Fr. Howard retires

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Atonement Father C. Donald Howard, pastor of Christ the Redeemer Church in Sterling, retired after nearly 25 years of service there Feb. 3.

Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde has appointed Atonement Father Patrick Cogan as pastor, effective Feb 3.

Parishioners at the 10 a.m. English Mass met Father Howard's final homily with a standing ovation. After the noon Spanish Mass, liturgical ministers and volunteers presented Father Howard with a plaque of appreciation for his many years of service to the Hispanic community. A "Donut Sunday" reception followed both Masses, which allowed parishioners to bid farewell to Father Howard personally.

At the 10 a.m. Mass, Father Howard expressed gratitude for the generally positive feedback that his homilies and back page columns in the parish bulletin have received over the years. He felt grateful that his columns had started conversations with parishioners, even when they disagreed with him, calling him a "bleeding heart" for his liberal attitudes toward poverty and other social issues.

"I'm a Franciscan. I'm supposed to act that way," Father Howard quipped.

Throughout his history as pastor at Christ the Redeemer, Father Howard developed a reputation for his gifts as a writer and storyteller. Jays Cuasay, director of Christian Formation at the parish, praised Father Howard for his writing that was not only "in tune with the liturgical season, but also "(tapped) into the everyday life of the average Northern Virginian."

"Father Howard has a saying that, when we come together as a community, God happens," Cuasay said. "It's not something that you study. He has a pastoral sensibility. He says that life is messy and that we're here to listen to people's stories, not fill out paperwork."

In his final column for the parish bulletin, Father Howard wrote:

"What I learned as the writing and preaching pastor during these 25 years is that the conversation is not only about speaking but about listening. In the speaking and listening believers learn about God in the church. Good learning and good conversation came in the process of talking and listening. God spoke and we listened. We spoke to one another. We listened to one another. We became church."

During his tenure, Father Howard was credited for overseeing a diverse congregation, with many Hispanics, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Indians, Pakistanis and Africans. Father Howard repeatedly encouraged parishioners to co-mingle and share their traditions, cultivating an "intercultural" atmosphere. Several times each year, Spanish- and English-speaking parishioners come together for bilingual celebrations, such as the Easter Vigil.

This is also the same parish where, thanks to the efforts of Father Howard and his diverse parish staff, the bulletin includes a Polish-American dinner dance at the Knights of Columbus and the need for ESL teachers in the same issue. It also is the same church that has celebrated Simbang Gabi, the Filipino Advent observance for the nine days before Christmas.

Nearly 9,000 parishioners of all backgrounds currently are registered at Christ the Redeemer.

Cuasay, who has been a parishioner of Christ the Redeemer since 2001, has valued Father Howard's openness and acceptance in a more personal way. Cuasay joined the staff in 2006 at Father Howard's appointment, soon after the death of his infant son, Joshua Emet. Though Joshua's funeral was presided over by a rabbi because Cuasay's wife is Jewish, Father Howard still participated in the service. The Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation has observed the Jewish high holy days at Christ the Redeemer for the past decade.

Father Howard chose to retire before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten season to live in an Atonement friar community in Washington. There he will continue to minister as a bilingual priest.

Father Howard was Christ the Redeemer's third pastor since the parish was established in 1972. His predecessor was Father Dan O'Shea, under whom Father Howard served as parochial vicar after finishing graduate school at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

Stoddard is a freelance writer and cartoonist in Arlington.

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Fr. Howard's final parish bulletin column can be found on the parish website at ctrcc.org/pastor/latest_comment.htm.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013