Parish Priesthood Today: An Interview with Monsignor Peter Vaghi
Monsignor Peter J. Vaghi is pastor of the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Md., and chaplain of the John Carroll Society in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Gonzaga High School, College of the Holy Cross, University of Salzburg, University of Virginia Law School and the Gregorian University in Rome, where he completed his studies for the priesthood prior to ordination in 1985. He recently celebrated his 30th anniversary as a priest.
Monsignor Vaghi is author of several popular Catholic books and has contributed articles to America, Priest and Our Sunday Visitor. His last book was Encountering Jesus in Word, Sacraments, and Works of Charity (Ave Maria Press).
On July 16, I interviewed Monsignor Vaghi by telephone about his perspectives on parish priesthood after 30 years. The following transcript has been edited for length and content.
You’re celebrating your 30th anniversary as a priest this year. What are some lessons you’ve learned from working in parish ministry during that time?
I have learned over and over again the importance of listening and collaboration. It is also so essential to be available to people. This includes the good times and the challenging times in the lives of those entrusted to me. In addition, I sense a real hunger for the truth of our Catholic faith not only from fellow Catholics but increasingly from those desiring to explore our faith. It is thus important for a priest continually to study the faith and deepen his own knowledge and love of the faith. What an especially wonderful time to be a parish priest!
You’ve ministered in a number of places and you now serve a parish of 1,500 families. What have been some highlights of your ministry?
By far, I believe a consistent highlight in my ministry over the last thirty years has been my commitment to teaching the faith. I enjoy sharing the faith in homilies, through my writing, in the confessional and in counseling. My skills as a lawyer have helped me package the faith, at least I hope, in ways that make the faith more understandable and reasonable. I have always tried to help people encounter the Lord Jesus, to deepen their love for Him, and to receive forgiveness for their sins by being an available confessor. Jesus’ first public words, after all, were to “repent and believe the good news.” Teaching the Catholic faith, in every aspect, is what has brought me great satisfaction as a parish priest.
What have been some challenges for you?
As with all busy people, my biggest challenge is being able to prioritize and make time for all the various daily demands required in an effort to be available to people. Technology, although of great assistance, requires more immediate responses in our day. In addition to phone calls and personal visits, emails require more and more attention. This is a challenge in all of our lives. Parish life is on the front lines of the church where we are called to meet people where they are. It is where our people live and worship. In a special way, the parish priest is called upon to walk together “with” his people. Accompanying those who come to me in the walk of faith is the greatest privilege in my priestly life.
How does your background as a lawyer influence your approach to being a priest?
I think one of the great aspects in the discipline of law is taking complex cases and breaking them down into bite-sized pieces. So often, pastoral counseling—whether in the confessional or in the parlor—engages the same methodology. People bring us complex questions from their lives looking for answers or an approach to dealing with all kinds of challenges. I think my background as a lawyer has helped me in that area of counseling people in need.
You’ve written a series of books on the four pillars (creed, morality, sacraments and prayer) of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. What’s the most important thing for Catholics to know about the creed?
The creed is a compendium of our shared faith. It is a beautiful summary of everything we believe as Catholics. It challenges us to understand faith not only as a set of propositions but as an encounter with the living God. And our God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This mystery of the Holy Trinity, set forth in the creed, is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. In the creed, we see the Trinitarian dimension of our faith and how it applies to our daily lives of faith.
If you could tell Catholics one thing about morality, what would it be?
“Love,” as understood by our church teaching and Scripture, is always something to keep in the forefront of every moral choice. At the heart of the moral life, after all, is love of God and love of neighbor. Sometimes it might seem as if morality were only about rules and regulations. Catholic moral principles are understood in a different way. They are handed down, precisely through the commandments, as a way of helping us love God and neighbor in more authentic ways. To keep the commandments is to be faithful, above all, to God.
How do you feel about the way we administer the sacraments in U.S. parishes today?
After 50 years of seeking to implement the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in matters of the liturgy, I believe most parishes are making a good faith effort to have reverent liturgies with full, active and conscious participation of our people.
How do you pray?
Each morning, I make an effort to sit in a specific chair in my room, choose a Scripture text, and seek to put myself into that text. I meditate on it. I pray for a certain grace or need in my life. The Lord always does the rest. Sometimes a word or phrase will stand out in that Scripture text and the Holy Spirit assuredly guides me. Prayer, as St. John Paul II taught, is the breath of the Holy Spirit.
You’re currently working on a book about the New Evangelization. What message are you trying to communicate?
The proposed title is Meeting God in the Upper Room: Three Moments to Change Your Life. It is an effort to teach the fundamentals of our faith through the prism of the Upper Room in Jerusalem. It is in that room, after all, where the sacraments of the Eucharist, Penance and Holy Orders were instituted. Jesus was in that room before and after His death and resurrection. It is the same room where the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples, where Mary was present, and where Thomas made his profession of faith. It is the same room where we are able to eavesdrop on the prayer of Jesus the night before He died—that long farewell address in John’s gospel. It is the same room where Jesus gave us an example on how to love and serve, so essential to our faith, by his washing of the apostles’ feet. It is from that room that the apostles left with boldness to evangelize their world in the power of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit which guided their efforts to share the faith and even to die for the faith. The Upper Room produced a toolbox of spiritual resources given to the apostles and continually to us in our day. I have thus tried to employ that room as a concrete prism by which we see some of the essential tools of our faith and are privileged to have in living and sharing the faith in our day.
How has Pope Francis influenced your thinking about evangelization?
His focus on the “periphery” has been very important in my own growth as a priest and as a Christian. The periphery is where the poor live. The pope visits the poor and demonstrates his care and love for them at every opportunity. It is also where those poor in faith, those struggling to believe, live. It is the privileged locus where the Lord, through the example of Pope Francis, moves us to engage and to help people in that situation. We can never forget that, in a certain way, each of us lives on the periphery and is in need of His love. Not one of us is exempt. I am most impressed, however, by the way Pope Francis makes the poor a priority in his ministry at every opportunity—especially the sick and the handicapped. His example continually makes an impression on me. Pope Francis has given us a kind of “theology of the periphery” as integral to our efforts at evangelization.
What do you hope people will take away from your life and ministry?
I just hope I am able to reveal the love of Christ in my work as a priest and that I will thereby encourage others to believe and love more deeply. I hope that, in the process, I will also deepen my own love and faith.
What’s your favorite Scripture verse and why?
My favorite text is the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). We are all on that same road each day. Our life is one long road to Emmaus. We seek daily to encounter Jesus as the disciples unexpectedly did on that road. Sometimes, like them, we do not know it is Jesus. But we do know that we meet Him as the Scriptures are opened to us and in the breaking of the bread. When I think of the road to Emmaus, I cannot help but think of the Eucharist. It is at the Eucharist, both in Word and Sacrament, that we encounter that risen Lord. That road is a paradigm for that encounter we have most profoundly of the Lord in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Any final thoughts?
I have great hope for the parish and parish life. It has been my home for the last 30 years of my priestly life. The parish is where we encounter Jesus in the sacraments and are introduced to Him. It is the place where we are nourished and educated, where we are called to serve, and where we are called to help each other. The parish is at the heart of our church. Anything we can do to work together as priests and laity to deepen parish life will help build up the church. It will certainly be a sign of Christ’s love in the world today, a light on the hill.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.