This morning I awoke to the good news that the Diocese of Baker, Oregon, finally has a new bishop, after a thirteen month wait, the longest current vacancy in the U.S. I was a bit surprised to see that Fr. Liam Cary had been chosen; not because he isn’t a fine choice (he most certainly is an excellent choice; more on that in a moment), but because a priest from the Archdiocese of Portland hasn’t been named a bishop for over sixty years, a rather startling fact.
I don’t know Fr. Cary well, but I’ve had a couple of enjoyable conversations with him in the last month. For the past eight months or so, Fr. Cary has been the head pastor at Saint Mary Catholic Church (the largest Catholic parish here in the Eugene/Springfield, Oregon, area). I’ve known his brother, Tom, and his nephew, Kevin, for several years, and so when we finally met in person, we first talked about family and common acquaintances for a few moments. But it wasn’t long before we were talking about some common interests: Scripture and theology. I was familiar with Fr. Cary’s reputation as a good priest and fine homilist; I was quickly impressed by his knowledge of current Scripture scholarship and theologians; in short order we discussed a few Catholic, Protestant and Jewish scholars. He told me that he enjoyed my weekly Scripture column in Our Sunday Visitor newspaper, and said he wanted to talk further at some point about matters theological.
Last week, I was invited to give an introduction at St. Mary’s for the debut of Fr. Robert Barron’s “Catholicism” series. Fr. Cary led the discussion afterward, and in just that half hour I saw, very clearly, a priest who is not only quick and personable, but who possesses an obvious and deep love for Jesus Christ and His Church. If ever there was a well-educated man who wore his learning lightly, it is Fr. Cary, and I say that with respect because it speaks to his obvious humility.
Fr. Cary is what is often called a “late vocation”, but in reading material about and by him, I don’t think that is quite correct. Yes, he was ordained at the age of 45, but he knew from a very early age that he wished to be a priest. So what took so long? He provided an answer in this 2007 interview, which focused on vocations, something Fr. Cary has been involved with as a vocations director (from 1994-99):
“I already started with the first part of it. That I am the oldest in my family and when my sister came along, I was three, all of the sudden I lost my parents’ undivided attention and I was very conscious of that. Roughly at that point, we moved to a new place and we became very tied to our pastor. He was at our house all the time and everyone in my family thought he was the greatest person in the world, and he was a very great priest as a matter of fact, he was a very fine priest. And I wanted to take his place, unconsciously, I think I thought this would bring my parents undivided approval forever. So that was good. When I was 14 I entered the seminary and was there for 9 years. I left after a year of college because I wanted a different experience, although I still wanted to be a priest. I just thought it would be wise to have some different life experience. So, I got more than I expected, I got 15 years of it. I came back after 18 years, and then it was with the definite maturity that this is it. I mean can’t put this off any longer or I’ll be on Social Security.”
Was there a defining moment for you, or did you just always have that interior knowledge that you were called to be a priest?
“I always had, by the grace of God, as long as I can remember, even during that ‘leave of absence’ if you will, saying, ‘I’m going to be a priest someday.’ I always knew it. But there was a moment, if you want, a ‘defining’ moment. Yes, there was one in that sense when I finally sought counseling from a different priest and I then went on retreat with the specific intention of deciding. I went to talk to a priest before going on this retreat, and I kind of realized when I drove over to see him, that my decision was already made underneath. It was just a matter of acknowledging that it was made. When I got back, I made the Stations of the Cross and it was one of the most painful I’ve ever made, because I knew I was about to surrender my independence. I was 41 years old at the time, had a life of my own, and my way of doing things. I realized that if I really became a priest it would involve sacrificing my independence, and that was very difficult to contemplate. But then I did it. It has occurred to me in later years that if I had not sacrificed my independence, I never would have learned what it is to be free. Once I followed this call, I found out who I could really be.”
This line, I think, is magnificent: “It has occurred to me in later years that if I had not sacrificed my independence, I never would have learned what it is to be free.” So what was Fr. Cary doing for the twenty years between leaving seminary and finally being ordained a priest? The Sentinel reports:
He then took a long hiatus from priestly formation. His work experience between 1970 and 1988 included three years in Chicago as a VISTA volunteer in a legal assistance office. He later spent a summer in Mexico studying Spanish and then worked six months at a clinic sponsored by the United Farm Workers in Salinas, Calif. In the early 1980s he began working with St. Vincent de Paul in Eugene, Ore. When he moved back to Eugene, he was involved at St. Mary Parish, where his desire to become a priest was rekindled when the pastor asked him about it.
I asked his brother, Tom, about that time, and he provided some additional information:
After he left the seminary in 1970, [Liam] returned to Prineville. Our dad died in November 1970 and Liam got a job in a local lumber mill to support our family while two of us finished high school. In early 1974 he went to Chicago to work as a VISTA volunteer as a paralegal in a legal aid office, working primarily in welfare law cases. He lived in Harvey, a black area south of Chicago. (A friend there began calling him Liam and the name stuck. Before then he had been Bill.)
He worked there for around two years, then went to Cuernavaca, Mexico, to Ivan Illych’s institute to study Spanish. He returned to California and worked for a short while with the United Farmworkers. He then returned to Eugene where he became involved with the St. Vincent de Paul Society and was active with them while in Eugene from about 1976-1988. He re-entered the seminary in Fall 1988.
This background is notable, as Whispers in the Loggia points out:
The appointee’s background notably fits several key needs for the Baker church: for one, Cary’s fluent Spanish and migrant work matches up with an increase of its Hispanic migrant population over recent years, and the bishop-elect’s experience in vocations work speaks to a pressing need for homegrown seminarians. The diocese has one of the US church’s highest concentrations of “import clergy,” mostly drawn from Africa, as recruiting future priests from the local population has proven a difficult task.
Finally, here is conclusion of the 2007 interview, which provides further insight into Fr. Cary’s understanding of the priesthood:
“The first thing that comes to mind is the experience on a very personal level, an intimate level really, of seeing people convert or a re-conversion. Seeing them coming to self-mastery over sin and over disintegration, coming to God and really coming alive. To see this change over time…I can think of people I’ve had tell me, ‘I could never do thus and so…’ Or an alcoholic who says, ‘I could never, never, quite…’ These are people now who have long since been to daily Mass, totally integrated into the faith. Every time I see them it’s a reminder to me of what marvelous things can happen. It’s hidden too, it’s not something that gets put on the front pages. Personally, to have a hand in that, to be a part of it, is really a great privilege, a great, great privilege. That would be one of the rewarding things on my priesthood.”
Not surprisingly, Fr. Cary is known to be an exceptional confessor. And I think he will also be known as an exceptional bishop, a bishop who is first and foremost about fidelity to Christ and the Church—the sort of bishop we need, especially during times that will test the faith of many. May God grant him many blessed years and every grace necessary to shepherd with charity and govern with wisdom.
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