By Mike Mallowe
Thomas Heron is a Roman Catholic priest..."a
When he prays well, he prays as a child. When he sins, he sins as a man. When he touches lives, as he does so often, he keeps the promise he made to Jesus Christ.
"A priest forever . . ."
What, exactly, does that vow of priesthood mean today? Who are the priests who haven't been named in headlines or charged with crimes? How do these men, like Father Heron, who still follow their vocations, manage to persist in a world where so many have turned against the institutional Catholic Church, the Vatican and the Archdiocese?
There were 62 men in Heron's seminary class when he entered in 1970. Heron, now 59, began his studies at Saint Charles Borromeo after high school. "Ten of us made it through to ordination," he says. "Most of the others left and got married. Some very, very good men who might have become outstanding priests couldn't handle the celibacy. A couple of men, who didn't get married, did return to get ordained in other places, but they aren't around here.
"Of the 10 who graduated with me and were ordained, only five are left. Two have died; and two decided to leave the priesthood after their ordinations. Another one of them is on a long-term health leave."
Of the remaining five who stayed, one was sidetracked to the Vatican diplomatic corps; another just sat around his rectory most days counting down the hours until the magical cocktail hour arrived. He eventually went to a treatment facility. The other two are, like Father Heron, still working hard at being priests, one of them thrives in his work and loves Philadelphia; but the other priest is deeply troubled, trying to hold it all together; still, he hasn't given up.
That's three local priests left out of 62 who entered the seminary 42 years ago.
When Tom Heron has a problem, or needs a fellow priest for advice or counsel or spiritual re-charging, there aren't a lot of people left for him to turn to. Heron is part of an aging, endangered brotherhood caught in the No Man's Land between the imperial church model, the Vatican, and the poetry and promise and moral urgency expressed so lucidly in New Testament passages like the Sermon on the Mount. That institutional tug-of-war is at the axis of every Catholic scandal.
A Day in the Life
"I listened to God's voice," Heron says, "and I followed him."
Heron is compact, lean and wiry; a classic point guard in the Philadelphia-Delaware County mold who grew up in the basketball culture of Collingdale and Drexel Hill. He learned about faith and commitment and staying tough in the paint in the musty gyms and black-top playgrounds of those suburban parishes that produced generations of basketball lifers, some of whom are still working, still teaching kids, in CYO leagues, major colleges and even the NBA.
Heron's mission is the same as every priest's has always been - show up, listen to the ingenious ways in which the human race has perfected the torturing of one another, counsel, advise and admonish, but above all, forgive. In other words, follow in the footsteps of Jesus and try to save us from ourselves.
To live a day in the life of Father J. Thomas Heron, the recently appointed pastor of Saint Matthew Parish, in Conshohocken, is to experience staggering doses of life, death, despair, joy, anguish and empathy. During one eventful weekday recently, over the course of three of his many hospital and sick calls, all three of the patients Heron was seeing and praying with became critical; he administered the last rites of the Catholic faith. Two of them died. Only one pulled through.
"Anybody, even a priest, has to sit down and try to process that," Heron says. "Three desperately sick people. Two of them die. How can you be a good priest, a good man in that situation? How do you become the bridge from God's promises of eternal salvation to connect with the families mourning and suffering and trying to make sense of it?"
How, indeed; that is the challenge of the priesthood.
By Friday, Heron was planning the funeral masses for the two deceased, preparing very personal homilies to give at their masses, attempting to comfort grieving family members, arranging trips to cemeteries, dealing with undertakers, conflicting schedules - along with everything else that he's in charge of at Saint Matt's: the schools, the buildings, the parish organizations, the blessings of houses, the safe handling of church collections and other monies, the marriage preparation classes, the welcoming of new parishioners, the management of teachers, janitors, clerical staff, camp counselors; the administrations of the sacraments, the weddings and baptisms, the daily masses, the feeding of the poor, the meetings at the Archdiocese; plus his pastoral "administration" of the closed ethnic parishes in Conshohocken, which means that the Archdiocese has officially given up on them, and will no longer pay for their church buildings to stay open,. But, they still have parishioners, and traditions, and families with little children, and old people and a spiritual dimension that's been ripped away.
In many parishes today, the term "pastor," is misleading, because not that many get to worry about just one parish and one set of problems. The ones with real talent, like Heron, are often handed a small region of clustered, neighboring parishes all over the city and older suburbs. The priests, literally, have to run, rushing and driving from church to church, just so they can put out the fires and offer some token priestly presence to the thinning congregations in which the Archdiocese sees little future. Conshohocken is a perfect example -- three churches, three parishes, two schools.
We Aren't Like the Maytag Man
"We aren't like the Maytag repairman," Heron says. "We don't just sit there waiting for the phone to ring. Stuff goes on, people need us, the schools have to be managed, the parish has to be run; decisions have to be made, people are hurting, families are coming apart. People still need a priest."
Most days, Heron - a physical fitness fanatic -- is up at 4 a.m, in the pool or exercising by five and sparring with the Devil or his minions by six. All day, every day, it's the same. No time off for good behavior -- or for bad. He gets to a gym when he can; otherwise, he's on the ancient stationary bike that he's dragged from assignment to assignment; or twisting with his heavy medicine balls or lifting the dented free weights that sometimes sit at the foot of his bed. "It all releases the endomorphs," he explains, "You have to be engaged with your physical side and your spiritual side."
By 6:30 a.m. or 7:00 a.m., he is finishing a quick breakfast and preparing to say one of several daily masses (depending on a parish's schedule).
Now, more than ever, Catholic priests are busy, gravely under-resourced and confronted by angry, discontented parishioners. Conshohocken is an old working class town about 15 miles outside Philadelphia, in Montgomery County. For over a century, it proposed as an industrial town, making steel and tires and other goods. Now, these industries are shuttered; the workers have aged out.
That means there are plenty of abandoned factories, many half-hearted stabs at retail and residential gentrification all along steep, hilly Fayette Street, some modest office development and service companies near the ramps where the Blue Route and the Schuylkill Expressway intersect.
Saint Matt's is becoming rarity in the Philadelphia Archdiocese in that the number of baptisms still exceeds the number of funerals. Few parishes can claim that distinction anymore. There are also young Catholic profession in Conshohocken, drawn by waterfront living and the easy access of the Blue Route and the expressway -- demanding, educated believers who expect more from the Catholic Church than the traditional dictum of pray, pay and obey.
Whatever he's doing in Conshohocken seems to be working. Shortly before Heron was officially named pastor of Saint Matt's letters poured into the Archdiocese on his behalf. One of them, from Mary Ann Pruskowski, a parishioner, was addressed to Archbishop Chaput:
"Father Heron is a catalyst for the spiritual development of the parish. He is a man of integrity, compassion, honesty and humility . . . he is able to relate to [our] own brokenness and challenges . . . His leadership skills are clearly evident to all in the parish. He is a realist and knows that good leadership at times stumbles and he is very quick to admit to his mistakes and rectify them . . . What you see is what you get with him."
As it is, Heron might make over 20 hospital or sick calls a week, personally distributing Holy Communion to those who can no longer get to church, hearing confessions, offering comfort and prayers and trying to assist the care-givers and the overwhelmed family members in any way that he can. His sermons are an invigorating mixture of passionate belief and whimsical props. To celebrate Pentecost Sunday, for example, Heron lead a procession of families and their children outside, following the mass, where they joined together to release a real dove - the symbol of the Holy Spirit -- that he had driven over 40 miles to get the night before. The kids were enchanted.
Heron has been through it all: arrogant bishops,
empty pews, a huge influx of Catholic immigrants, needy in every way; the
decimation of the old Catholic school system, personal frustration,
rejection. He has served years in
exile, unpopular with those at archdiocesan headquarters.
Yet, Heron has never given up his calling. He's a stubborn, passionate man who will die with his cassock on. The organized church may have largely deserted foot soldiers like him. But, he hasn't deserted his church.
"A Sick Building . . ."
"When I was at Saint Gabriel, in Norwood," he says, referring to one of his earlier assignments in the southeast Delaware County suburb of 5,000 souls, "the physical condition of the parish house and church were deplorable." One report called the rectory 'a sick building that should be demolished.'" Since Heron suffers from Celiac disease and can only eat a very limited diet, the overall dilapidation of the property came to be a concern.
The very first chair he ever sat on broke and collapsed. Norwood, itself, was ailing and becoming deserted; all the good jobs at Scott Paper and General Electric had moved away a generation before Heron began unpacking in a bedroom that hadn't seen paint in 15 years.
Heron had been reassigned from an important job at St. Charles as dean of studies, partly because enrollment at the seminary was declining precipitously, partly because he kept clashing with one of Cardinal Bevilacqua's right-hand men, Monsignor William Lynn. Yes, that Monsignor Lynn, recently convicted for his role in a priest sex abuse cover-up.
For Heron, it came to be a classic example of a man coming to be defined by the guy who fired him. "I wasn't acting like a team player, was what I was told," Heron says. He admits he never was one to shy away from confrontation. "Another priest told me I was a self-righteous son-of-a-bitch," Heron adds.
At first, Heron argued against his transfer. He even asked to see Cardinal Bevilacqua. "I requested a meeting with him to contest it. In that meeting Bevilacqua told me not to get angry ever and that Lynn's decision was being upheld by him regarding my transfer from the Seminary. At that point," Heron says, "I explained to the Cardinal that my mother's health was very fragile, she was declining badly."
In effect, he was asking Bevilacqua for mercy. "She had become very dependent on me and I was afraid for her future. I requested an assignment close to her apartment in Secane. I waited, and when I got the new assignment, Lynn ordered me to go up to Saint Albert the Great in Huntington Valley - that's was at least a one hour drive back to my mother's apartment."
Later, when the Norwood assignment came, the frayed condition of the parish came as shock. "I asked the lady in the parish office in Norwood why the place smelled so foul," Heron says. "'Mold,' she said, 'like a subway station in Philadelphia, isn't it? Oh, you'll get used to that; we all have.'
"The parish averaged three funerals a week. In one four-month period there were five suicides, from as young as a 12-year-old boy to an 80-year-old man, he was weary of caring for his sick wife.
"A 43-year-old man put a bullet through his head sitting on his front porch. His children were just inside the front door. A 30-year-old jumped in front of a train.
"An older man on a motorcycle stopped and walked up to me one day and asked if I would speak with him. We went right into the rectory office and in his first sentence he told me that he was going to kill his grandson because the kid was on drugs and had been stealing from him and his wife. Then, he pulled out a loaded gun and put it on the desk between us. 'So, you'll know I'm serious,' he said.
"Then why do you want to talk to me?" Heron asked.
'My brother told me to see a priest before I killed the kid.' Then he shrugged.
Heron looked back at him, across the gun on top of the desk, saw the mad resolve in his eyes, and knew immediately that he had to make both baskets, one and one: save a soul and save a life.
"That was one assignment," Heron says, not sounding at all weary. "That's parish work."
A Life for Christ
The Heron family moved to Collingdale in February of 1955. Heron remembers being put on top of the old refrigerator by his father's strong hands. But, those childhood moments would not last long. His father died when he was only four-and-a-half. His mother held the family together, barely, and it was a struggle. "I became a childhood felon," he recalls, "I stole money from the cigar box where my mother kept all of our cash. Then, I hid the money behind the refrigerator so I could go to the store to get candy. I also stole food from the store and hid behind a bush to eat it."
He graduated from Monsignor Bonner High School in June of 1970 - one of 640 boys in that class. "I was the only one to enter the Seminary," he says. "We did not get our diplomas until August because of the disruptive behavior on the part of some of the graduates in Philadelphia Convention Hall
In 1998, arguably the worst assignment in the Archdiocese was Good Shepherd Parish in Southwest Philadelphia - obdurate poverty, violent crime and ethnic clashes between newly-arrived Asian and African immigrants and the handful of bitter white families still hanging on. That would continue for a decade. By the time Heron was sent there, as pastor, he had one haunting question: How can I, as a priest, bring hope here?
In the past, a typical Philadelphia pastor might well have chosen sides, feeling the tug of his own tribal upbringing in Irish-, or Italian-, or Polish-Catholic strongholds. Not Heron. He battled to attempt a re-invention of the parish and the school, negotiating constantly, treading precariously and somehow making the school work even though its population had become overwhelming non-Catholic. But, he was still managing his mission, collecting modest tuition and, most impressively of all, keeping the neighborhood peaceful.
"I never knew what 67th and Chester would throw at me," he explains. "One of the really vivid memories I have is a tractor-trailer pulling up, not far from the church. They opened the back of the trailer and people started lining up - this was a big truck, a big trailer. They were selling drugs right out of the trailer. Those guys weren't bothering with a street corner.
"One day a kid reached right through a window of the church while I was in there and stole one of the statues. There was a car bomb, shootings all the time; they found a body in the trunk of a car. The scariest thing was a shotgun attack, in daylight, on a house near the church. I knew the family who lived in that house. When people ran in and told me, I was in my vestments from saying mass. I started on a dead run from the rectory and didn't even stop to take my vestments off; I had to make sure the people in that house were alright because I knew that had a new baby in there."
Heron had been sent to Good Shepherd to close the parish school - and he did everything in his power to fight that decision. That's one of the hardest duties a priest can be assigned. Heron's had to do it a few times. The families never, ever take it well. The priest doing the closing is always the handiest target. Heron has been that, too.
If Madison Avenue were advising Tom Heron, they would tell him that his brand - the Catholic identity that has been his life since childhood -- is terribly damaged, maybe terminally so. Yet, something profound and transformative may yet come to replace it - perhaps an Arab Spring among the Catholic faithful.
This is certainly Father Tom Heron's vision. "I still believe, as Thomas Aquinas said, that faith builds on nature," he says. "Right now, the church in the United States is in a transformation, away from its history of schools and education and toward families. We still have a solid 20 percent who show up at Mass every Sunday; that's down from 30 percent in the 1980s. But, we can build on that."
One of his parishioners agreed, when she wrote, "When I saw you walk out onto the altar yesterday, for confessions, I saw hope."
None of the grand jury testimony, or suspected Archdiocesan cover-ups of the past, or Roman duplicity is any part of Tom Heron's world. He's too busy trying to disarm and salvage the wounded souls who come wandering into his church and into his life.
And this is what that life has come to: in some parishes he listened in the night until the gun fire on the streets went silent enough for him to sleep. In other places he confronted disbelieving families, old and young, well-meaning and savagely angry, when he had to tell them that the bishops were closing their schools and maybe the futures of their children, too. And he had to watch the inexplicable suffering of his own loved ones as they, too, passed from this world, leaving him shivering and alone in a way that only the sworn celibates of the Catholic Church can experience.
If you choose, you can see Tom Heron as one of the last centurions guarding Hadrian's Wall, eye-to-eye with the new paganism. He's the other side of his Church's shame - the besieged hero-priest, doggedly following the calling of his Christ.
After 34 years as a priest, after getting
battered and beaten from above and below, Father Heron just keeps following the
words of a mysterious carpenter's son from Nazareth, and continues to be
transformed by them . . . "a priest forever . . ."
PHOTOS BY PETER TOBIA