On Saturday, June 24, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Also, on Saturday, the Church of Providence celebrates the ordination to the priesthood of Deacon Patrick Ryan. The date and the celebrations hold special significance for me as it was 28 years ago, on June 24, 1995, that Father James Ruggeri and I were ordained as priests of Providence.
St. John the Baptist has always struck me as an especially suitable model for priests. He points out the Lamb of God as he directs people away from himself and toward the true Messiah. His courage for the truth is matched only by his profound humility. Indeed, St. John the Baptist provides a model for all priests when he declares: “He must increase; I must decrease.”
I hope and pray the new Father Patrick Ryan follows the model of his new patron saint. However, he might consider looking for another model of priesthood not residing in heaven but here on the streets of Providence. This model priest is, of course, Father James Ruggieri.
Like St. John the Baptist, Father James’s priestly ministry is courageous, humble and holy. He is tireless in working and serving the many poor and immigrant parishioners who make up his Providence inner-city parishes of St. Patrick and St. Michael. He lives humbly and simply among the people he serves, tirelessly serving the hungry, the homeless, the immigrant and the marginalized. As Pope Francis has said, he is a shepherd with the smell of his sheep.
Father James has been a loyal ally in advocating for the sanctity of all human life and the dignity of every human person. Like John the Baptist, he has courageously been the voice of the voiceless, including providing a voice for justice on behalf of the unborn, the immigrant, the refugee and the poorest of the poor.
His commitment to people experiencing poverty includes providing hope and hot meals to the hungry and homeless who populate his community as he drives around the city in an old food truck. His love of the poor is well known. As a priest, he has always aspired, as St. Oscar Romero said, “not to have more, but to be more.” Indeed, Father James is more.
Father James preaches Jesus Christ and his Gospel faithfully to his parishioners on Sundays. He is a wise teacher to the young students at the Catholic high school he established to serve low-income parishioners. In this, he willingly feeds their minds with the truth of the Catholic Faith and nourishes their souls with the Sacraments of the Church.
While others clamor from ivory towers about public policies and political platforms, Father James routinely performs the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy with dedication and love, provides comfort and peace to the sick and dying, absolves sinners and lovingly welcomes the lost sheep of his flock. As a pastor, he joyfully celebrates young couples’ weddings and teenage girls’ quinceaneras, happily baptizes newborn babies and devotedly visits the lonely and shut-in, pastorally consoling the grieving and suffering.
Of course, like St. John the Baptist, the foundation for such exemplary priestly ministry is his deep spiritual life and love of Christ and His Church. I recommend the new Father Patrick Ryan model his priestly life and ministry upon this humble priest I am proud to call my brother, Father James Ruggeri, the “Saint” of Smith Hill and South Providence.
Father Bernard A. Healey is the director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference. He serves as pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in East Greenwich.