Monica Yant Kinney: Young Philadelphia priest seeks to be 'an instrument of healing'

The Rev. David Friel, 25, says of his education: "In the seminary, my world view was opened."
The Rev. David Friel, 25, says of his education: "In the seminary, my world view was opened." (MONICA YANT KINNEY / Staff)
Posted: June 12, 2011

How, exactly, do I ask a man of faith if he's out of his mind?

I mean no disrespect. But I know that's what readers want to know. Especially Catholics still so sick about the clergy sex-abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that they can't go to Mass, let alone fathom how any bright guy in 2011 would choose to become a priest.

David Friel thoughtfully indulges my indelicate question. He's only 25, but has had eight years of education and contemplation to prepare for the fury he may face in a job with such a distinctive uniform.

Last month, the freckled Phillies fan became Father Friel when he and two others in their 20s were ordained by beleaguered Cardinal Justin Rigali.

Friel will soon become parochial vicar at St. Anselm Church in Northeast Philadelphia. Until then, he jokes, he'll be a spiritual "vagrant" in his 1993 Buick LeSabre. When I meet him, he's helping out at St. Bede the Venerable Church in his native Bucks County.

"I didn't cause the problem, and I can't undo events that have caused people such sorrow," Friel tells me. "But what I can do is . . . be an instrument of healing. Because that is what's really needed."

When faith is a tough sell

This can't be the best time for recruiting priests. A monsignor, two priests, a "defrocked" cleric, and a former parochial teacher await criminal trial on allegations of preying on children and covering up the crimes.

An additional two dozen clerics have been suspended because of past accusations reignited by the February grand jury report. Dozens more victims report horrors each week; one threatened suicide while sitting in the lobby of archdiocesan headquarters.

As of last week, the archdiocese had 400 active priests, with an average age of 57. A dozen retire annually. In 1998, 11 priests were ordained. In 2008, just three.

Friel grew up in Doylestown, attending Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Archbishop Wood High School. "I wanted to be a journalist, a Marine, a fireman, or a priest." He felt drawn to the "mystery" and "joy" of religious life, but kept it to himself.

"I never told anybody," he says. "I was afraid of my friends' reaction."

After a revelatory visit during his senior year of high school to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary - Friel felt "a sense of peace" he didn't get at Pennsylvania State University - the 17-year-old made the decision of a lifetime.

"I didn't have visions of angels or earthquakes," he told friends in the Class of 2003. "There were many ordinary ways I felt God wanted me to give the seminary a try."

What obedience means

While others tailgated, Friel took philosophy and theology, engaging in debates with more "academic freedom" than critics might think.

"It is absolutely not the case that we're encouraged to check reason at the door," he insists. "In the seminary, my world view was opened."

(And, yes, seminarians have fun. Friel writes music, plays piano, backpacks, and runs marathons.)

As the young priest recounts learning to "believe everything the church gives us," I think about all the families and lives destroyed by blind faith in the institution.

Friel doesn't speak as boldly about the crisis that overshadows his profession. He has met no victims, but does know priests who have been accused.

"To me, obedience means listening," he offers. "Listening helps us get to the truth," which Friel believes is bigger than any bishop or the church itself.

"The truth is Jesus himself. That is what makes it OK to be submissive and obedient. We're being submissive and obedient to Christ."

The practical realities of his profession remain fuzzy to Friel - the size of his room at the rectory, how he'll be paid, when he'll have days off, and whether to blog or tweet.

He wears clerical garb even when pumping gas in 100-degree heat because every encounter represents an "opportunity" and "it's good for us to be identifiable."

Even if being identifiable engenders snide remarks or dirty looks?

"It happens," Friel reveals. "The person who becomes a priest today is not expecting praise or honor or privilege. Because there's very little to be gained."


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com or philly.com/kinney. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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