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On January 6th, a parish in Connecticut did something deceptively simple: the pastor invited anyone who was interested to stop by and talk to a priest — no appointment necessary, no questions asked.
“Want to talk with a priest?” asked the ads. “We’re here for you. All are welcome.”
The ads gave the address for St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Norwalk, CT, along with the particular hours a priest would be available. Aside from a few time restrictions, the idea to “meet a priest” came with no strings. Everything would be strictly confidential. On the face of it, this seemed a good way to jumpstart the “Year of Mercy” and make Pope Francis’s mandate of mercy a lived reality.
But what happened next seems to have caught everyone by surprise. According to the pastor, the response was, in one word, “Amazing.”
The day after the event the pastor, Msgr. Walter Orlowski, posted this message on the parish Facebook page:
“Yesterday was just amazing. All time slots were filled, all ages. Teenagers … adults … seniors. Whole families came to talk. People just trying their best to better their lives, with topics running the gamut: annulment … reconciliation. There is a great need for people to have the opportunity to talk with a priest. People are looking to better their lives and their relationship with the Lord and the Church.”
Curious to learn more about all this, I contacted the parish. Msgr. Walter was happy to answer a few questions I sent him.
Q: So what was the impetus behind this idea? How did you decide to do this?
It’s just an idea I came up with, trying to look for ways to try to reach people. To make the church more personal, more inviting. In light of our diocesan synod, we’re looking for ways to revitalize the church — to make it more welcoming, more inviting, to help more people.
Q: How long did it take to plan and put together?
Not long. I mentioned it from the altar on Sunday. The next day we put it out on our parish social media and placed an ad in the local newspaper. I wanted people to feel comfortable coming in, knowing it was confidential. No staff on the premises. Just a priest who would be here to listen.
Q: How would you characterize the response?
It was an absolutely positive response. As a priest, it’s an honor to have someone come into the church wanting to talk. People are looking to better their lives, and their relationship with the Lord and the Church. It was just amazing. From teenagers to seniors. Single people, couples. Whole families came to talk. Every person who came in was someone I did not know, except for one. It was great to sit with people for the first time. Some even traveled from out of state.
Q: Are you going to do this again?
We’re definitely going to do this again. But my thought is to make it the entire day — from 8 am to 8 pm. No time-slot restrictions. To just have a priest here all day, available for people to walk in and talk to.
Q: What would you say to others who might want to do this?
Go for it! People are looking for help and direction through Christ. The local parish priest has a unique relationship with his people. He lives with his people, day in and day out. People watch and listen, and then decide if you will be open to welcoming them, if you’re approachable. And when they do come, it’s a humbling privilege.
That kind of spirit seems to have infused Msgr. Walter’s homily the following Sunday, which he later posted online. Preaching on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, he said:
If I had a neon sign that could be seen for a mile in front of St. Matthew Church, I would put up a question. And the question would be: “Who Can Be Saved?” Underneath it would say: “Come on in and Find Out!”
The answer to that question is: “We can all be saved by doing as Christ did.” Today we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. You might ask, “Why did Jesus have to be baptized? He was born without sin. He is the Son of God. Why?” The answer quite simply is because he wanted to do as we would do.
He welcomed all. Women and men. The good and the not-so-good. It was Christ who included all. It was Christ who forgave the sinner. It was Christ who lived compassion. We must do the same.