When I was born, my family lived in a section of the city of Boston called Meeting House Hill in Dorchester. This area of three family homes, neighborhood stores, bakeries, bar rooms, and some broad avenues sits between Fields Corner and Uphams Corner. At the top of my street was the beautiful Ronan Park. The park was a haven for the kids in the neighborhood for all sports as well as sledding in the winter. This was my world.
Cardinal Cushing was Archbishop of Boston and I went to St. Peter’s Grammar School. The topic of “the missions” was often spoken about and visiting missionaries came to the school and the parish from time to time. We were all taken with the idea of far off places. But more than that, I learned at an early age that we were connected to people in far off places. We learned that many of them were poor and had little to eat or wear. In turn, we were well off no matter our situation.
I left Meeting House Hill a long time ago – but the lessons I learned there have shaped me for a life time. Now I understand that to be a Catholic is to be involved with the world. In fact, it is not possible to say CATHOLIC and not mean others outside of where I live and work. This Church of ours, founded by Jesus Christ, is a community always seeking to reach out and always on the move. The Great Commandment that Jesus gave to his followers was “Go forth to all the nations and preach the Good News…”
I guess, looking back, it is no surprise that after I became a priest, I later became a missionary to Latin America – a member of the St. James Society. This is the group of diocesan priests from all over the English speaking world formed by Cardinal Cushing when I was a boy. We were to go to the poorest regions of Latin America and work in the poorest areas. And so I went first as a seminarian to Peru and spent a summer in Andahuaylas – high in the Andes. I went back to Peru again and again. In 1987, five years after being ordained, I asked for permission to go and stay. Cardinal Law gave me permission and asked me to delay my departure for one year. In the spring of 1988, I joined up and was sent to Ecuador.
Though I returned to Boston in November 2000, I continue to be actively involved in Ecuador. I cannot help but be involved in the world beyond Charlestown. I know I am a better person for this and I think a better priest as well. The Gospel of Jesus Christ points me over and over to place the needs of the poor as the primary focus of my life. The poor are everywhere and we all know that. They are the weak, the sick, the elderly, and the young as well as the unborn and the voiceless in our world.
I can never go back to Meeting House Hill – what a great place to grow up. But growing up means we see a bigger world and hear a call to look beyond our neighborhoods. Whether we stay home or not means little – that we live and pray and act as citizens of the world means everything.