by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicim
Dr. Knight: I checked out Opus Bono Sacerdotii and I am wondering about how and why you started your ministry?
Pete Ferrara: In April of 2002 a visiting priest at Joe Maher’s parish was accused by an adult female of abuse. The priest was a political refugee from Africa who had no resources here in the United States. His situation was publicized across the United States and around the world on outlets such as the BBC as well as his home country’s website. He had been arrested and was sitting in jail when Joe approached his pastor to see if any help was needed. Whether innocent or guilty the priest needed assistance for the case to come to a just resolution. Because the priest had no resources Joe Maher and I, as business partners could take some time from work. We decided to put a team together to assist the priest.
Over the summer of 2002 the priest was found a secure place to live and an attorney and a defense team for his case was assembled. During that same summer the infamous ‘Dallas Charter’ was promulgated by the Bishops in the United States. The case that Joe and I worked on received a great deal of press. Joe started receiving calls and letters from other priests seeking help. On the first day of the priest’s trial, the local District Attorney released the names of four other priests whom they brought charges against as a result of the Dallas Charter. This made front page news of the local newspaper hours before the trial started. Eventually the priest was acquitted of all charges by a jury of his peers. Afterwards a second priest, then a third and so on was assisted. Through these events Opus Bono Sacerdotii (OBS) was conceived and created and since that time over 10,000 priests have contacted us.
People often ask if we could do it again would we? We answer if we had known what we know today the answer would be “No!” But God knows our human weaknesses and uses that weakness at all times to direct our actions, emotions and prayers. On the journey that has brought us to this ministry, we are humbled by his confidence in us!
Dr. Knight: What issues are dealt with in this ministry? Is this a collaborative model?
Pete Ferrara: The short answer is we are facilitators and we do not enable bad behavior. This means that every case is different and the issues can be anything from a full fledged trial in a court of law or simply lending an ear to a priest over the phone. We are not civil or canonical attorneys, doctors or other professionals. We are businessmen who spent years turning around failing companies and helping successful companies build solutions to challenges they were facing. We used those talents and experiences to address the needs of each individual priest who approaches us. We assess the needs of the priest and pull together the resources needed for his situation. Over fifteen years we have developed a network of resources. Many of them today are nationwide as well as global.
Dr. Knight: Can you tell us about the people on the Board including how Cardinal Avery Dulles. SJ assisted your work?
Pete Ferrara: The Board is made up of five businessmen and one parish priest. Three of the businessmen and the parish priest were involved in our first priest case back in 2002. This group includes Joe Maher and myself. The two other directors have significant experience with the Catholic Church as an organization. One of the board members is the retired Director of the Smithsonian Institute. Avery Cardinal Dulles was our rock within the Church that kept us on track in those early days. Initially we were not familiar with this man. He had called our office several times and left a message for Joe to call “Avery Dulles”. Getting hundreds of calls per week, Joe simply passed over the message as there were far too many priest cases that needed immediate attention.
It wasn’t until a priest who was in our office and answered the third call from Cardinal Dulles that we understood and responded. The priest placed Cardinal Dulles on hold and walked into Joe’s office telling him “Avery Dulles” was on the phone. Joe responded to the priest with something like “Yes, he keeps calling, I will get back to him soon.” When the priest said “No Avery CARDINAL Dulles” Joe took the phone call. Within a week Joe was visiting the Cardinal in his New York office. Cardinal Dulles was a man of intelligence, deep spirituality and great courage (and humor!). During one of our personal dinners with the Cardinal, Joe asked if there was a Saint named Avery. Without missing a beat the Cardinal responded “Not Yet!” Even today we often ask for his intercession for this work. It is from him that we took (and still take) great strength and direction for the work of OBS.
Dr. Knight: It seems that you provide extraordinary care for priesthood. What motivates you?
Pete Ferrara: We provide care for priests. What we do is not extraordinary. The work is and should be what is expected of the followers of Jesus. Helping others in need is what the gospel calls us all to do. The priest is a man who often deals with many daily challenges. The average lay person is often unaware of these challenges. He is the doctor for our souls and more often than not, is dealing with people having difficulties. The demands made on him are often both physically and spiritually draining. We have learned in our work that if a priest is accused of almost anything he is immediately treated as a leper. We have hundreds and hundreds of stories of men distraught and sobbing as we talk to them in their time of need.
They are human beings, just like you and I, who are often carrying large burdens. Through the sacraments these men represent Christ for us on our journey through life. Nourished as we are through their priestly presence especially in Eucharistic Celebrations and in the sacrament of Reconciliation they have served us in the very mercy that was shown by Christ. Because of those gifts, in their time of need how could we not be motivated to help them?
Dr. Knight: Participation in a Corporal Work of Mercy by assisting Catholic priests who are experiencing difficulties is a core value. How does this happen?
Pete Ferrara: Simply said, we feed them, provide shelter, visit when sick and imprisoned and we bury them at the end of their journey. Every priest’s case is different and some have little money for food or shelter. Some are elderly and sick so we visit them as well as assist with their care by finding doctors and professional facilities to serve their needs. If necessary we will pay many of their bills. Much of what we do and provide is simple, basic needs that anyone would find in this life. But like with our Lord on the Cross, most of the apostles fled out of fear. We are committed to stay. We are committed to priests in need and will not run away.
Dr. Knight: Besides prayer and offering the Mass for priests in difficulty, is there something else tangible we could do?
Pete Ferrara: Spread the word. We are supported solely by individual donations and receive no funding from the government or the Church proper. We do not charge the priest for any of our services. We are happy to talk to anyone personally about the mission and take no offense when people tell us they don’t want to get involved.
Dr. Knight: Is the parish made aware of the struggles and what they could do to help?
Pete Ferrara: Our experience is it’s very seldom. Most people see the parish priest as someone who is totally cared for by the Church. We certainly believed that prior to our work at OBS. The reality is more that the priest becomes a man without a home. He is the representative of the Bishop and typically goes where he is told he must go. The average priest has many responsibility, but little power. This usually is not a problem until he has a need that falls outside of the normal successful operations of his duties a parish priest. The greatest thing any parishioner can do is continue to give the office of the Priesthood the respect that is due. Understanding the priest is a man full of all the same faults and temptations as any other human being. Try to love as we are taught in sacred scripture.
Dr. Knight: I am wondering if the counselors help the priests to think differently about ministry or to switch their focus. Such as a different ministry within priesthood?
Pete Ferrara: Most issues that a priest has are due to human weakness, either his or those thrust upon him by other people. Understanding boundaries and staying within them, accountability, self-care, etc. all are necessary skills that many people miss fully grasping. They need to tended to. As we often tell others, a man typically becomes a priest not because he knows how to run the business of a parish. The man wants to become a person of faith, compassion and be concerned for others. He wants to obtain holiness through the priesthood. It is understandable that the average person believes that a priest can ‘move within’ the Church performing different duties.
We see examples of different pro-life ministries, chaplains for Catholic television or radio, etc. But again the priest is the representative of the Bishop and he must get approval from the Bishop to function in these different ministries. This is often not an easy task. Resources are limited and any time a priest does get involved in one of these ministries that is one less priest that the Bishop can utilize in a parish. The Church is very structured for good reason, but with any system there are always unintended consequences and weaknesses
Dr. Knight: Is there anything else you would like to tell us about this ministry?
Pete Ferrara: Simply this, God put humans together to be Church. In the Church we proclaim the Kingdom of God. By our very nature we are weak and imperfect. This affects every aspect of our lives as priests and parishioners. We want to be righteous and just, but through compassion and mercy as the Lord has taught. It is then that we can have the “Peace” our Lord speaks of and it is then that we can assist his Priests in their time of need. OBS’ work is nothing new. It may not seem that way in today’s broken world. But in reality OBS strives to fulfill the 2nd greatest commandment. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” This is the challenge for all his followers for all times. This is what we would like you to know about us and is what we try daily to do with and for our priests. We are eternally grateful for those who partner with us through their support. We daily remember them in our prayer, as do many priests.
Dr. Knight: In closing, we are asking our readers to read Fr. Gordon J. Macrea's beautiful article Opus Bono Sacerdotii: Heroic Witness to a Heroic Vocation