Living a Christ-like Life

Inner city priest who models his life on the example of Jesus prepares to shepherd his flock in Maine


On a late, cold Saturday afternoon in February, faithful from the surrounding neighborhoods begin to gather at St. Michael’s Parish, in the large, neo-gothic church that stands out in the midst of the modern architecture of nearby downtown Providence.
The parishioners come together in a small chapel for the Saturday night Mass of Anticipation. Their pastor, newly appointed Bishop of Portland, Maine, James T. Ruggieri, processes in, wearing the zucchetto, the small purple skullcap worn by bishops.
“It’s been an interesting week … I will be leaving our diocese and our beloved parish,” the bishop-elect announced at the start of his homily.
“It’s quite a change of events that happened. … I’ll miss you, and I’ll miss this wonderful community that God has placed me in for this past almost three-and-a-half years,” he said of his time at St. Michael.
“God has things in store for us sometimes that we could never have imagined. Never. But we trust, we accept, and we do our best.”
Such was the scene at Bishop-elect Ruggieri’s first weekend Mass celebrated after his appointment by the Holy Father was announced four days earlier, on Feb. 13.
Bishop-elect Ruggieri has deep roots in Providence. A beloved priest, he has served as the pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Providence since 2003, and since 2020 has served as the pastor of St. Michael’s Parish, also in Providence. The close relations he has forged with his flock were seen in the moments that immediately followed Mass: the local faithful embracing their pastor, exchanging well wishes and asking him how he feels of this new phase in his ministry.
“It’s a mix of feelings, but most of all I’m proud of him, because I believe he’s going to be the best bishop,” said Maria Battista, a parishioner at St. Michael’s Parish. Battista noted how Bishop-elect Ruggieri’s tenure as pastor has been marked by both physical as well as spiritual renewal.
“He rebuilt the building…but then also, spiritually, he has done a lot,” Battista stated, noting how he has not only invested many resources into much-needed building repairs, but has also taken seriously the spiritual needs of his parishioners, organizing lecture events, retreats for the youth and continuing education programs for adults.
The bishop-elect’s immediate reaction to his episcopal appointment was one of surprise and astonishment.
“My first reaction was of the nature, ‘Is this real?’,” Bishop-elect Ruggieri told the Rhode Island Catholic, noting how he received a call from Cardinal Christophe Pierre, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, conveying the message of his episcopal appointment a mere five minutes before he was about to celebrate Mass.
“I have never felt such varied emotions as I did immediately after receiving that call,” he said.
His ministry is to a great degree the culmination of a lifelong process. Born to a Catholic family, the bishop-elect spent most of his childhood in Barrington, where he attended Holy Angels Parish. At eight years old, the bishop-elect became an altar server, working closely with the pastor, then-Father Robert Evans, who would go on to become an auxiliary bishop of Providence. Father Ruggieri noted that it was Bishop Evans who instilled in him a love of the Mass, which was the first step in opening him to the possibility of priestly ministry.
“He trained me to be a server and it was during his brief time there that the Holy Spirit began to plant the seeds of the priestly vocation in my heart,” Bishop-elect Ruggieri noted.
What was started by Bishop Evans was only solidified by most of the other priests at Holy Angels. He continued to assist as an altar server, eventually becoming involved in larger or more important liturgical celebrations. As a teenager, he was hired to take part in custodial work for the parish, and eventually became involved in the parish youth group.
“All of this contributed to helping me open my heart to begin to try to understand what the Lord was doing,” he said.
The influence of the local clergy in the discernment of his vocation was only reinforced by his family life.
“My parents, John and Irene Ruggieri, loved me, supported me and encouraged me to pursue the desires of my heart,” the bishop-elect said, noting his parents were instrumental in helping him to learn the faith in his early years, and served as examples of virtue and a prayer-centered life. The moral support and example of his older brothers and grandparents, with whom he was close, clarified and solidified many of the lessons passed on from his parents.
By the time he was preparing for his senior year of college, he felt that he could no longer deny his call to the priesthood. He applied to the seminary college, where the communal life centered on prayer, spiritual direction, and an intentional approach to spiritual formation furthered his discernment. In 1990, he began studies at St. Mary’s seminary in Baltimore, also doing some mission work in Chile. He was ordained to the diaconate in 1994, and to the priesthood in 1995.
Over the course of 29 years of priestly ministry, he notes that the most important lesson he has learned was the inseparability of the priesthood from the mission of Christ.
“Priestly ministry is, to quote St. John Paul II’s book, a ‘gift and mystery’,” Bishop-elect Ruggieri noted, going on to say, “Every priest seeks to model his life after the example of Jesus. It’s really all about love.”
For a priest to model his ministry after that of Christ requires a radical openness to the Holy Spirit, an intimate relationship with one’s flock, a spirit of humility and a rootedness in the sacramental life of the Church, he said.
“In summary, the basic principles that have guided me in my priestly ministry are pray, don’t get in the Holy Spirit’s way, learn people’s names and love them, never think you know all the answers, don’t be afraid to beg, love the Eucharist, and stay close to the Blessed Mother.”
The Bishop-elect has demonstrated these principals especially through various community outreach programs, many of which were aimed to help the poor.
“Inner-city ministry, although I knew practically nothing about it, was something that I desired as a youth who was growing into a priestly vocation,” he noted, calling to mind a memory from his time as a young priest, when he asked the Bishop of Providence to specifically place him in parishes in poor or underserved communities.
One of the Bishop-elect’s best known community outreach programs is a food truck that he has operated in Providence serving meals to the poor every Friday and Sunday evening.
Called Project Emmanuel, it was inspired by one of his parishioners at St. Patrick’s, Clara Diaz who, on Thanksgiving Day 2018 invited then-Father Ruggieri to help her distribute food with her and a group of friends at Crossroads, a local organization providing services to the poor.
“It was eye-opening and ‘heart-opening’ in so many respects,” Bishop-elect Ruggieri noted.
Starting in January 2019, he and a group of parishioners began to set up tables on the streets of Providence every Friday night to serve food to the poor, and by that May, a truck was donated to the parish. He sees this part of his mission as lying at the intersection of service to one’s neighbor and evangelization.
Besides his work with community outreach, Bishop-elect Ruggieri was instrumental in the founding of St. Patrick’s Academy, the sole parochial Catholic high school in the Diocese of Providence.
When first arriving at St. Patrick’s parish, Father Ruggieri was impressed by the close-knit nature of the parish’s elementary school and its devotion to the mission of Catholic education. St. Patrick’s School was struggling financially and joined with the Diocesan Consortium of Schools, which at that time was also going through a period of financial struggle. In 2009, when it was suggested that the school close, then-Father Ruggieri had the idea to radically transform it.
“The model that we conceived was a new Catholic college preparatory high school that would exist for students who could not afford the tuition costs of the existing Catholic high schools in our diocese,” he explained.
Not all were initially enthusiastic about the idea.
“The idea was met with suspicion by some and pessimism by others,” the bishop-elect remembers.
“We would be small, due to our building size. Our proposed business model was terrible. We would rely on donations to run our school to be able to open our doors to families who could not afford the other Catholic high schools.”
The school was approved by Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, and opened its doors in September 2009.
Drawing on his experiences ministering in Providence, the Bishop-elect takes with him this lesson: “To love the people whom God simply has sent me to serve.”
“This sounds idyllic, however, as those in ministry know, that this is not always easy,” Bishop-elect Ruggieri said.
“What we are privileged to do and share as priests is so sacred, we can never take that lightly. … I want to honor and love the people whom I am sent to serve. I want to help them grow in holiness and grace. I hope to share in Heaven with them some day.”