John Kerry’s Pastor

Paulist Father John Ardis counts the Democratic Presidential nominee as a member of his flock.

John Kerry’s nomination in 2004 marks the first time a major party has nominated a Roman Catholic for president since another senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, secured the nod in 1960. Back then, Kennedy had to deal with suspicions that a Catholic president might be unduly influenced by the pope. Today, Kerry is running in a far different political and religious climate in which some US bishops have stated that they would refuse to allow the senator to receive the Eucharist in their diocese because of his stand on “life” issues. When not campaigning, Kerry and his wife Teresa’s home parish is the Paulist Center in Boston, a small, unassuming chapel;adjacent to Boston Common. Recently, the Center’s pastor, Father John Ardis, sat down with BustedHalo to talk about how the presence of their high-profile parishioner affects parish life. It turns out that Kerry’s effect has been significant. Ardis, who was asked by the Kerry campaign to give the closing blessing at this year’s democratic convention, talks candidly about topics ranging from the secret service and bomb-sniffing dogs to disruptive protesters outside mass and crank calls in the middle of the night.

BustedHalo: What do you have to prepare for when Senator Kerry comes here for worship?
John Ardis: It’s important for me to say that the Kerrys come here to pray. They really don’t come here to be seen or to cause a distraction and that’s true of both Teresa and John. It’s prayer time for them and they usually try to slip out at some point during the last hymn before most of our parishioners, who usually wait until the final hymn is over. We’ve really tried to protect their privacy and we’ve even blocked off some rows when we know they’re coming so they can have that time to themselves. The regulars get it and respect their personal piety. Now that’s not to say that they don’t participate in mass. They sing and respond and offer all the parishioners around them the sign of peace, just like everyone else does.

BH: In terms of logistics though, is this tough on the parish?
JA: The secret service is very good about telling us in advance when they’re coming. So they come in with a couple of sniffing dogs and sweep the building. That’s about it. They’ve made it a point to tell us that this is nothing in comparison to what would happen if he gets elected. If that happens then everybody is going to have to go through a metal detector in the front door and probably have to get individually wanded too.

BH: So you’re rooting for President Bush then?
JA: [Laughs] The Paulist Center makes no endorsements for political candidates. You know, the Paulists have actually been pretty good at serving the needs of both candidates, which hasn’t been reported much. Fr. Pat Johnson, the pastor at St. Austin’s in Texas recently did Jeb Bush’s son’s wedding. Jeb’s son, George, (not the president), went to UT-law and he and his now-wife became close with Pat. BustedHalo should go and interview him about that too. So we serve the spiritual needs of everyone, regardless of political affiliation. [Laughs]

BH: What has your relationship and the Paulist Center’s relationship been with Senator Kerry?
JA: [Senator Kerry and his wife] have been coming here for around 8-10 years–when they’re in town, which isn’t all that frequently now because of the campaigning. I would say that my relationship with him and Teresa is pretty much the relationship most pastors have with most of the parishioners in their parish. I know them by name. I see them when they come to mass on Sunday and there’s a little exchange of pleasantries but not much more than that. You know, the pastor only really gets to know the really active and involved people in the parish well which is only about 10%. I actually have a hard time recognizing Teresa, who sometimes comes alone, when she’s without the Senator.

Here’s a good example of how our relationship is: One Sunday I wasn’t presiding, but was standing outside waiting for mass to finish. It was after one of the Primary victories for Senator Kerry and it was becoming clear that he was the Democratic candidate. Teresa’s driver was out there sort of nervously pacing and he asked me how much longer mass was going to be. Now I know that the Kerry’s try to slip out quickly just as the last hymn is ending because they really don’t want their prayer time to slip into business mode, so I told him she should be out in a few minutes. As Teresa came out I acknowledged her and told her congratulations on the recent success and basically offered her some general support and good wishes. She smiled, said thanks, exchanged in some little small talk, and then simply went into her car.

BH: Why do you think John Kerry chose the Paulist Center as his place of worship?
Well I think we do good liturgy. There’s good music and good preaching, that’s an obvious reason. But certainly he aligns himself with the social justice aspects of our ministry which we’ve become well known for. He’s been supportive of our homeless supper program where we invite 200 people each Wednesday for a sit-down dinner where they are truly our guests, as opposed to the traditional soup kitchen style where people line up for food, etc. We serve them a sit down dinner and they are truly treated as guests here.

In the late 60’s the center was known for being against the war in Vietnam and the priests that served here were particularly vocal about that. Here today, we clearly state our opposition to the war in Iraq, but we are also sensitive to the fact that some of our parishioners are military families, who have sons and daughters in Iraq and who truly are doing their duty in serving our country; doing what they made a commitment to do. But in terms of the war itself, we have stated that we think this is an unjust war, just as the Holy Father has stated as well.

In short, I think Sen. Kerry comes here because of what he has stood for all his life in reaching out to the underdog.

There’s never a dull day at the Paulist Center. After the convention we went right into preparing for a mass. We have one of the largest chapters of Voice of the Faithful here at the Paulist Center and we had a mass with them on Boston Common. So our music minister who just started here, actually it was his first day on the job when they asked if he would do the music for the mass and he graciously agreed to do it, launched right into that for VOTF, who I think are really calling for the church that I know and believe in, one that’s evangelized by the laity in the spirit of the 2nd Vatican Council. It’s funny though, you know, being here because what’s viewed as very progressive here, in terms of liturgy anyway, isn’t viewed that way throughout most of the rest of the country outside of the North East. Lay Ministry was normal in the Mid West but here it’s progressive.

As far as the communion issue goes, the parish certainly was energized on that level. Nobody here has challenged the fact that it’s [Kerry’s] choice to receive communion. All the challenge has come from outside of the community. I got a lot of nasty e-mails from people and lots of nasty phone calls. I had to take my staff’s email addresses off of our website. One woman called me up at 3AM on Easter morning to complain. I asked her where she was calling from and she said somewhere on the West Coast to which I replied, “Well it’s Midnight there and that’s not even an appropriate time to be calling someone, so let me just wish you a Happy Easter and Blessings.”

BH: Ay-yi-yi.
JA: Yeah. It’s also been uncomfortable to have the protesters here although I don’t begrudge their right to be here. Their permit is really for across the street from us but we’ve allowed them to be in front of our building as long as they don’t block the doors.

One Sunday was particularly sad for me. It was our First Communion Sunday for our children and I went out to say to the protesters that they are certainly always welcome to be here but if they wouldn’t mind leaving us alone for just this one particular Sunday so our children wouldn’t have to remember their first communion as a day where people were chanting and holding up pictures of aborted fetuses at them. It simply fell on deaf ears. I mean, it was just sad for our kids.

My perspective on the protesters is that we love them. We welcome them and they are welcome in our community as is anyone who’d like to be here.

For me the Catholic Church by its very nature is a church of compassion and understanding and that’s what we try to be at our best. There’s an opportunity for forgiveness in our church and that opportunity is not taken, unfortunately, by many in the church. The kind of God who is unforgiving is not the kind of God I know. God recognizes that we all have free will and that we all are sinners; I know very few people who aren’t. Reconciliation for me personally is something that I value and it’s always a time to start over; you can start fresh. That’s what I think some of the protesters don’t understand.

I mean if the Catholic Church could support one candidate it would be the person who has a consistent ethic of life. If President Bush were Catholic I wouldn’t deny him the eucharist even though he’s not consistent on life issues like the death penalty and the war. But I just don’t think any Catholic should be denied communion. They should rather deny themselves communion if they feel unworthy. It’s been my experience though that there’s a great deal of people in our church who think that their sins are unforgivable and they stay away from the church because of that shame. Instead, I hope that those people would simply find a priest who could offer them some compassion and forgiveness. I mean the story of the prodigal son states it best: that we only need to seek forgiveness. Yet when people most need grace they feel there’s no opportunity for reconciliation. There’s nothing that they could have done that can’t be forgiven. That’s the gift of the church. I know that when I go to confession I come out restored. It’s really one of the greatest sacraments of the church and yet so few people use it. I mean there are so many people who seek out therapy and social workers and many of them call me saying that I think what this person needs is simply to be able to forgive themselves.

BH: How many drafts of the closing benediction at the Democratic National Convention did you go through?
JA: Now that’s a bit of a story. I was first asked to do the invocation which is at the beginning and the benediction is at the end. So we spent all day Monday on an invocation. I asked my brother Paulists through our listserv if they had any thoughts as to what I should include or not include, as well as other people I know from here, and our staff here at the Center. We were going to merely tweak the invocation on Tuesday but then on Tuesday at 11AM the DNC called to confirm that I would be doing the benediction on Thursday night. I asked them for a clarification because I was told I was doing the invocation and they said they would get back to me. So we waited for the next 4 hours and they finally called and confirmed that I was doing the benediction at the conclusion, not the invocation at the beginning. So instead of starting from scratch because it really is such a different prayer and a different mood, we sat around and asked what pieces of the invocation could be carried over into the benediction and we decided that we definitely wanted to keep (a full reading of the benediction can be found at the pieces on inclusion for all Americans and the pieces on respecting and cherishing life. Patty Simpson one of our many staff members was particularly moved by the “send me” phrase that President Clinton used and suggested we use some of his same style in our prayer. Susan Rutkowski, who is a Pastoral Minister on our staff and Paula Cuozzo, the RCIA Director, were very valuable to me as people who really helped me pull a lot of this together. Finally, Jim Carroll, who’s a former Paulist, and an author, made the suggestion of weaving in a short piece about peace earlier in the prayer which definitely worked well. I’m so grateful for all their labors along with the suggestions of many of my brother Paulists.

BH: Describe your feelings on being on the floor of the convention.
JA: The energy in that place was amazing. I was particularly glad I went in early to practice a bit because they asked me if I wanted to use a teleprompter and I said sure, but then when I got there… they… well… I had highlighted certain words to give them more punch but when I saw my text on the prompter, the highlights were gone. So I decided to dump the prompter and just use a binder with my copy of the prayer printed on both sides of the binder so I wouldn’t have to flip any pages. I practiced inside in a meeting room but went outside on stage to see where I was going to speak. Later on when I was out there to deliver the prayer it was like a completely different place than the hall I was in just a few hours before. Just amazing, wild energy.

When I was practicing they told me that no matter what happens I should just keep going. I was glad they told me that because it might have sounded quiet to you at home watching on TV, but let me tell you, it was not quiet in that convention hall. People do not quiet down at all. So even though this was prayer, there were a few times that the crowd broke out in thunderous applause. TV filters most of that sound out so the only cheering you heard was the time that the crowd really burst into cheers when I mentioned an unjust war. But there was a problem with the balloons falling that night and a few times they started to fall right by my binder on the podium so while I had my hands stretched upwards I had to bat a few of them away. My nephew said that he was surprised the DNC didn’t have them turn into doves when I batted them skyward. [Laughs ]

I didn’t realize it at the time but the secret service was right on my right shoulder during the whole prayer. I had received a threat earlier in the week. Someone emailed me saying that if I prayed at the convention, ” I wouldn’t be able to speak again for a year.” But I decided that I can’t let crazy people dictate my ministry and the secret service took everything very seriously and made sure I was well protected.

BH: What have your Paulist brothers said to you about your prayer?
JA: Well, look, I just happen to be here and this opportunity came up on my watch. But this was a first time thing not just for me, but also for the Paulists. Somebody pointed out that since we are a community of priests whose mission it is to serve in North America, this was a particularly important moment for us as a community. I mean serving those in America is what we’re all about as priests. So when one of my brothers brought that fact up it put even more pressure on my shoulders. [Laughs ]

One of the things I noticed on the tape later, because I certainly couldn’t look behind me during the prayer at the Senators, was how Sen. Kerry and Sen. Edwards were really deeply in prayer during that moment. I mean, this was probably one of the most exciting moments of their lives, presumably, and yet they were both firmly and devoutly in prayer.