National Catholic Register


Why My Priest Is a Hero

BY Rachel Elliott

March 30-April 5, 2003 Issue | Posted 3/30/03 at 2:00 PM


St. Francis of Assisi once said that, if he were to meet an angel and a priest on a road, he would hail the priest first and kiss the ground on which he had walked.

As Christ revealed to St. Catherine of Siena, priests “are My anointed ones ... I call them my Christs, because I have given them the office of administering me to You. ... The angel himself has no such dignity, for I have given it to those men whom I have chosen for my ministers, and whom I have appointed as earthly angels in this life.”

These quotes beautifully illustrate the “venerable dignity of priests, in whose hands the Son of God becomes incarnate anew” (St. Augustine) and the tremendous grace that is bestowed upon them. So much grace is poured upon a priest on the day of his ordination that it is enough to transform him into a hero, Jesus Christ. Some priests do not use this grace, but most do.

Here is a story of a priest who does use the grace that was given him; it is the story of Father Joseph Newell.

The Catholic parish of rural Cranberry Township, Pa., in the early 1960s was composed of a handful of parishioners who gathered every Sunday to celebrate Mass in the local fire hall. Assigned to this small parish was a young Irish priest with jet-black hair and a skip in his step. Over time, this parish has grown into a large parish with over 5,000 families and still the spunky priest remains, giving cheer and advice to his parishioners. He is a true father, a priest both compassionate and firm, a man with an Irish heart and an Irish backbone. He has devotion to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and is daily seen praying in front of the tabernacle. He is a true son of Mary and prays her rosary every day.

He hears confessions whenever he can, saying after each daily Mass, “I'll be available for confessions.” It is in this sacrament that he truly ministers to his people. Once, in the confessional, a lady came to him burdened down with much suffering. Moved by her troubles, Father asked her if she was Irish, to which she replied, Yes. Then from the confessional came the voice of Father Newell, singing the song, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” The lady walked out with a grin on her face and a lighter heart.

As a preacher, Father Newell never short-changes the truth. He doesn's shrink from preaching on subjects that are “politically incorrect.” Once, he preached that youth sports events should not be scheduled on Sunday morning because this prevents many people from attending church. He was then interviewed on TV on this subject, and he delivered his message without watering it down for the public.

This “straight talk” is given in such a kind way that the people do not feel like they are being “preached down to.” And, in all his sermons, there is a delightful shot of Irish wit. These things have made Father Newell a sort of celebrity; his birthday was named a holiday by the township and there is a street named after him, “Newell Boulevard.”

But what truly makes him a hero in my eyes is the wonderful way in which he has ministered to my family. He instructed my father in the Catholic faith, baptized him, gave him his first holy Communion, heard his first confession, and confirmed him. He married my parents in the Church and blessed our house. He enthroned the Sacred Heart of Jesus in our home and consecrated us to him. He blesses our medals, scapulars and rosaries and is our family's confessor. He visits our home and shares with us the story of his meeting St. Padre Pio, visiting Rome and meeting Pope Paul VI. He encourages us in our home school and always has a smile for my sister and me.

Much more could be said of Father Newell, and it would all be good. But, from the stories already told, it can be seen that he is a priest who has and is using the graces he received on his ordination to mirror Christ to his people. Through his devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and Mary, his healing in confession, his preaching the truth and his ministering to my family, one can clearly see that Father Newell truly is using the graces of the priesthood to transform himself into Jesus Christ, the greatest hero of all history.

Rachel Elliott, a 10th-grade, home-schooled student, writes from Baden, Pennsylvania.