by Gordon Nary
Gordon: Where did you study Theology and what degree did you earn?
Father Rich: I earned a Master of Divinity from the Washington Theological Union in Washington, DC. I especially appreciated the pastoral emphasis in almost every class at WTU. Not only did we study what the Church taught, but also we learned how to help people apply the teachings to their particular situations. It was such a gift to study alongside laypeople, who helped those of us living in seminaries to “keep it real” when discussing theology!
Gordon: Why did you decide to join The Paulists and what distinguishes The Paulists from other orders?
Father Rich: I didn’t sense the call from the Holy Spirit to consider the priesthood until I was 27 years old. It soon became clear that God called me to religious life, where I could live with brother priests who would support me in both the good times and the challenging times. My sister belonged to a worshipping community administered by the Paulist Fathers – the St. Thomas More Newman Center at the Ohio State University in Columbus – but I was too stubborn to take my sister’s suggestion to talk with them. It was only after praying about my gifts that I realized that the Paulists were the best fit for me. Our founder, Servant of God Paulist Father Isaac Hecker, felt that the Catholic Church had gifts to offer to the United States, and that the United States had gifts to offer to the Catholic Church. Paulists try to live out Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 9:22: "I have become all things to all, to save at least some." We meet people where they are. We embrace what is good in secular culture and lead people from there to the gospel. This philosophy on evangelization prompts people to say that Paulists are engaging, relevant, and approachable. Since our start in 1858, we have creatively used the media to communicate the gospel.
Paulists love to debate ecclesiology, the theology about the Church itself. We are fascinated by how local, national, and world events impact people's experience of Church. How should a local parish evolve as a neighborhood changes? How can demographic trends help us anticipate people’s needs? Because of these interests, Paulists minister in places where people come together to exchange ideas, such as city centers and college campuses. Paulists also have a special gift for reconciliation – reaching out to those who feel hurt by and/or alienated from the Church. We engage in the hard conversations that facilitate the reception of God’s healing grace.
Gordon: You have a fascinating background. Please share with our readers some of your experiences as a musician.
Father Rich: I have been blessed to perform in a wide variety of musical ensembles. I have marched in the Guinness World Records’ largest marching band, taught Siberian dancers "The Electric Slide” while being filmed on Welsh television, and played a solo in Carnegie Hall… on toy cymbal. These experiences have driven home to me how there are many gifts from the one Spirit, and many different parts making up the one Body of Christ.
Gordon: Who is your favorite composer and what is your favorite composition?
Father Rich: Goodness! That's like asking a parent to choose their favorite child, so I’m going to give you smorgasbord to choose from. With classical music, two of my favorite composers are Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn, but my favorite piece is Camille Saint-Saens' "Organ" Symphony. With musical theater, let’s go with LES MISERABLES, GUYS AND DOLLS, and CHILDREN OF EDEN. With liturgical music, I'll give you seven. Classic hymn: SINE NOMINE (best known from Ralph Vaughn Williams' arrangement of "For All the Saints"). More recent pieces: Michael Ward's "In the Breaking of the Bread," my Paulist brother Ricky Manalo's "Proclaim the Message," and Glenn Rudolph’s “The Dream Isaiah Saw.” World music: Ernani Aguiar's “Salmo 150.” Mash-up of Christian art from different millennia: Maurice Durufle's "Ubi Caritas.”
Gordon: Please provide an overview of your experiences as an engineer.
Father Rich: I have two degrees from the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester in New York. Optics is the study of the precision creation, propagation, and detection of light. In my first job as an optical engineer, I used ultraviolet lasers to write computer chips. In my second, I designed and tested very large astronomical telescopes. I sometimes say that I'm still helping people "see the light." (I don't tell Dad jokes. I tell Father jokes.) But seriously, optical engineers collaborate with a host of mechanical, electrical, and software engineers. We’re specialists who don’t know a lot about the other disciplines. Therefore, optical engineers end up developing a lot of interpersonal skills. We facilitate a lot of meetings, develop enough humility to ask questions, and subtly teach other engineers about our field. This was surprisingly good training for being a priest!
Gordon: What was you first assignment and what did you learn there?
Father Rich: From 2012-2016, I served as associate pastor at St. John XXIII Parish and Catholic Center on the campus of “UT” - the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I learned so much there! First and foremost, I learned about the love and generosity of the people of God: virtually everyone wants you to succeed in your job! At Mass, I can often palpably “feel the love” in the room. Second, to my surprise, even though I have never taken a psychology class, God has given me a gift for providing counsel. Third, I developed my skills for ministry with young adults. They’re facing many new horizons and challenges, but they’re willing to pray, to try new things, to grow. It’s wonderful to help them develop a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, and to see them reach higher levels of confidence and maturity in their faith.
Gordon: Where are you currently assigned, approximately how many parishioners do you serve, what is your position and what are your primary responsibilities?
Father Rich: I am now an associate pastor at St. Austin Catholic Parish, across the street from another institution called “UT” – the University of Texas in Austin. St. Austin has about 2300 families, but it’s a complex and lively place in the heart of one of the most vibrant cities in the country. I like to say that St. Austin is a place where the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the liberal and the conservative, and people of different ethnicities join hands and praise God together. We have many active ministries, including a robust social justice ministry that assists our neighbors in while, while also advocating for changes in social systems. This has allowed me to journey with people experiencing homelessness and mental illness. As a product of public school education, I’ve had fun learning from the students and staff of St. Austin Catholic School. I also get to dabble in some creative projects. I have spoken at South By Southwest, Austin’s gargantuan music/film/tech festival. A team of friends around the country critique drafts of my homilies online, which allows lay people a larger voice in the Church and drastically improves my preaching. Some parishioners and I are creating an online guide for people wanting to learn more about the Bible. Check it out at staustin.org/lectionary-guide.
St. Austin is currently undertaking one of the biggest property development projects in the history of the Paulist Fathers. Just over two years ago, as the project was taking off and our pastor began attending countless meetings every week, I began supervising some of the pastoral staff.
Gordon: What impact has the Covid-19 had upon your parish?
Father Rich: The pandemic hit the United States just a few weeks after I became a supervisor. But even in the midst of the uncertainty, anxiety, suffering, and death, we THRIVED during the first few months of the pandemic. There were so many new ecclesiological questions for us to wrestle with. What does it mean to be Church when we can’t receive sacraments? What does it mean to be Church when we can’t physically gather together? How can we promote full, conscious, and active participation in the Mass for people attending online? How do we stay connected?
Because most of our parishioners are relatively tech savvy, we negotiated the transition to online ministry with relative ease. We revamped our website, started a weekly eNewsletter, and invested the time and resources to get a good livestreaming system running. We found creative ways to switch our services for indigent people from in-person to remote. For the upcoming construction, we were already considering switching to home-based religious education, so the pandemic sped up that transition.
Because we’re a commuter parish in a downtown neighborhood with rush hour traffic, livestreaming and videoconferencing has actually INCREASED the number of people participating in our daily Masses and certain types of evening meetings. While the number of people attending Mass in-person is still less than before the pandemic, the vast majority of parishioners clearly fell well connected to us. In recent weeks, some parishioners are returning to Mass in-person for the first time in two years. I haven’t seen them for such a long time, but they often forget that, since they’ve been seeing me several times a week online!
Gordon: Thank you for a fascinating interview.