Spiritual Riches in the Bank
He had it all. A good job, his own home, a new car, natty clothes. Good friends, too, and an active social life. Yet, at the same time, he felt as though there was a void in his life.
“It's not that I was unhappy,” says Father Shawn Allen, looking back on his days as a bank vice president. “I was very happy with my life.” Yet something was missing. Something he couldn't quite put his finger on. A whisper he could not silence.
As a former altar boy from a loving family in historic St. Patrick's Parish in Lawrence, Mass., young Shawn Allen had occasionally thought about the possibility of priesthood. But, he recalls today, he allowed his feelings of unworthiness to provide a sort of escape clause, a way out of facing the truth about himself and the direction of his life.
Willing himself to remain open to the discernment process, he decided to attend daily Mass, trying to be attentive to the movement of the Holy Spirit in his life. He also prayed to St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests.
Then, all at once, it hit him.
The date was Aug. 4, 1992. During Mass that day, the scales were lifted from his eyes. No one is worthy of a call to priesthood, he thought to himself. With that, he resolved to surrender his own weakness to God and trust the Lord totally.
“When I came out of Mass, the first thing I said to myself was, “You got me!” Father Allen recalls. “Immediately, I felt filled with peace.”
So he gave up the so-called “good life” and a promising career in the financial-services industry. In autumn 1993, he entered St. John's Seminary in Boston. He was ordained a priest on May 15, 1999, at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston (becoming the 30th man from 131-year-old St. Patrick's in Lawrence to answer the call).
Today Father Allen is a parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Arlington, a suburb of Boston founded the same year as St. Patrick's in Lawrence—1872. Under the pastoral leadership of Father Brian Flatley, the pastor, St. Agnes is a spirit-filled parish. It has an elementary school, a high school and the Fidelity House, which offers an overflowing list of programs designed to enrich the lives of youth from tots to teenagers. The parish offers nine Masses on weekends, all of which are packed. More than 100 attend daily Mass.
St. Agnes is steeped in Marian devotions. Its religious education programs, for students and adults, are second to none and, by scheduling frequent confessions, the priests make it convenient for parishioners to receive the sacrament of penance. Many capitalize on that opportunity, including large numbers of faithful Catholics from surrounding parishes.
According to parishioners, Father Shawn brings a youthful vitality to the parish that helps them grow in their faith.
Chris Doyle is a member of the parish council. He and his wife, Ethel, teach religious education at the parish and are heavily involved in marriage preparation classes, which Father Allen directs for a cluster of parishes in Arlington. “He is a very holy priest,” Doyle says. “He is so supportive and he allows people to grow by encouraging them to use their gifts.”
Virginia Gregory, a gifted lector who offers the readings with bold, bracing clarity, says Father Allen is “a wonderful priest. He is real solid. You get the straight stuff from him. He is so faithful and he puts his heart into everything he does. He has a marvelous way of connecting with people.”
Father Brian Flynn is one of Father Allen's closest friends. Ordained in June, he is a parochial vicar at St. Brigid's Parish in South Boston. Like Father Allen, he enjoyed a career in the secular world before entering the seminary, working as a service manager for an automobile dealership.
“He was so welcoming, so supportive to me when I entered the seminary,” Father Flynn says when asked about his friend and brother priest. “We came from similar backgrounds and had shared many of the same experiences. I relied on his advice. He is filled with faith.”
As just about everyone knows, the Church in Boston faces difficult challenges these days. Yet, at the same time, the archdiocese courageously moves forward in faith and hope. Its young priests will no doubt prove indispensable if hope and healing are to continue flourishing in the years ahead.
“We must have the courage to live our faith,” Father Allen says. That means proclaiming the truths we believe in, he adds, even when our message isn't warmly received by the surrounding culture. What sorts of truths does he have in mind? “That abortion is murder, that marriage is between one man and one woman and that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist.”
Father Allen also says that, in the wake of the recent scandals in Boston, the priests of the archdiocese have rallied around their new leader, Archbishop Sean O'Malley. “He has promised to get to know all of his priests,” Father Allen says. “And he has promised to be there for us.”
Known for his amiable personality, Father Allen also seems to possess a steel backbone—and he's not afraid to show it when necessary. Before a recent Mass, for example, he admonished parishioners who see fit to leave Mass immediately upon receiving Communion. “If you must leave immediately after receiving holy Communion without returning to your pews and showing the proper respect,” he said, “don't cut in front of people in line to receive Our Lord. And don't leave by one of the side exits. It is very disrespectful. If you must leave, please use an exit in the back of the church.”
Fortunately, the need for such admonitions is not great at St. Agnes Church, whose members showed tremendous love and support for their parish following a fire in the rectory a few years ago.
Indeed, Father Allen recognizes that he has a foundation of great faith to build on—and building folks up in their faith is clearly high on his agenda.
“Now, more than ever, is the time to escape the shadows and let the light of Christ shine,” he says. “Many would love the recent scandals to keep us quiet, to stop us. That must not happen. We must continue to move forward in faith.”
Wally Carew, author of A Farewell To Glory, writes from Medford,