Brooklyn pastor: 'I'm the most blessed priest in the world'

Fr. Michael Perry, 72 (Balazs Maar)

Fr. Michael Perry
Who he is: Pastor of Our Lady of Refuge Church in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Lives in: Brooklyn

Sr. Camille: Michael, I've known you since you were a young priest-chaplain at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and a friend of my community, the Brooklyn-based Sisters of Mercy. Would you please describe the development and impact of both those connections?

Perry: Twenty-three years of my 43 years of ministry were spent on the Pratt campus, an incredible place of creativity and questioning and faith in flux, both for the students and for me. It was providential that I was sent there because the wide-openness gave me the chance to explore with artists forms for faith and contexts of credibility for God. The lack of structure there was met eventually by the weekly Sunday morning retreats I had when I celebrated Mass for the sisters in the nearby motherhouse of your community -- older women on the other end of the spectrum in almost every way from the Pratt students. And there I was between them, being fed as I was feeding, being directed as I was directing.

What did you learn from the students at Pratt?

Perhaps the most important lesson that I learned from the students was taught to me by the sisters, and that is that things take time. Growth, relationships, skill, prayer -- they all take time. And patience. And perseverance.

What did you have to offer them?

The longer I served the students and staff at Pratt, the more I realized that most of what I had to offer them was the perspective of faith.

After a student was murdered, a woman whom I knew well and who stood by me at the altar just minutes before she was killed, the rage and hurt and confusion and fear all converged in the chapel, and I was asked to make sense of it all and at the same time deal with my feelings, which were the same as the students' feelings. My ministry to that campus was all about a faith lived out as best I could in a way that communicated the love of God.

Did your experience with the college community prepare you for your current role as pastor at Our Lady of Refuge parish?

When I left Pratt, we had students from 72 different countries, and now I'm in a parish, Our Lady of Refuge, where we have at least 35 different nationalities represented. Pratt was my training ground for cultural diversity. I once asked the bishop why he sent me to this particular parish, and he told me he had heard that I liked food and would eat just about anything. There was wisdom in his appointment, and my taste buds have never been the same!

Please describe your parish.

Our Lady of Refuge has three basic language groups (Creole, Spanish, English) spoken by people from 35 countries and at least 50 different cultures. It's a challenge, even within the same language grouping, because of the cultural differences. I speak French (but not Creole) and English, and I smile in Spanish. Thank God I have an assistant, Father Rony Mendes, who carries the language load that I can't.

A parish like this, if I were to try to diagram it, would look like a dish of spaghetti. But somehow we manage, and I think it's because we're Catholic, a word that has real meaning when we celebrate the major feasts at trilingual liturgies that last for hours -- they go by so quickly because they are moments of transcendent prayer by people who really know how to pray.

Please describe the family in which you grew up.

Both my parents were born in this country of parents who came from Ukraine. They were the epitome of the slogan "Family, faith, and friends," with special emphasis on "friends." Our house, especially on Sundays, always had guests, and neither my sister nor I can remember a holiday dinner without the presence of a total stranger (usually a drunk woman) sent to us by our pastor to share in the feast. The hospitality I learned from them was the same they had learned from their parents, who brought it from Ukraine, where there is always room for one more person at the table all the time.

What values helped form you and draw you to the priesthood?

When I was a junior at Marist College, my father sent me off to Paris to study. There, I met Fr. Daniel Berrigan, and it was there that I decided to become a priest. My father was not at all happy. He wanted me to be a success. After a long time of the two of us not speaking, I finally wrote my father a very long letter outlining for him how the way he and my mother raised me led me directly to the seminary. I grew up in a house of faith that was lived out in sharing at the table. All food to me is an echo of the Eucharist, and every table is as sacred as any altar.

I'm also grateful to my maternal grandfather, who told me that if I was going to be a priest, I should remember one thing. He said: "You pee like me."

I am grateful to this day because with their advice, I am the most blessed priest in the world.

Please describe the spiritual mentors you've had along the way.

Perhaps the greatest influence on my way of being a priest came from Mount Saviour Monastery, which taught me how to pray the liturgy, and from women who taught me that they, too, were church. The day I arrived at my first assignment, Sr. Virginia Walsh crossed the street from the convent to the rectory, sat me down and told me that she was going to tell me how to be a good priest. And she did. And I'm grateful to her to this day.

At the close of almost any public function, you manage to leave with the leftover food. Why is this so?

For me, the greatest joy is to hear people laugh, and what breaks my heart is food being wasted.

I know that much of what you salvage ends up at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen in New York City, blocks from the Bowery. How long have you held ties with that place, created by the late, legendary Dorothy Day?

Actually, my introduction to the Catholic Worker began when I met Dan Berrigan in my junior year of college at Marist. The impression was made, then furthered during my time in the seminary through its weekly newspaper, and finally solidified when we, as a church, were asked/told to make a preferential option for the poor. Then you called me and asked me to go with you to Dorothy Day's wake, and I saw the Worker firsthand. I was sold that day and have been ever since. They walk the walk and make sure that the poor don't walk it alone.

For many years, you've spent summers in Paris. How did that come about?

Twenty-three years ago, I was in the right place at the right time and was asked by the then-rector of Notre Dame Cathedral to help out for the summer. I've done it every year since. No one is more impressed by this than me, and I'm constantly grateful to the Marist brothers who taught me French because without the language, I wouldn't be able to celebrate Mass there or hear confessions.

This experience has helped me understand the universality of the church and human nature, and the beauty of grace as it gets expressed sacramentally. I keep going back because the phone is never for me, I don't have to worry about any of the practicalities of the building, and I get to be priest and only that for the time that I'm there. And the cheese is pretty good, too.

What do you see as major cultural differences?

The church in Paris is on a much smaller scale, and the role of the bishop and the cathedral is more central. The parish communities are smaller and still identified by neighborhood, the way it used to be in Brooklyn and other large American cities.

The church-state split is more pronounced, and Paris (and France in general) has been secularized longer than we have. Their numbers in church are lower than ours, but their fervor is sincere. (Not that ours isn't.) Whereas we have the heavy influence of the Hispanic culture and the charismatic movement, they have a greater leaning toward more contemplative prayer forms (though the charismatic prayer is also very present) that springs from their own cultural tradition.

I know you are engaged in ecumenism. Please tell us why this is important to you.

I grew up in a home of two religions, so I know what the pain of separation is like.  If ecumenism can't create unity, then it can at least break down some of the barriers of ignorance, replace them with knowledge and open the way to love. God is love.

Your hospitality is legendary. Would you say something about the ways in which you extend it?

If the disciples could come to know the risen Lord in the breaking of the bread, so can anyone else. Any bread broken is a form of communion. So a few years ago, almost by chance, my associate, Father Mendes, and I decided to invite people in on Wednesday nights for dinner, aka bread-breaking. We could be four or 20, and it could be leftovers or lamb chops, but it's always a moment of sharing and revelation, sometimes about politics or about theology or recipes. It has become a kitchen table ministry that begins with a prayer and ends with the singing of "Goodnight, Irene," and all one has to do is call ahead to say they're coming.

What is your image of God?

That's a tough one for me to answer because it depends on if my eyes are open or closed.

Open, the image is all those attempts that artists have made throughout the ages to capture what I see when my eyes are closed. Closed, I see the risen Christ radiant in light and love enfolding, surrounding and engendering me.

Has this perspective changed over time?

Yes. The image used to be an external icon with a space between us

How and with whom do you pray best?

I pray best when I pray as a priest, especially when I celebrate the Eucharist, when I'm given that awesome place at the altar to stand with the people as their priest and in their name speak to God. That could be at the high altar at Notre Dame, in my parish, or at the table set for Mass at the Catholic Worker. The place is not as important as the prayer. I also love to pray alone in dark corners of quiet churches.

If you could fashion a perfect priest, what would he look like?

The perfect priest would be the baptized Christian so completely conformed to Christ that even God the Father couldn't tell them apart.

Can you name anyone who fits this picture?

Yes, but I wouldn't want to embarrass her by giving her name.

What in our Catholic faith do you find most energizing?

That the God who is love manifested in Jesus is the reality of the Eucharist.

What changes would you like to experience?

I would like the prayers that we pray to be answered and the hopes that we have be realized, and Jesus' desire for us all to be one to become the base reality of our lives; that we no longer base our Catholic practice on distinctions that are real only to us; that if we have to canonize a century, it not be the 19th; and I'd like the present translation of the sacramentary reworked, please.

What else would you like us to know?

That I'm the most blessed priest in the world.

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]

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