The First Year in the Life of a Catholic Priest

A priest of the Archdiocese of Boston reflects on Pope Francis, serving a parish, and the power of confession.

boston archdiocese catholic church rebuild after sex abuse scandal

Photo by Matt Kalinowski, for “Resurrection.”

Late May is usually Boston’s down period between college graduations (mid-May) and high school ones (June), but that respite was broken this past weekend at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. On Saturday, five men, having completed their seminary studies, were ordained by Cardinal Sean O’Malley into the Archdiocese of Boston.

That made me, of course, want to check in on Father Eric Cadin, the subject of “Resurrection,” my story which examined the local church’s recovery from the 2002 sex abuse scandal. For that piece, I had followed Cadin around for his last few months at St. John’s Seminary and through his ordination. I wanted to see how his first year at St. Michael Parish in North Andover was going.

I caught up with Father Cadin this morning; what follows is a lightly edited interview.

You were ordained last June, almost a year ago. What’s your first year as a priest been like?

I’ve found that there’s a difference between when you read a book or study something and actually doing it. People’s lives and souls are so precious and delicate. And it’s such a privilege to encounter, to help, to support, to be with, these people in certainly the joyful times, but in very challenging and frightening times too. It always strikes me when I have a day that I’m spending a lot of time in a hospital or nursing home, when you sit down at the table, and have a man or woman across from me who is 90 years old. And you’re sitting there talking to them, and you realize, Here is this person who is filled with hope and fear, joys and anxieties. It’s a real person, not a case study. It’s such a privilege to have that opportunity to speak with them, to pray with them, to help them.

How have your expectations of what being a priest would be like—when you were in seminary, or even before—differed from the actual experience?

The first observation is, in seminary when you’re studying or thinking about issues, everything can seem so big or significant or earth shattering. And when you’re a priest, you’re actually living with and journeying with the people. It’s not that things are messier—they’re just more real. There’s so much complexity suddenly, because it’s people’s lives.

 At the ordination this past weekend, the Cardinal used the expression that the priest is a good shepherd and that a good shepherd smells like his sheep. And for a priest to smell like his sheep, he has to spend time with them and live with them for an extended period of time. This is a rambling way of saying that the experience of being a priest is more of a continuum than discrete distinct moments. You’re not in the rectory waiting around for significant moments to occur. Rather, you’re at Mass every day, you’re visiting with people, meeting them week after week. The distinctly relational aspect of it becomes more relevant.

The second is, that when you’re at the seminary, you think, I want to be a really good priest, I want to help people, and have the answers. There is a temptation for having a perfectionist’s take. I have to give the perfect homily. Or if someone dies, I have to say the perfect thing. But when I meet that family at the funeral, this isn’t their first encounter with the church or a priest or faith, and it’s not going to be their last. I’m part of a bigger vision that God has for them. I don’t have to have every single answer. I’m not the be all and end all.

What’s been the biggest challenge you faced?

The biggest challenge is related to a type of pride. People come to me with all types of significant sufferings they’re going through—cancer, say, or family members dying. Or they have significant problems in their lives—their marriage is falling apart and they don’t understand why. So that challenge is one of: I don’t have a magic answer. I can’t make everything better. That’s a challenge.  That’s not exclusive to priests. Anyone who goes into any type of ministry—people who volunteer or work in a nursing home—they genuinely care about people. An oncologist cares about his patients, and sometimes, there’s nothing they can do. That can be very hard. You can’t fix everyone’s marriage, you can’t cure all cancers. It’s about helping them discover hope.

What have you enjoyed the most?

A couple things: Certainly, having a school is great. I go over and spend time with the different classes. The little kids, who are just full of joy, and the older kids who have all kinds of questions and concerns and hopes and thoughts. With the school, it represents a lot of hope in general. Hope for the church, but hope in general. That’s always uplifting.

The other thing I really, really enjoy is the sacrament of confession. It’s been very misunderstood and there’s a lot of confusion around it; people can approach with a lot of fear, especially from their childhood. My perspective or approach is to hear this person, and help them have this extraordinary encounter with a God who loves them and wants to forgive them. People come with things weighing on them, and to remove them is extraordinary.

Has the election of Pope Francis changed your parish?

Yes. Yes. He was elected a little bit before Easter, and there has been considerable uptick in sacraments since then. Holy Week—the week before Easter—we had confessions almost every day. And a significant number of people mentioned Pope Francis as their motivation.

Why do your parishioners find him so engaging?

I think they see in him a very physical, living out of the joy and the truth of the Gospel. When I do marriage preparation, or any type of sacrament preparation, one of the scripture passages I’ll mention is John 10:10. It’s the good shepherd area, where Jesus is saying, “I didn’t come as a thief in the night to plunder. I didn’t come to add burden to your life. I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.” That type of message is the whole point: God wants us to flourish. He wants us to experience real joy and real life. Pope Francis lives out the simplicity of that reality. And it’s very, very attractive to people.

You attended the ordination on Saturday. What was it like experience it from the other side, as an actual priest?

It reminded me of what I said earlier: It’s just being part of a bigger continuum, a bigger mystery. In your first year, you’re the newly ordained priest and everyone wants your blessing. And suddenly you’re not. The church has existed thousands of years before me and will exist thousands of years after. It’s very hopeful and satisfying and humbling in a good way, to recognize that here, in my little life, I’m just called to do my little part in God’s work. It was good to put that into perspective.

  • neil allen

    Just keep him away from children.

    • disqus_HoDUnvzWCF

      I am a parishioner of St. Michael. I have met Fr. Eric and know him well. He is a good and honest man. Your comment is inaccurate and hurtful. Please back up your comments with facts before you say such a thing.

      • neil allen

        Fact – the Catholic church is the largest pedophile protection program in the recorded history of mankind.
        There is your fact. Keep him and all other priests away from children. Raping children and lying about it is hurtful, and Catholic priests are better at it than anyone.

        • spSanderson

          That is not a fact. A real fact is that it is more likely for a child to be abused by his/her teacher or coach than by a priest. That does not render the actions of some clergy excusable, but you simply cannot call the Church a program of pedophilia when you have no real facts to back it up. My experience of the church has been nothing like what you’re saying.

          • neil allen

            That is the standard Catholic lie. Thanks for bringing it up.

            The Catholic church admitted 4,392 substantiated, accused, child sex abusing priests in their own John Jay report of 2004. That was 4% of priests, but it was 8-9% in the 70s and 80s and NO INSTITUTION IN HISTORY IS EVEN CLOSE to this number.

            But Catholics were much worse. They were the only institution

            – where the child rapist fully admitted it to another person (in confession).
            – where known pedophiles were hidden and reassigned.
            – where they bully the victims, and where leaders literally call the victims “crybabys”.
            – where all of the followers chose to protect the child rapist and not the child rape victim
            – where they did it all IN GOD’S NAME.
            – where their primary goal was to save money.

            Jesus wouldn’t rape children, wouldn’t lie about it, and wouldn’t protect the pedophiles. Catholic priests did.

          • Anthony

            Fr. Eric has been a priest for a year. He has given up his life for you, assuming you live in Boston, and he prays for you daily. This is how you thank him? Use your head; be a productive Christian. DON’T THROW OUT THE BABY WITH THE BATH WATER. I bet my life you are associated with a group that has done horrible things. Your philosophy has it then: if you are an American you are automatically a no good slave owner who has justified it for years.

          • William Austin

            Anthony, you left out no good Indian killer and the greatest land thief in history. Not to mention the hideous amount of weaponry you give away to entice new weapons buyers.
            What despicable (and easy) target you make Mr. Allen! Let’s ALL do this! Let’s generalize one another until doomsday — which will undoubtedly be hastened by all of the hatred we’d unleash.
            My faith insists that I love you Mr.Allen; which I do.
            But I don’t like you.

        • Wm Tom Davis

          Actually Planned Parenthood performing hundreds of thousands of child abortions as cover-ups has a worse record at protecting not only pedophiles, but many criminal child abusers and rapists using HIPA laws to “protect patient information.” Again, recheck your facts.

          • neil allen

            Wm Tom Davis, you’re a Catholic priest, so you’ve been trained to lie to protect your pedophile pals.

            Now please prove that Planned Parenthood admitted that 4% of their employees were substantiated, accused child sex offenders like the Catholic church admitted, and prove how they hid it for 5 decades.

            Don’t distract with anything else. Either prove that, or you are bearing false witness.

          • Wm Tom Davis

            Again untruths are your part… You know nothing about me either, other than yes I am a Catholic priest, and I do not have any pedophile friends at all. What an ignorant thing to say on your part, but I guess your hatred and anger allows you to make such accusations, you think.
            I have never been trained to lie.
            I never said that they were sex offenders as you have stated. What I said is that they have willing hid sex offenders. I also never said that they have hid it for 5 decades. Again you imply fallacial misunderstandings of what I have said. Maybe you need reading comprehension classes as well.

          • neil allen

            I know that if you are a Catholic priest, you will be like every other priest and lie for your pedophile pals.

            Now don’t distract – you said Planned Parenthood has a worse record at protecting pedophiles, and I proved that the Catholic church admitted 4% of your priests were substantiated, accused child sex offenders in their own John Jay report.

            Either prove Planned Parenthood admitted having more than 4%, or you are lying, just like all Catholic priests do when they are protecting their pedophile priest practices.

          • Wm Tom Davis

            Actually the distraction is you, taking away from a good article about a new priest, and implying that he is a pedophile with your comment not to let him be near kids. As you well know, Planned Parenthood would never admit anything regarding its illegal practices, but in a sting operation done by a pro-life group, it proved that an amazing 91% of the PP clinics called failed to fulfill their obligation as mandated reporters, to report statutory rape, but instead chose to help hide child rape cases questioned. Can you imagine how many times this has happened without being exposed?

          • neil allen

            That’s awesome. You just made that up. Otherwise, prove it, with a legitimate source, and prove that they had 4,392 substantiated, accused sex offenders like the Catholic priesthood admitted, hid and mobilized.

            Unless, of course, by PP you mean “Pedophile Priest” clinics, in which case its easy to believe.

    • Wm Tom Davis

      What a really ignorant and hurtful thing to say. You know nothing about this priest, and your fallacial generalization of grouping the thousands of good priests with those who don’t know the meaning of “no” shows your hate and anger based upon ignorance. Your comment that the raping of children is hurtful is indeed a horrific travisty perpetuated mostly by dysfunctional families, not priests; and families (89% of all child sex abuse cases) are the best at keeping it from the authorities. Your comments regarding Catholics are un factual and abusive as well.

      • neil allen

        Good distraction, and if I was a fool, I’d follow you.

        Catholic rampant child rape was organized crime, committed by gangsters who didn’t have the guts to go after adults, so they raped God’s most innocent children. Then all the bishops and priests who knew about it hid them, or lied about it, and moved them to rape some more. They didn’t need guns. They were dealing with children, and they used the power of God.

        You do what your leaders say because you signed an oath to bishops that overrides your oath to God, in direct disobedience of the 2nd commandment, and you will do whatever your pedophiles and pedophile protectors tell you to do.

        • Kathy West

          Take your nastiness somewhere else. This is an article about a great person, and you are just shitting it up with your pissy rants

        • Wm Tom Davis

          How ignorant you really are… Thanks for the wonderful opportunity to do some good, yes good. I’m going to pray for you and your illness. May God bless you.

  • ryanforlife

    What a nice interview. I love your hope and humility Fr. Eric.

  • Kathy West

    Having known Fr. Eric since he was born, Mr Allen your comments and including him in your ignorance is beyond offensive. Eric is one of the nicest, sweetest people you could ever have the luck to know. To lump him with issues that are decades old isn’t fair to him or any other priest that is doing a job they love, for a God that has called them. I can only hope that you find something that you love that much, instead of finding innocent people to thrust your ignorance upon.