SAN FRANCISCO — On Sept. 3, Father Mark Doherty answered his cell phone after celebrating 7am Mass at St. Peter’s Church in San Francisco’s gritty Mission district.
“The vice principal of the parish school told me that the relative of a student had been killed, and I was needed,” Father Doherty told the Register, recalling the first time he had learned about the murder of Rashawn Williams, 14.
Newly ordained to Archdiocese of San Francisco, Father Doherty had arrived at St. Peter’s earlier that summer, and Williams was a freshman football player at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory School.
But despite his limited experience with priestly duties, Father Doherty quickly acted on the tragic news of the stabbing death. And his ability to respond with compassion, spiritual counsel and practical assistance reflected the training he had received at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, south of San Francisco.
Like other Catholic seminaries in the United States, St. Patrick’s offers a curriculum and ancillary programs based on the “four pillars” of priestly formation — human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral — outlined in Pope St. John Paul II 1992 apostolic exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis (On the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day).
In the wake of the 2002 clergy sex-abuse crisis, which exposed serious problems with seminary screening and formation, that document has helped to secure a sturdy framework for the reform of U.S. seminaries, including St. Patrick’s.
Sulpician Father Gladstone Stevens, the rector of St. Patrick’s Seminary, told the Register that Father Doherty’s experience underscored the unpredictable challenges that can blindside inexperienced or poorly formed priests.
“Within two years of my ordination, we had 9/11 and the clergy abuse crisis,” Father Stevens recalled.
A new priest “must have the muscles already built up,” he said, to deal with seismic events, as well as personal tragedies that may befall al parishioner, like the death of a child.
Father Doherty did not dispute the rector’s assessment.
“I have been the beneficiary of a lot of formation that began at home and was developed in the seminary, and that has helped me learn how to interact with people consumed by grief,” he said, making a direct connection between his training at St. Patrick’s and his ability to be present to a family facing unbearable loss.
“In a crisis, the pastoral and human sides are what people see first,” he noted, reflecting on his initial encounter with the boy’s family.
“But the intellectual and spiritual dimensions are also important because you need to be able to lead them to a reality greater than yourself.
“You want to ground their grief in hope: God is not outdone by acts of senseless violence,” he said.
‘Thirty-Minute Sitcom World’
That was the principal message Father Doherty hoped to share as he pondered the impact of the 14-year-old Williams’ brutal death on his mother, siblings and classmates.
Soon after the priest learned of the murder, he met with the teen’s young cousin, then rushed to Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep, where he prayed the Rosary with stunned members of the freshman football team, who had trained with the murder victim for weeks.
At the close of the day, the priest led a prayer service for the whole high school. Father Doherty and his three brothers had gone to the same school, and he carefully chose his words.
“I told the kids: ‘We live in a 30-minute sitcom world, and we spend time in alternative realities that lead us to believe there will be no negative consequences,’” he said. “‘But this reminds us that our actions do have consequences.’”
The most important thing the students could do, he said, was to “pray. We can’t go back to yesterday and change what happened, but we can pray for Rashawn and the response of his soul.”
That evening, he met with the boy’s grieving family. The attack had taken place on the street as the boy and his siblings emerged from a convenience store. His mother witnessed the stabbing and rushed her son to the hospital, but he died shortly after.
Sitting with the family, the priest simply offered his condolences, aware that he could easily make matters worse by saying too much, or the wrong thing.
Then, over the week following the boy’s death, he joined Williams’ family for a daily Rosary service at the street corner where he had been stabbed, just blocks from St. Peter’s Church. Father Doherty also helped make plans for the funeral, and then led a Sept. 11 service that filled St. Mary’s Cathedral.
At the funeral, he told the congregation, “God doesn’t will senseless violence, but he does will to be present to our suffering through Jesus on the cross. And the cross opens up an even broader path forward, to something new.
“That new life doesn’t have to begin in a far distant horizon. We begin to live this eternal life now,” he continued.
“As St. Paul tells us, ‘the first gift of that new life is peace.’ We need to make words of St. Francis’ prayer our own. In a world of senseless violence we need to pray for peace.”
Looking back on those tumultuous days, Father Doherty expressed gratitude to the faith he received from his family, and for his years at St. Patrick’s. Not only did his education prepare him to act quickly in a crisis, but the “reserves” he had built up through a growing life of prayer helped him be spiritually present to people in great need.
Placed on a Path to Deepen Faith
Jesuit Father George Schultze, a member of St. Patrick’s faculty, noted that Father Mark, like other St. Patrick’s graduates, had been placed on a path that was designed to deepen his “personal relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
At St. Patrick’s, a seminarian’s dependence on Christ is nurtured through daily prayer and the sacraments, said Father Schultze, and by classes that allow students to deepen their knowledge of the mysteries of faith, in particular, the inner life of the Holy Trinity.
“We are drawn into the Trinity by being drawn into the lives of others and serving them,” he observed.
“Father Mark has been packed with that information and sensitivity in his formation. When moments of darkness occur, he can respond with peace and gentleness, the fruits of the Holy Spirit.”
The close companionship of Jesus, he added, also offers the pastor great consolation — “even in moments that aren’t seemingly successful or life giving. In seeming darkness there is light.”
Father Stevens, the seminary rector, further observed that the four pillars of priestly formation reflect the striking depth of the Church’s traditional approach to educating God’s children.
“It is the formation of the whole person. The four pillars name the four ways you become a human being,” he explained.
“It is to have a human body and emotions, but also a spiritual destiny. You need the intellectual formation to proclaim and perceive the truth, and pastoral gifts that let us be of service to others.”
The breadth of priestly formation, he suggested, contrasts with the narrow scope of contemporary education.
“We live in a superficial culture that makes one pillar the whole of humanity: We can become rationalists and only intellectual formation is needed.
“But to protect God’s people, and ourselves, we must recognize that human reality is complex,” he concluded.
“There are four different ways we have to love Christ in the Church and let him change us. This is what makes the Church the Church.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.