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.