By Tanya Connor | The Catholic Free Press
“A lot of people I know stopped going to church,” a local Catholic told The Catholic Free Press this week.
Why? They felt they’d done things for which they couldn’t be forgiven.
His solution? Become a priest.
“I always desired to help people,” explained Deacon Joseph David Rice, 49, who is to be ordained to the priesthood Dec. 17 at St. Paul Cathedral. One of the places he saw that people needed help was with their faith.
He said he thought he first considered a priestly vocation when he was in third grade, six months to a year after he became an altar server at St. Bernard Parish in Worcester. (Now St. Bernard’s Church is home to Our Lady of Providence Parish.)
He held on to that idea until he was about 17, when he had aspirations of becoming a teacher, he said. But he ended up studying computer programming at Worcester State University and later earned his bachelor’s degree at Fitchburg State University in 2011.
He worked in customer service and sales for Shawmut Bank, Verizon and Comcast.
About 10 years ago the idea of being a priest returned, but he wondered whether he could go back to school at that point, he said. Seeing other men pursue priesthood later in life encouraged him. His inspirations included Father Walter J. Riley, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Worcester, and Father Mark S. Rainville, administrator of St. Joseph Parish in Fitchburg.
Other priests and his parents were also instrumental in his discernment process.
“It was their kindness and their care for the people, the way they showed themselves to be prayerful people and spiritual people,” he said of priests. He mentioned Father Richard F. Trainor and Father José A. Rodr’guez, who served at St. Bernard’s at different times. (Father Trainor is pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Worcester and Father Rodriguez is pastor of Holy Family of Nazareth Parish in Leominster.)
Deacon Rice credited his parents, Stephen and Dolores Rice, in a similar way.
“Just the way they brought us up,” he said of himself and his brothers, Robert and Sean. He said his mother attended Mass daily; in 40 years she probably missed 40 weekday Masses.
“My father was the same way; when he retired from work he went to daily Mass with her,” Deacon Rice said.
His parents’ advancing age was one reason he suggested that the diocese send him to Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, as it was close to home, he said.
In the last days of his first theology studies there, in 2012, he broke his foot. He called that one of the “bad times” in his journey to the priesthood. He’d been planning to start his summer assignment early, but wound up recuperating at his parents’ house. In retrospect, though, he sees a silver lining.
His father had been diagnosed with stage four colon cancer several months before that, but the family didn’t know how long he would live. “I was able to spend the last few weeks with my father,” Deacon Rice said. A stroke took him, he said.
He plans to celebrate his first Mass for his father. It is a few hours after his ordination, at 4 p.m., Dec. 17 at St. Bernard’s.
Another difficult time was moving from Pope St. John XXIII, where he’d made friends in his three and a half years there, Deacon Rice said. But much of that time he was the only seminarian from the Worcester Diocese.
Bishop McManus thought it would be good for him to go to St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, where he spent two more years, he said. This week he finished his studies for his baccalaureate in sacred theology and master’s of divinity, he said.
Deacon Rice said he also made friends at St. Mary’s. One of those people, Deacon Michael Merritt, is to serve as deacon of the word at his first Mass. Deacon Merritt, who’s preparing for priesthood for the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y., was in the Clinical Pastoral Education program at St. Vincent Hospital with him.
Deacon Rice said he liked meeting people from different areas of the country and meeting people in the parishes where he was assigned as a seminarian.
Among those supportive of his discernment process were the Knights of Columbus council at St. Bernard’s, of which he is a member, and Knights from St. Joseph Parish in Auburn, he said.
It wasn’t just the lay people either.
“I was pretty lucky,” Deacon Rice said, explaining that each priest in the parishes he served had something special, something that helped in his journey.
As a priest, he hopes to help people understand that God loves them and will forgive them for their sins if they seek forgiveness, he said. He also wants to help them understand the power the sacraments bring to them.