He had me at ‘hello’

Posted in Uncategorized by Sean Holton on August 31, 2009
With Father Paul and my brother Brian (8-30-09)

With Father Paul and my brother Brian (8-30-09)

I would never pretend to be what you would call a “religious person” at all. I’ve known too many people who would legitimately fit that description to ever apply it to myself. That list is long, and starts with my parents, both of whom are now dead. They raised their five kids in the Catholic faith with varying degrees of success. My “Irish twin brother” Brian is 11 months older than I am, and we were both very comfortable being part of a group of boys with a bit of a reputation as hellraisers as we were growing up in the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish in Independence, Mo. On more than one occasion, parish priests had to visit our home for conferences with our parents to sort through trouble we’d made in either the church youth group or the boy scout troop. (I’ll leave out the particulars, as I’m sure Brian’s three kids would have an unhealthy interest in such details.)

I was educated in public schools until I went to college at Rockhurst College in Kansas City. That experience did very little to deepen whatever faith I had. The Jesuit priests who ran Rockhurst actually trained us to be skeptical and probing about everything, not to take life at face value and certainly not to organize our world view according to any intellectually untested set of platitudes. (So much of religion gets reduced to that “intellectually untested” level, which is why so many Jesuits get in hot water with Rome). Anyway, the best Jesuit professors I had taught me philosophy, political science and English literature. I don’t remember much about the theology classes we were required to complete.

As an adult, I didn’t go to church regularly. When I visited my folks from out of town — especially as they grew old and frail — I did enjoy taking them to  Mass either at Nativity or to one of the bigger churches in the city. It was a way of feeling more connected to them by experiencing something with them that was deeply meaningful to them and which had nurtured them for their entire lives. And as they approached death, I from time to time would attend Mass in Orlando in order to pray for them and maintain that sense of connection with them and the church I grew up in from far away. They were both buried out of the Nativity church less than a year apart in 2006 and 2007. My most vivid memory from each of their funerals was the assembly of women of the Nativity Altar Society attending in large numbers. These white-haired women lined the center aisle like sentries at both funerals to say a final goodbye as we made our way out of the church and headed for the cemetery.  In the context of my parents’ faith, that was almost equivalent to having a host of angels send them off to heaven.

The church I attend in Orlando (as something of an interloper) is called St. John Vianney Catholic Church. It is an oasis in the middle of one the rattiest stretches of road in town — an infamous corridor of high-crime, strip clubs and prostitution called South Orange Blossom Trail. But the congregation of St. John Vianney is something special. It is a diverse mix of people from across the economic spectrum and with origins from all over the world. There are Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Haitians, Jamaicans, South Americans, Africans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders with plenty more longtime Orlando white folks like me thrown in, and lots of tourists from out of town. The church orchestra and choir are first rate. Everyone dresses up in their finest, but it is not to show off or be on parade. It is because they respect the community they have built in this 50-year-old parish. St. John Vianney is what it is not because of the hierarchy and the rules of the Roman Catholic Church. It is what it is because of the spirit of its congregation. You can tell these are people who want to be in church, and who are not there because they feel they are required to be there or have some other ulterior motive. During Mass, there are few, if any, “thousand yard stares” of boredom, or people checking their wristwatches.

But as much as I love this church’s community, my favorite thing about St. John Vianney is its pastor: Rev. Paul J. Henry. He is an Irishman from the county of Derry in the north (just don’t call it “Londonderry” in the Protestant fashion, or you’re liable to get a punch in the nose from Father Paul). But he is not exactly the stereotypical Irish priest from central casting. He has neither the thicker-than-the-sod brogue of a Barry Fitzgerald nor the jaunty “let’s-teach-the-kids-how-to-box” mentality of Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley in Going My Way.  Father Paul’s thoughtful demeanor and diction are more suggestive of the actor Liam Neeson, and he exhibits the kind of mind that can recognize and accommodate (if not sign on to) the world view of a James Joyce. He has a terrific sense of humor, and when he speaks he commands everyone’s attention. He talks to his parishoners, not at them. He gives sermons about life, not about rules or laws or the dance steps of angels on the heads of liturgical pins. The first time I heard Father Paul give a sermon a couple years ago, he included a variant of a famous quotation: “This church, the Catholic Church, is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.”  Well to hear such a quote spoken from the Sunday pulpit at that point, as way more of a sinner than a saint for most of my life, I felt pretty welcome. I was sold on Father Paul and his church. So…he pretty much had me at ‘hello’.

I’m still not even sure whether I believe in God. It almost doesn’t matter to me whether He exists or not, or whether Heaven or Hell exist. (In the hospital, I even joked to a priest visiting my room that if he could bump me up to an aisle seat at center court in Purgatory, he’d have done a good day’s work). I’m more interested in the present life than the afterlife, anyway. And after a lifetime of attending (and not attending) various churches, I still believe there is one Christian teaching for living life here on Earth that is the single most important. And the essence of that teaching is: If you are able identify the weakest, ugliest, smelliest, worst-dressed, poorest, least articulate and most ignored or ridiculed person in any given room and then treat that person as if they will be the one who gets to decide whether you go to Heaven or Hell when you die, you’ll probably turn out to be a pretty decent human being.

For me, simply being in the presence of people who live their lives that way is a good enough reason to go to church on Sundays at St. John Vianney.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: I would like to thank the ladies of the Nativity of Mary Altar Society in Independence, Mo., and the women of the Ladies Bible Training Class at Maretburg Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky for sending me their cards and prayers. I also would like to thank my Mom’s “Holy Rollers” Daily Mass prayer group for their great card. With the Catholics and Baptists on my team, I’m thinking it’s going to be a pretty good season.


11 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. RebelliousRenee said, on August 31, 2009 at 9:04 am

    As a French Canadian, I too was raised a Catholic. My church of choice for most of my adult life has been the great outdoors. Having people in our lives is what makes life worth living. And finding humble people is even better. Good for you if you have found a source.

    Jesus…. I think is a made up figure. But I believe in God. And may she smile down on you today, my friend.

  2. Ann Hellmuth said, on August 31, 2009 at 11:10 am


    I wish I’d met someone like Father Paul when I was growing up. The Church of England of my day didn’t encourage original thought so faith escaped me.

    I always envied the Catholics students in my class at Donnington Wood Church of England School. The Catholic students didn’t have to sit through religious instruction classes (which took up the first hour of each day) and got to go outside and play. they also didn’t have to endure the annual visits of the bishop, who quizzed us on our religious knowledge.


    • Donna O'Neal said, on August 31, 2009 at 11:43 pm


      Greetings from a former Sentinel colleague! I learned of your site from Ann Hellmuth when I called her to see if we could do lunch this week while I was in Orlando on business. It’s been years since I saw Ann, and so many times I meant to catch up with her when I passed through town and didn’t. Something made me call this time; I’m glad I did in so many ways.

      At any rate, I logged onto your site tonight and could not stop until I had read every one of your postings. It’s now 11:23 PM (way past my bedtime for someone who is at the gym before 6 AM) and I have to say that I was blown away…..not just at your immense writing talent (which I always have admired) but at your attitude in facing such daunting health challenges with that wonderful Irish humor. (Of course, I am biased about the Irish!)

      I also enjoyed the biking stories…I have been an avid touring cyclist since my inaugural ride through the North Carolina mountains in 1990 to raise money for the American Lung Association in memory of my mother’s death from breast cancer that metastasized to her lungs. There are so many more of your insights that I could relate to that are too numerous to go into in this forum….suffice it to say that I am so glad to have reconnected with you through this blog and wish you all the best in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. Please know that you are in my thoughts and I, along with many, many others, are indeed fortunate to know you.

      I leave you with the toast that my friends and I always give when we are together: “To the Journey, and the Adventure.”

      It really is about the experiences along the path, not the destination. Keep the faith, my friend.


  3. Kelly J Fent said, on August 31, 2009 at 11:53 am

    In case you’ve wondered why your ears have been burning, knowing it wasn’t from the radiation, I’ve been talking to God about you a lot lately. He knows what a wonderfully special person you are and how much you are loved by so very many.

    I also asked Him to thwap you on the noggin (mind the incision, please!), just as He did to me back in January. Haven’t had a single bad day since. And I’ve been unemployed for nearly a year! Not to mention my sinful past, which you know of all too well. (No snarky comments, OK?)

    In our daily chats, I tell Him everything, in plain English. No “Thee” or “Thou” stuff. The best part is He takes away all my worries, anger and fear. Tells me to scoot over, He’ll be driving. Heck, I don’t even have road rage anymore!

    If you decide to talk to Him directly (what’s commonly known as “prayer,” but that’s just another technicality), don’t expect to hear a booming baritone voice in response. It’ll come to you as a distinct thought, one you didn’t conjure up on your own. I guarantee, it’ll rock your world.

    Until such a time, I’ll keep Him apprised as to your doings. He loves a good yarn as much, if not more, than the next guy.

    Love, Kelly

  4. Molly BB said, on August 31, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    Sean, I look forward ea. day to getting on-line and reading your words as I’m feeling I learn more about you from each writing. Bill, being the novice biker, was ‘blown away’ that you made the 5,000+ mile ride across the US! We (MBC) continue to keep you in our prayers and I wish I lived as close as Toby and Bill; maybe I could help out in some way. Take care and keep those words flowing!

  5. Paul Lester said, on August 31, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    Father Paul sounds amazing. It certainly makes mass much more enjoyable when you have such a thoughtful man like him as a priest. Speaking of mass, I will never forget that special moment when you read scripture at our wedding. Claudine and I were honored to have you involved in the ceremony. Thank you!

  6. Billie Greenwood said, on September 1, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    We are alot alike in the religion department. But I think we are on solid Biblical ground–Matthew 25, for instance. None of the questions are about religious services or practices…just about how you treated those in need. Hope the respect you tried to extend to others is coming back to you now in spades as you find yourself on the receiving end of medical services. Holding you in the light.

  7. Scary said, on September 1, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    At our girls’ lunch today, Laureen was telling us about Father Paul And the church and some of its parishioners. She was taking her boys there via The Trail one day when they asked her, “hey, mommie. Why is that policeman talking to those women on the street. Hey, they’re the Spice Girls. Mommie, why is that policeman talking to the Spice Girls????” gotta love a church in that neighborhood.

  8. Jamie said, on September 1, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    Doing unto “The Least of These” is one way to have a fulfilled life. If God shows up at a later date, he she or it will approve. In the meantime, you get to like yourself.

  9. Laureen said, on September 2, 2009 at 7:59 am

    Re: Scary’s post above — Would love to be a fly on the wall if those Spice Girls ever found their way to Fr. Paul’s “hospital” — at any rate am glad I did a few years back and am glad you did, too, Sean.

  10. LeeFeed said, on September 2, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    I know the brothers Henry very well.
    Fr. Paul and his twin Fr. Peter have been very close friends of the Fiedler family since we met them at St. Charles. Fr Peter Henry is a ‘godfather’ to one of my neices and he was a tennis partner to my brother Tom when he lived in Orlando.
    Fr. Paul was the pastor at St. Mary Magdalen and my parents always remembered them at the feast of their patron saints.
    Fr. Paul is a ‘hell of a priest” as my Irish grandmother would say!
    He may not bring you y back to the church but he will keep you interested.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: