Yet, I ask myself daily, "Do my actions indicate true Christian commitment? Do they fulfill God’s purpose for me?" Each day I find that I have work yet to do. I commit myself to God’s honor and purposes. May he fashion me as he pleases, and help me to use my gifts to bring others closer to his light!
Looking back on my four years of priestly formation and on the two months since my ordination, there is not a shadow of doubt in my mind that I made the right decision in answering God’s call to the priesthood. I have no regrets. As I end this reflection, I am reminded of the words of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God” (9:62). As a scripture commentator has said, “discipleship requires a resoluteness that does not allow regrets about the past to erode one’s determination.”
My life as a priest is not one of luxury on easy street; this is not what Jesus promised; but life is good. Then again, being a priest is not about me; it’s about proclaiming the kingdom of God by word and by the way I live my life.