WASHINGTON — “God writes straight with crooked lines, I’ll tell you, and I’ve seen that Providence in my life.”
After two years of college seminary, Joseph Ranieri learned the Archdiocese of New York would not allow him to become a priest. The reason: New York had “too many priests.” Ranieri was informed that — as the child of a broken home — he did not “make the cut” for the see’s major seminary.
Just as his road to the priesthood seemed to come to a dead-end in New York, God opened a new path. And for the past 60 years, Msgr. Ranieri, 86, has served as a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington instead.
“But that was God’s providence,” he told the Register, his New York accent as strong as ever. “I would not have traded my ministry in Washington for anything in the world.”
More than 65 years after New York thought he would not make much of a priest, Msgr. Joseph Ranieri received a different letter from the current archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan. This time, Msgr. Ranieri was asked to accept a 2018 “People of Life” award from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to give national recognition to his 10 years of priestly ministry with Project Rachel, a post-abortion-healing ministry.
“The goal of this award is to celebrate people who give themselves to build up a culture of life,” Mary McClusky, assistant director of Project Rachel development at the USCCB, told the Register.
McClusky said the award highlights people whose work goes often unrecognized, but which the USCCB wants to make known so that it may “refresh and inspire” others in the work of building a culture and society that values and cherishes life.
Msgr. Ranieri has helped the Project Rachel Ministry National Training Team prepare priests for ministry to post-abortive parents. But with the “People of Life” award, McClusky said the USCCB wanted priests to know and learn from the compassionate example Msgr. Ranieri has lived in priestly service to Project Rachel in the Archdiocese of Washington.
Origins of a Vocation
The road that led to Msgr. Ranieri’s ministry with Project Rachel emerged from his own family’s broken love.
His father and mother were both Italian immigrants who met in New York and whose marriage fell apart. As a result, Msgr. Ranieri grew up with his brother in Mount Loretto, a boys and girls institution led by Msgr. Patrick O’Boyle. His parents took turns visiting them on Sundays.
Msgr. Ranieri said he was inspired in his vocation by the example of the six archdiocesan priests at the institution, as well as the nuns. During the Second World War, the nuns would ask them to pray for a place called “Stalingrad,” and as a boy, he collected pictures of fighter planes in his scrapbook.
“I just finished the seventh grade when there was VE [Victory in Europe] Day,” he said.
Three years later, Msgr. O’Boyle, became the first residential archbishop of Washington. Archbishop O’Boyle later became famous for ordering the desegregation of Catholic schools and was the only U.S. bishop to suspend priests who openly defied the teaching of Humanae Vitae. Because Archbishop O’Boyle had issued a call for men to come to Washington and become priests, Ranieri left New York in 1952. Eventually, Ranieri went to the North American College in Rome and was ordained a priest in December 1957.
Accompanying and Listening
Msgr. Ranieri did not know anything about Project Rachel until Julia Shelava, the archdiocesan Project Rachel coordinator, invited him to see the ministry in action 10 years ago. Shelava introduced him to the various programs, the support groups, retreats and days of recollections.
“She got me into it, and the more I got into it, the more it appealed to my heart as a priest,” he said. Project Rachel is a ministry of helping post-abortive mothers and fathers find forgiveness and experience the depths of God’s love for them. And for priests, Msgr. Ranieri said, communicating God’s love and forgiveness “is what we do.”
Ministering to post-abortive mothers and fathers requires different skill sets. Msgr. Ranieri ministers to the women of Project Rachel, and Shelava told the Register that his example has been important to show other priests how to minister to women grieving the loss of a child through abortion. He has helped train other priests how to do this in both support group and confessional settings.
Many priests, hearing the hurts and problems of women, make a very common “male mistake” with women — they want to try to go to the heart of the issue, fix it and make everything better; women, particularly when dealing with the trauma of abortion, she said, need to turn over the things happening inside them, over and over again. Shelava said Msgr. Ranieri takes the right approach: He is present with them and patiently listens. Only when they are ready to ask for his advice or insight does he give it.
Sometimes, he will just sit in the support group, week after week, just listening.
“And he’s completely okay with that,” Shelava said.
Msgr. Ranieri agrees that his ministry involves a great deal of just being “present” while Project Rachel participants work through the pain of abortion. He said the very act of accompanying them provides them “a great relief.”
“They know they are not being judged, and that’s what we’re trying to bring them around to — that God is a God of mercy who loves them,” he said.
“It takes patience, our presence, and often not a word from us.”
Reclaiming Mother’s Day
Ann (actual name withheld for privacy purposes) began her healing through Project Rachel on the eve of a March for Life, when she and Shelava encountered each other in a Eucharistic adoration chapel.
She told the Register that Msgr. Ranieri’s love and kindness in the support group helped her road to healing from abortion.
For years, Ann had enormous pain as Mother’s Day approached. But Project Rachel had a support group that met weeks in advance, with Msgr. Ranieri present among them. When Mother’s Day came, she said, the priest said they are all mothers and can talk to their children in prayer. He then gave them each a blessing, with a rose and wished them, “Happy Mother’s Day.”
“He never gave up on me,” Ann said.
“It was the best Mother’s Day I ever had.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.