Shadowing Fr. Bresnahan

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Let me start by saying this: Everyone should spend a day tagging along after a priest. It's a great opportunity to witness pastoral service that is not often seen and was, in my case, just plain fun. Let me also say this: Because of time constraints, my "day" consisted of four hours with Father Ed Bresnahan, parochial vicar of St. Mary Parish in Fredericksburg - not the 12+ hour day he actually put in. He filled me in on a lot of it, but hearing obviously is not the same as seeing.

I met up with Father Bresnahan around 10:30 a.m. last Thursday at Holy Cross Academy in Fredericksburg - about a 15-minute drive from the parish. His day had begun four hours earlier with the "early Mass" at 6:30 a.m. followed by morning prayer. By 8:30 a.m., he was at Holy Cross starting his weekly lessons with the fifth-graders. The school is used to having priests around, Father Bresnahan said, because not only is he a regular visitor and teacher, but also because the other parish priests - pastor Father Donald J. Rooney and parochial vicar Father Bjorn C. Lundberg - work with the eighth- and seventh-graders, respectively.

As the school year has gotten started, Father Bresnahan said he takes a three-pronged approach to teaching: answering questions, giving a lesson (last Thursday on the sacraments) and walking through some of the upcoming changes in the Roman Missal.

Around 10:30 a.m. he wraps up his time with the fifth-graders and stops by the two third-grade classrooms for a few minutes. Though he's not officially teaching the class, he likes to drop in on different grades to get to know them.

To the students' great delight, Father Bresnahan passed around the golden paten and chalice - removed from his "mystery black box" - that his grandparents bought for him for his ordination in June 2010.

Father Bresnahan shouts out questions - Does God have a plan for you? What's the most important sacrament? How many of you guys know who I am? - giving high fives and fist bumps when the kids answered correctly (after raising their hands, of course).

Before he became a priest, "I wanted to be a spy," Father Bresnahan tells the wide-eyed youngsters. But he realized God had a different plan for him - and, he told them, He has one for them, too.

Because the students behaved well, Father Bresnahan rewarded them (and earned major "cool priest" points) by doing a walking handstand right there at the front of the classroom.

Over a quick stop for lunch at the Chick-fil-A on the way back to the parish, Father Bresnahan made it clear that as a fairly new priest, he doesn't pretend to have all the answers. He's learning as he goes, he freely admitted, and half of the time his daily plans will change based on immediate needs that arise.

"But that's OK," he said. "It's flexibility and humility that allows you to be open to what God wants you to do today."

He often finds people in need of "moral guidance" - not necessarily counseling, but rather information on Church teachings about a certain aspect of life, such as end-of-life issues. He's learned it's essential for priests to stay "up on their education" and to "constantly keep learning."

After lunch, it was back to the parish where Father Bresnahan checked in, retrieved messages and wrote down the names of those at the hospital who had called requesting a priest. He made a quick stop at the church to retrieve several hosts for hospital calls and pause for midday prayer.

"I get to say Mass here every day," he said, pointing out St. Mary's renovations completed last year. "It's so cool."

Walking from the church to the parking lot, he pointed out the parish preschool, adding that if you ever need a "pick-me-up," that's the place to go.

But we had a different stop to make. Back in the car, we headed to Mary Washington Hospital, a short drive from St. Mary. It has been said that "a priest lives everybody's life in a day," Father Bresnahan said, and our visit to the hospital was a prime example.

After taking stock of the Catholic patients by looking through sheets of paper that divided the patients by religion, Father Bresnahan first visited Joe and Jessica Gilpin and their new baby, Josephine Ruth, born only two days before. Father offered Communion to the parents and, placing his hand on Josephine's tiny head, bestowed a blessing on the new family. On a different floor, the scene was less joyful. We visited two elderly women, and Father Bresnahan held their hands and spoke to their families. He offered them both Communion and gave one, Grace, the anointing of the sick.

Walking out of the hospital, I told Father I didn't know how he manages to make those visits so often. The baby part had been great, but my heart ached for the women who said they just wanted to go home. But by visiting the patients, and bringing the sacraments with him, Father Bresnahan was living the Gospel. And he offered them the presence and the comfort of Jesus.

As the next agenda item was a parish staff meeting at 2:30 p.m., that was it for me. But Father Bresnahan's day didn't get any less busy. The staff meeting was followed by afternoon prayer, visiting religious education classes (three of which were held in the activity center from 4:50 to 6 p.m.), a parish council meeting, end-of-the day correspondence, prayer and, finally, bedtime.

Of course last Thursday with Father Bresnahan was just one day for one priest, and not representative of every priest at every parish. It wasn't even representative of every day with him. Because of the diverse ministries of the Church, days can be filled with one-on-one spiritual or moral counseling, wedding preparation or house blessings, nursing home visits and confessions. And weekends are another story completely.

But what can remain consistent, I saw, was how Father Bresnahan not only acted like a priest during every part of his day, but also lived like one. Maybe it's indicative of his former desire to be a spy, but it was the covert ways in which he was a priest, not just the overt ones, that were fascinating to observe. He joked with a couple of parishioners he saw in the church parking lot. He high-fived kids (and even a teacher) walking down the Holy Cross hallway. He made conversation with an employee during lunch. He encouraged painters in a hospital hallway with a "looks great guys." Every chance he got, he smiled and uplifted.

This joy comes from "knowing that what you're doing is what God's called you to do," he said.

And as such, "every day's an opportunity to reach out to people and bring them closer to Jesus Christ."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011