Helping others, especially the poor and the four-legged, a joy for pastor

Fr. Francis Shannon, 56, with some of his dogs (Lee Guirreri RSM)
Fr. Francis Shannon, 56, with some of his dogs (Lee Guirreri RSM)

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Fr. Francis Shannon
Who he is: Pastor of Blessed Sacrament parish
Lives in: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Sr. Camille: Frank, since your ordination, you've ministered primarily in poor parishes -- parishes that seem understaffed relative to their needs. Because you're so approachable, people consider you unfailingly accessible. How do you see yourself?

Shannon: I'm not sure I wanted it to turn out like this, but when I think about my life and ministry, I often think of the line that is thrown at Jesus in the Gospel: "Everyone is looking for you." Jesus was THE image of God, most especially for the "broken." The poor, those marginalized by society, the mentally ill, the desperate -- all found compassion and hope in him. From the smallest of children, whom he embraced, to the older Nicodemus, who searched for Jesus in the middle of the night -- they found someone who would listen and be a friend. I hope in my parish ministry that I would be like that for people. Unfortunately, I am not always as patient as Jesus. But then I go to confession and go back and try again. Jesus found that spending his life for others, especially the poor and the needy, was a joy. I have found this, too.

In addition to your care for people, you are known for your fondness for animals. When you're kind enough to drive me to one of our convents where you offer the Eucharist, at times I've had to share the passenger seat with a puppy or two while a German shepherd occupies the back seat. Your fondness for animals is legendary. Can you trace this to any particular circumstance or situation?

I can remember leaving basketball practice in fourth grade. Our school had no gym, so our practices were in nearby Public School 199's schoolyard. One day, I saw and heard a great commotion across the street. A group of older kids was ready to put a cat into the dryer in the laundromat. I was surprised that nobody -- not even any adults -- was doing anything. I knew that I would not wind up well after this was over, but I personally stopped the kitten from that horrible end. I might have gotten punched around a bit, but it didn't compare to the happiness I felt as I carried my new kitten home. I just wish that my mother felt the same happiness every time I brought home a kitten, dog, hurt pigeon or squirrel.

Did anyone support your concern for animals?

It was about that same time that our teacher asked us to write a composition on what we wanted to be when we grew up. I and one other friend (who wound up in jail!) wrote that we would be priests. Miss Shea, and, in fact, the whole class, thought that was a nice idea. I don't know if that satisfaction in helping people -- even animals -- had something to do with my thoughts of priesthood. I never, ever mentioned these thoughts to anyone ever again until I shared with my best friend when we were graduating from CUNY Queens College.

Did your menagerie ever get you in trouble?

My little friends ever get me in trouble? Oh, yes. In fact, I could write a book! But my favorite was with my bishop. I was called into his office because someone had written a letter about my doggies getting into the sanctuary during Sunday Mass. I told the bishop that with so many people at Sunday Eucharist (thank God!) and so many young mothers with their babies, I have authorized the door to the holy of holies to be left open on Sundays (that would be the rectory where I live).

With almost 3,000 people coming to the Masses and only one little bathroom in the church, how could I keep the door closed? My policy is based on John Paul II's call to "open wide the doors." Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio was so decent with me. While I'm sure he thinks I'm a bit different, he respects our work and mission here in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, very much. I told him that I would remove every animal from the rectory by midnight if he wanted. I'm glad he didn't ask me to do that. He asked me to please simply keep them off the altar.

How did that work for you?

Everything was great until confirmation day. We were confirming 120 youngsters. Bishop DiMarzio sent word that the animals should not be seen in church. However, I was not only the pastor; I was also the leader of song. I was too busy to realize that somehow, during the Gloria, my little dog Hercules hopped right into the presider's chair. When Bishop went to sit, the place was already occupied. I guess I'm lucky that I still have my little hobby today. Kittens and puppies are safe, and they never go to Mass anymore!

What was your birth family like?

My grandparents came from Ireland. I'm blessed to have so many cousins back in Mayo, Galway, and Limerick that are really my friends. Our family ties are strong. Both my mother's and father's parents and so many others lived in our neighborhood. While we never said the rosary every night on our knees like we did for all the years I traveled back to the old country, there was no doubt that the heart of our family was God and that we knew God through the goodness of the Catholic church. My grandparents and parents worked with all the others to build St. Raphael's and Queen of Angels churches in Queens County. Our beautiful neighborhood saw enough difficulties, too. My principal, Sister Elizabeth (a Presentation sister), made it a priority to hire some male teachers for the faculty. So many of our families were mother-only. My parents' divorce I think served to bring my four younger brothers and sisters and me closer together. I thank God that even today, we are -- again, to use the word I used before -- not just brothers and sisters and cousins, but truly friends.

Where were you educated?

Grammar school was in Sunnyside, St. Raphael's, and I was blessed to have been accepted into Archbishop Molloy High School. Today, so many years later, I'm honored to serve as the school chaplain. Queens College -- City University of New York -- was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Because of our financial situation, there was no way I could have gone away to school. I will be forever grateful for the financial aid that comes from the Tuition Assistance Program and the Basic Education Opportunity Grant program. I had worked as a busboy and then as the organist in church. But without that help from the government, even with rates as low as CUNY's, I could never have finished.

I met the greatest people in the world at Queens College. I found the interaction between the different religions to be a real challenge to my faith. While some teachers were outright disrespectful and arrogant -- to all faiths, but especially to Roman Catholics -- I also had some of the best theologians and Catholic philosophers that I've ever known. As we graduated, a group of us shared one day our hopes and dreams, as we knew we probably wouldn't see that particular class of friends again. How interesting when one young woman said she was going on to study for ministry as a Lutheran, and three of the young men were going on to become rabbis. That was a great semester, and I wonder often if all their dreams came true. Mine did!

Frank, you are a talented and generous musician. When did you realize that gift?

When I was 5 years old, my cousin Kathleen had a piano. I would actually go up to Queens Boulevard (today known as the Boulevard of Death because of all the fatalities), and I would ask people to take me across. I would watch Kathleen play and then beg her to teach me. Music touched me in a way that nothing else ever has. It was to become my way to God.

My piano teacher was also the church organist. Mrs. Davila introduced me to the ancient pipe organ in our parish, and the rest is history. It led me to volunteer for choirs and Masses, and then, finally, it gave me a few years of regular work. It was during these years that I met the most dedicated priests and laypeople in the Catholic church. I was slowly but very surely being turned on to a community that would one day become my life. For all those years I also played in a hard rock band, the stuff we did in choir was what transformed my life.

When did you know you wanted to become a priest?

As I said earlier, I guess I'd always thought about that vocation -- maybe since fourth grade! In college, we were asked to participate in some field work dealing with a gerontology course we were taking. My two years in the nursing home were an eye-opener. I would end up staying much later than all my classmates. I just couldn't leave some of the residents who had no family members to visit them. And it's true: If nobody from the family visits, the care given to them on the part of the home is not the best. (Our two nursing homes here in Brooklyn run by the sisters are not included in that comment!) I worked in a group home for mentally challenged adults in addition to the nursing home experience. I began to reflect on the happiness I was finding in this kind of service.

Until recently, you didn't own a car and traveled everywhere by bike.

True. Just before graduation, I fulfilled a little dream of mine. A friend and I rode bikes to California from New York. Tom and I started together, but we split up in Albuquerque, N.M. All the rest of that trip alone gave me a time of real reflection. The silence, the desert, and when the sun went down with no one to talk to but God forced me to deal with the deep-down question: Where would I be happy in life? It was there that I decided I would come home and talk to the vocation director.

Who influenced you?

Nuns. I mentioned before that I worked with and became friends with a number of excellent priests. Along with them, so many outstanding laypeople who gave of themselves so totally to the church and service of the poor made an impression on me. I saw sisters who were totally given to Jesus. They wanted nothing more than to serve him through their service to us and our families and our neighborhood. And they were so happy doing it.

Where have you served?

My first assignment was unforgettable but short-lived. Something told me that I would be OK in a poorer parish. After just two years in Immaculate Conception in Astoria, I was transferred to the parish I now serve, Blessed Sacrament in Cypress Hills (the East New York section of Brooklyn). After almost seven years here as parochial vicar, I was asked to move into Bushwick and then Bed-Stuy -- poorer and poorer still. I was appointed pastor of two parishes that had been doubled up: St. Lucy-St. Patrick and Our Lady of Monserrate-St. Ambrose. It was here that one of my rectories was right next door to the motherhouse of the Mercy Sisters. Although this was a tough assignment -- most of my parishioners came from the most violent of the projects -- my work with them was a real joy. But even better was a friendship that began with the Mercy community that I will treasure until death.

Please describe the kind of priest you'd like to be.

Open. That's a good word, open. When I returned to Blessed Sacrament as pastor, I made a decision to keep the doors of the church and rectory open all day. When Sept. 11 hit us, our bishop directed every church to open their doors for the days following that horror. I saw, during those dark days, how desperately people are looking for God in their lives.

And don't just open the doors of the building; keep open the doors of my heart. All our workers and volunteers here in the church and across the street in the school know that this is a priority in my ministry. And I expect it of them. I want to be like Pope Francis.

Stop saying no to people. When they come for marriage or when they come for baptism or when they come with a problem -- don't ever simply say that we can't help. Let us at least walk together and see what happens. Like I said earlier, that's easier said than done. It creates a bit of chaos. There are moments when parish life, because of my philosophy, becomes a rectory, church, parish that is not as peaceful as some other places. Somehow, God will take care of that too, even when I accidentally get my Irish up and lose patience (which is not too often, thank God). That's the priest that I enjoy being and that I hope to be until the end.

Do you know a priest that fits that description?

As much as I fear offending many good priests by naming only one, I'd have to choose Msgr. David Cassato. He's extremely creative. One year, he invited me to his parish of St. Athanasius in Brooklyn. He was giving a Lenten series of talks titled "Frankly Speaking." All the presenters were friends named Frank or Francis. One day, I got there very early -- I think I rode my bike and made better time than I had planned. I watched Dave for a few hours. He made calls and entertained me at the same time, then had to make a few house visits. He invited me to go with him.

I was so impressed with a guy who is so completely given to his people. He has a great gift with names. He knows every single parishioner by name, and uses that gift at Communion. What I would love seminarians to see is that this is where the priest should find his peace and fulfillment. The old man, the old widow sitting alone in their apartments is where Jesus needs you, his priest. Sometimes, we need to put the brother priest or other family and friends aside and find our delight in service. Don't get me wrong, Monsignor Dave looks like a million dollars on and off the altar. And he's excellent to his friends. He's a true mentor to many priests. But I think he would say to anyone that his life is nothing without a deep and abiding love -- in action -- for his parish, and most especially those of his parishioners who are hurting in any way.

Frank, what is your image of God?

My image of God. Maybe the simplest question.

Friend. From John's Gospel -- "I call you friends." There is nobody -- not a single person in my life, here or in heaven -- who is as faithful or loving to me as God. As a celibate, my journey has taken me into some incredible places. How wonderful to have Christ there to guide, counsel and understand. He knows me better than a spouse would know me. He knows me better than I know myself.

How do you pray?

I pray my breviary, and late at night after a midnight walk in the park with the doggies and the rosary, I enjoy a little bit of silence. These have never failed to take the stress out of the work.

I am most in communion with God at Eucharist. It doesn't matter if I'm presiding or simply worshipping in the pews with everyone else. It's during the Eucharist that I'm most at peace, even during the saddest funeral in the world.

Please describe your parish.

It's made up of almost all immigrant families now. Over half of our faithful are from the Dominican Republic. We're seeing a great influx of Mexicans and others from South America. Our RCIA program has a great number of even newer immigrants from Guyana and the West Indies.

What do parishioners most want?

Besides a place to live? We do our best to meet their basic needs. We provide immigration counseling. (I gave up my only office to a wonderful parishioner who earned her certification for immigration work. I can't tell you how many people are now citizens thanks to Altagracia. I meet with people in the dining room -- that's my office. There's no dinner with that!)

Besides education, food, rental assistance, etc., they want spirituality. Even the untold numbers who do not practice their faith regularly want to know that there is a place, a welcoming place, where they might encounter the goodness of God.

Can you share an occasion when you experienced being a servant priest?

Here's just one. There was an undocumented man named Manuel. He had no family, no friends, and no hope for ever becoming a citizen. He lived in the garbage dump that was being used by the church for the renovations of the bell towers that were about to fall down. When the renovations were over, the dumpster disappeared. Manuel lived in our garages and the shed we use for our garden tools. I let him shower in my rectory. But once, years ago, I got in a great deal of trouble when I let homeless people live in the rectory with me, so I could not let him live with us. He wore my clothes and sneakers. (And, believe me, he hesitated to do even that!)

One day, he disappeared, and we didn't see him for weeks. The police came to the door. They were told that I could identify his body. The scene is too grisly to describe. Manuel was going to be deposited in our modern-day potter's field. I went to great lengths to get his body to give him a proper burial. When I shared my sad story with the congregation, the response was just so overwhelming that I'll never forget it. Our people are not well off. Nevertheless, we gave Manuel a funeral and burial fit for a pope. The outpouring of love and compassion made me feel, just for a little while, that some of my work and preaching was actually making a difference in people's lives and beliefs. Then again, I need to be a little more humble. It was just one experience of being a priest and part of a parish whose main concern is not having dances or going to the casino or to the movies together. Our mission is to bring God's light into the darkness. I saw people come together and do this better than I could. It was just a touching moment, one of many, in my life as a priest.

Can you identify your personal support systems?

The witness of so many sisters and priests is profound. My best friend from high school, along with my friends from college, is a solid rock for me. I have more friends who are not priests. Overall, I'm pretty happy, and I feel more than blessed.

Are you worried about the possibility of your parish school closing?

We're in a position where we are the only show in town. All the other Catholic schools were able to close and merge into one new academy. Our children, however, could never safely cross nearby busy Atlantic Avenue to attend it. It would be a disaster. And so I had to fight hard to convince the powers that be, along with my excellent principal, that there was no other choice but to make this school work.

I preach about our school often -- not just at registration time. I beg families to consider Catholic education. And I tell them that, even if they can't do all eight or nine years, then give us your children. Gift them with two or three or four years in a Catholic environment. We work closely with our local public schools and their parent associations. But I continually insist that a few years in a Catholic school offers a memory and an education that can't be matched. Then I mention Sonia Sotomayor and presidents who have spent a few years in Catholic schools. It seems to be working for now. But I do wonder about the future.

What makes you sad?

The same thing that makes all the young parents and the young grandparents sad. So many of our young people have no sense of the spiritual life -- the need for God and the Spirit and prayer. It seems that for our Brooklyn neighborhoods, the secular world, its music and entertainment have stolen their hearts.

What gives you joy?

As sad as it is to watch many of our young go totally "into the world," I also see many people who practice their faith. The mother of one of our teenagers, a pretty devoted parishioner herself, just died suddenly. I watched the outpouring of love and faith. The teen is in one of our youth groups. And even though that funeral Mass was one of the saddest, I was delighted to see maybe hundreds of kids who are faithful and so many of their friends who have strayed coming to watch and feel what a living faith can do in those dark moments, and it gave me great hope for tomorrow.

What would you change?

The annulment process, for one. I know there are so many issues. But in my experience, this process is keeping so very many good people away from Eucharist. I'm hoping Pope Francis starts with that, then continues with some of the wonderful things he's begun. I pray for his good health every day.

How do you unwind?

I enjoy a nice run in the park with the dogs, or maybe an hour at the gym; a half-hour at the piano or organ with a little Bach or old Irish songs; a nice glass of Pinot Grigio with a friend; eight hours of sleep. (That doesn't happen too much, though.)

Well, Francis, you earn that sleep and all the friendship you extend and accept.

[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.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Sr. Camille's column, Conversations with Sr. Camille, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert signup.

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