By Matthew Laird
Special to The Anchor
FALL RIVER — Hard times require strong individuals.
This is especially true in the case of the Catholic Church. The new decade has brought with it a number of unanticipated hardships and untried challenges which have rocked the Church to her core and have forced her to make an abrupt adaptation to prevailing situations.
Chief among these challenges is the current COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time in the history of our diocese, parishioners saw churches locked and public Masses cancelled. While parishes were quick to livestream Masses, many individuals still longed for the more tangible elements of the Mass and especially missed the reception of the Eucharist. And while many have performed admirably in thinking up innovative ways to bring people back to Mass in recent weeks, there is no doubt the Church has suffered from these rather drastic changes.
Still fresh is the wound of the barbaric death of George Floyd, an event which shook the nation by exposing the deep systemic racism that still exists in our country. The profound unanimity seen at the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic has quickly been replaced with acute anger and a deep divisiveness. While the majority of public demonstrations have remained peaceful, the lopsided preference of the media to cover destructive riots have left many disheartened and looking to the Church for guidance.
Now more than ever, our world needs heroic priests to help rebuild the Church and to lead the faithful though this current crisis and into the future.
As such, the Diocese of Fall River is immensely blessed to have two courageous men, Steven A. Booth and Peter R. Scheffer, who will be ordained by Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., to the presbyterate and the transitional diaconate respectively June 13 at St. Mary’s Cathedral at 11 a.m.
Booth, a parishioner of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Acushnet, has spent the past eight years in priestly formation, attending Our Lady of Providence College Seminary for his Pre-Theology degree and St. John’s Seminary in Brighton for his Theology degree. He was ordained a transitional deacon at his home parish last summer and has since been serving at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Seekonk.
When asked about his upcoming ordination, Booth told The Anchor, “Ordination is a blessing! I am looking forward to my time as a priest and in my own small way, I am looking forward to the work of bringing in God’s harvest.” When asked about his feelings on being ordained in the current situation, he said, “I think our actions done for the love of God are even more powerful during difficult times. Certainly, our world has thrown us a few curve balls and authentically living the faith can seem more and more challenging. But in God’s hands even the challenges become opportunities.”
Raised by a devout Catholic family, the seriousness and importance of the Catholic faith was something which Booth learned at a young age. Booth points to the decision to be “proactive” in his faith as one of the most important steps in his decision to discern priesthood. “Through God’s grace,” he states, “the decision to be proactive in my faith was the most influential decision I ever made. The idea of sacrificing for those I love had a big impact on me, as well as having faithful, joyful, and normal priests as role models in my life.”
As a seminarian and deacon, Booth has had many different assignments which have helped him to come to a better understanding of the great diversity which our small diocese has to offer. Other than Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Seekonk where he currently serves, Booth has also spent summers ministering at St. Pius X in South Yarmouth, St. Francis Xavier in Hyannis, and at St. John and St. Vincent de Paul parishes in Attleboro.
In reflecting upon his parish experiences, Booth has been able to appreciate their challenges and rewards. “Most of the challenges,” he told The Anchor, “have been stretching me and calling me to grow in different ways. The main reward has been all the amazing and faithful people I have had the good fortune of meeting and working with over the course of my assignments.”
I personally view Booth as the quintessential candidate for the priesthood. We met for the first time while attending the Catholic Leadership Institute together at Cathedral Camp in 2008. Even at that early age, Booth wore his desire to serve God as a priest on his sleeve, something which I deeply respected and view as influential in forming my own to desire to be a priest. I have greatly enjoyed our time at St. John’s Seminary together.
Scheffer, a parishioner of St. Pius X Parish in South Yarmouth, has spent the past three years in priestly formation at Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Weston.
When asked about his upcoming ordination, Scheffer expresses a great humility towards the ministry in which he has been called to serve. “Being an older man and a late vocation,” he told The Anchor, “I’ve done so much of (what I considered to be) important things in my life and I’ve always felt that the things I did or accomplished were things for which I was not only prepared, but they were things that I felt I had earned by virtue of my training, education, hard work, experience, etc. Now, as I near my (Lord willing) ordination to the transitional diaconate, I have come to realize that not only am I unprepared and ill-equipped for the most important thing I will ever do in life, but I also realize that I am wholly undeserving and most unworthy of it — and yet, I am totally unafraid and at peace because I know that this is where God wants me to be and He will fully equip me for the work that He wants me to do.”
When asked about his feelings on being ordained in the current situation, he said, “I believe I’ve seen the faithful hunger for Christ more in these days of lock down and isolation than I’ve ever seen before. Moreover, I have seen how God has enabled members of the clergy to be innovative instruments for continual shepherding, pastoring, and evangelizing despite the many constraints that have been laid upon His Church.”
A newcomer to the region (only arriving to the diocese six months prior to entering seminary in 2017), Scheffer has reflected upon the challenges and rewards of acclimating to his new environment. “I suppose the greatest challenge” he told The Anchor, “has been trying to make myself known — and yet, all the while trying to follow in the way of St. John the Baptist — whereas I try to ‘decrease so that Christ can increase.’ The greatest rewards have been seeing the great faith among so many. Christ is alive and well in the Fall River Diocese.”
Scheffer is someone whom I have enjoyed getting to know over the past three years and is someone I see as a perfect candidate for the diaconate and the priesthood. I truly admire his kindhearted spirit, his jovial mannerisms, and his treasure trove of wisdom and practical advice. I believe he will be an invaluable asset to the diocese.
Service is a virtue which Booth and Scheffer genuinely possess, for in addition to serving the diocese as seminarians and future priests, both have also served their country in the military forces, Booth as a co-sponsored candidate for Naval Chaplaincy by the Archdiocese for the Military, and Scheffer as a veteran and former member of the Army. Both reflect upon how their experience in the military have helped to shape their perception of the priesthood.
Booth likens the military battlefield to the “Spiritual battlefield” of faith. Scheffer views his military service as an essential part of his vocation journey. “Most of my life,” he said, “has been spent in some sort of ‘service’ to the nation (in and out of uniform). Yet, in the midst of this ‘service,’ I somehow felt this pull which told me that there was more that I was supposed to do with my life every time I was in the presence of a Catholic priest. I always had this subtle nudge that tapped me on the shoulder and this voice that whispered to me: ‘Pete, that’s where you need to be — in the service of God and His Church.’ Whenever a military Catholic chaplain (a Catholic priest) showed up at our compounds with the Holy Eucharist during my many deployments, it was as if his mere presence alone made me realize that everything was going to be OK. As a priest, I want to bring that feeling to others.”
I consider myself blessed to know these two men. They are extremely courageous for answering the call during these troubled times and as such they will always be heroes in my book.
Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, the ordination Mass will be closed to the public. However, viewers may watch a livestream of the event on the diocesan website at www.fallriverdiocese.org.