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BY Joe Cullen
Young Patrick Wattigny went off to the University of New Orleans intent on becoming “the next Harry Caray,” the famed Chicago Cubs’ broadcaster. He wound up, at 26, becoming the youngest priest in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
In college, he undertook studies that would lead to a communications degree and a career in sports journalism. Soon enough, however, he realized that such a path, while worthwhile and exciting, would not fit into what he knew to be the secret to true happiness.
“I learned that, if you want joy, you will serve Jesus first, others second and yourself third,” says Father Wattigny (pronounced Watt-nee). “The deciding factor for the priesthood was the fact that it seemed much more important than being a baseball announcer.”
Now in his 10th year as a priest, he says his decision is daily confirmed through a whirlwind of work as pastor of St. Benilde in Matairie, La., and as chaplain at all-boys Archbishop Rummel High School, where he has helped encourage five of the six graduates now studying for the priesthood.
Add to that pre-cana marriage-preparation classes, one-on-one instruction for confirmation, regular availability to the parish school and youth groups, and an active membership in Priests for Life — and you get an idea of what his schedule is like.
“I have been blessed to be God's instrument,” says the busy priest, who claims that his apostolic success has come in direct proportion to the attention and importance he gives to prayer and meditation, and to the reverence with which he celebrates Mass.
“In marriage preparation, for example, I have seen genuine conversions, including on the part of couples who were living together or who had planned on using contraceptives,” Father Wattigny says. “People will accept what the Church teaches if they know why the Church teaches what it does and if the one who teaches is relying on God.” The experience has also prompted him to require natural family planning classes for all participants.
Father Wattigny's road to the priest-hood was not especially dramatic and did not require him to turn his life around. The three priorities mentioned above, starting with Jesus, were at work since his earliest days in a household that was serious about the faith.
“I have a father who is generous with his time, his money and his talents,” Father Wattigny says. “He began to take his faith seriously while a student at Loyola University in New Orleans and has made an annual retreat in each of the 40 years since graduating.”
The parish priests he knew growing up also played a major role in his vocation. “They seemed to be happy, well-adjusted, even holy men,” Father Wattigny recalls.
After graduating from college and a year of philosophical studies, Father Wattigny entered Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans and was ordained in 1994. Additional formation came from his first pastor. He found in Irish-born Father William McGough a kindred spirit who makes a daily holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament.
“Since I was a kid, I never doubted the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and have always been drawn to this mysterious presence,” Father Wattigny says. “With each passing day I see more clearly the importance of the Mass and the Eucharist.”
According to one parishioner, it was through devotion to the Eucharist that the people of St. Benilde first came to realize what a special pastor they had in Father Wattigny.
“Before Father Pat came, we had a Monday night holy hour attended by about 20 people,” recalls Diane McCann, the parish coordinator of religious education. “The other priests before him simply opened the doors of the tabernacle and returned to the rectory, but Father Pat exposed the Eucharist in the monstrance.”
While the parishioners immediately took to the more solemn form of adoration, it was something else that won their hearts.
“They liked him right away because he stayed in the church in prayer for the whole hour before concluding with Benediction,” McCann says. “It told us that he shared our devotion, that he took it seriously and supported us.”
The weekly adoration now draws upward of 75 parishioners; a monthly holy hour for families is typically attended by some 200, including many children.
“We're building toward perpetual adoration,” says Father Wattigny, who believes it is essential that he show support for the devotions the people practice — and who regularly leads the rosary, an annual Corpus Christi procession and the uniquely New Orleans custom of visiting nine churches on Good Friday.
“When the priest plugs into the devotional life of the parish, his spirituality grows and it draws the people to follow their pastor,” he adds.
McCann sees this attitude as a key to success with the rock-ribbed Catholics of southern Louisiana.
“If the pastor signals that he doesn't take adoration of the Blessed Sacrament seriously, or that he doesn't take Humanae Vitae seriously,” she says, “the people feel diminished, that they can't speak up for the faith.”
Raymond Arroyo, EWTN's popular news director, grew up in St. Benilde's and stays in touch with his roots. “With credit to Father Pat,” he says, “the faith of the people there has been revived in a way that has not been seen in at least 30 years.”
The journalist recalls that Father Wattigny “was like a dog with a bone after I promised to speak to his RCIA group about covering the Church and John Paul II. He kept after me out of zeal — a desire that these converts get to know the Pope.”
According to parishioner McCann, Father Wattigny's prayerfulness and seriousness about all things Catholic is balanced by an attractive personality that includes an enduring love for baseball, kids and “kittens that crawl all over the place.”
It's the kind of enthusiasm that keeps the priest's golf handicap at 25 and allows him to continue to collect baseball cards and do such things as sing “Mack the Knife” along with the third-graders in a school show.
“And he's quick to laugh,” McCann says, “especially at himself.”
Joe Cullen writes from New York City.