By Mannie Blas
The following interview of Monsignor Robert Gallagher of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church is a public service effort by the publisher of The Tolucan Times, Mardi Rustam, to profile our civic and religious leaders of the community being served by The Tolucan Times.
Promptly by prior arrangement Monsignor Gallagher on August 2 8, at 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon, greeted me at the rectory and led me into his office to start our interview.
MB: Good afternoon, Msgr Gallagher, I am Mannie Blas, a parishioner, and i am here to interview you for The Tolucan Times, a weekly newspaper serving Toluca Lake and the surrounding communities of North Hollywood and Burbank. I was sent here by the publisher of The Tolucan Times, Mardi Rustam—a man who has been, and continues to be, a pillar in the civic and cultural life of the residents in this community. Let’s start the interview, shall we? Or shall I say this conversation by first asking how you came to be a priest?
Msgr: I was raised in an Irish Catholic family and attended St. Genevieve’s high school in Panorama City and, while working as a clerk at a local super market, I began to evaluate what i would do with my life. After much thoughtful prayer, I came to the conclusion that perhaps I was being called to be a priest.
MB: So the spark that fired your desire to become a priest is what is often referred to in religious parlance as a “calling” or a “vocation?”
Msgr: That’s right, Mannie. And, for me, it occurred at the time of the second Vatican council, around 1964, when the Catholic Church was renewing herself to keep up with the vast changes going on around the world following World War II.
MB: You alluded earlier that you had a “calling” or “vocation” to the priesthood, Monsignor. What’s the difference between one who had a calling to be a priest and one who wants to be a lawyer? And why not also say that a young man who aspires to be a lawyer is likewise responding to a calling or vocation?
Msgr: I am glad you asked that, Mannie. In the Catholic Church, a vocation is a lifetime commitment. The priesthood, in a word, is sacramental in character; it partakes of one of the sacraments in the Catholic Church, namely, the sacrament of holy orders. A young person who wants to be a lawyer or doctor is simply choosing a job or a career, and the choice is not a lifetime commitment, as is the case of a person who chooses to be a priest.
MB: Can you elaborate a little more on that distinction, Monsignor?
Msgr: Gladly. What i mean, Mannie, is this: Making a choice in pursuing a career or a trade is fundamentally different from responding to a vocation to the priesthood. A person who chooses a particular career can make a number of changes in that career during one’s lifetime, whereas a vocation to the priesthood involves a lifetime commitment to serve the lord.
MB: While we are on the subject of vocation, can that term be applied to, for example, a married person? In other words, Monsignor, is the decision by a man to marry and raise a family a matter of choice or a vocation?
Msgr: Oh yes, Mannie. Marriage is a sacrament of the church, and it is rightly viewed as a vocation. Marriage, as you well know, is often times referred to as a covenant. A covenant not only is between a man and a woman but also between a man and a woman and God as well. It is a lifetime commitment to love one another in a covenant and agreement of fidelity
MB: Having accepted the call to become a priest, can you briefly describe the process by which you ultimately became a priest? In other words, what kind of education did you require prior to becoming a priest?
Msgr: I entered St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo where I was required to take a four-year undergraduate course leading to a Bachelor’s degree in Scholastic Philosophy. After four years of undergraduate studies, I entered the major seminary for the next four years—studying Catholic Theology and Holy Scriptures. At the conclusion of which I was ready to be ordained and take the sacrament of holy orders.
MB: When you finished all the necessary education to become a priest, your next step was what?
Msgr: I was ordained a priest in 1973 by the late Cardinal Timothy Manning, the Archbishop of the Los Angeles Archdiocese at the time of my ordination.
MB: When you were ordained a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where did you go for your first mission or assignment?
Msgr: I was first assigned to St. Joseph Parish in Hawthorne, and then came to St. Charles Borromeo as an assistant pastor from 1977 until 1982.
MB: You served, as I understand it, for a number of years as the Principal of St. Paul High School in Santa Fe Springs. Is that true and, if so, how did that come about in light of your primary background as a parish priest?
Msgr: Well, in addition to my parish work, I had been involved in youth activities within the Archdiocese. So when the opportunity arose to take on a new assignment as Principal of St. Paul High School, I jumped at the opportunity of accepting the challenge of teaching in, and eventually administrating, a high school in the Archdiocese.
MB: Following your tenure as Principal of St. Paul High School, did you find it refreshing to return to parish work, which, I gather, is the ‘sine qua non’ for you as indeed for most diocesan priests who are trained to do that work, isn’t that true, Msgr?
Msgr: It was personally rewarding to return to parish work, Mannie. A typical parish will usually have a school and, therefore, diocesan priests invariably are involved in the running of a school in their parish. Here at St. Charles, we have an elementary school which, by the way, is now 70 years old. The primary role of the pastor in any parish is to serve the spiritual needs of parishioners.
MB: I suppose, Msgr, that your return to St. Charles was somewhat of a homecoming for you?
Msgr: You are absolutely right, Mannie.
MB: Since you arrived at St, Charles, what changes have you seen that you can say are significant in achieving the goals or agenda that you set for the parish upon taking over the role as pastor from Msgr Kieffer, our longtime pastor of St. Charles?
Msgr: One of the most significant changes has been the response of parishioners to our ongoing capital development, which has been enormous in terms of financial support and volunteer work. I’m proud to say that one of the fruits of our capital development is the recent completion and the opening of our parish Holy Family Service Center, located directly across the church.
MB: Are there any objective criteria by which a parish can be judged in terms of growth in membership and the quality of active participation of the parishioners as committed Catholics in putting to practice the core values of their faith, such as ministering to the poor and the sick and practicing ecumenism among members of other faiths? As to the latter, I mean, is there a program at St. Charles that promotes interfaith dialogue and interfaith cooperative action in serving the various social needs of the community?
Msgr: Yes, of course, we do have various programs or ministries in the parish that serve as an outreach to the community in social action and service. For example, we have a ministry to the poor, to the elderly and the sick, to families in need of food and clothing and to transients and families with limited financial resources. I might add, Mannie, that at our new parish, Holy Family Service Center, you can observe the visible spirit of ecumenism being put into action by a number of parishioners who volunteer to run the center and administer to the needs of people in the community without distinction as to their religion or ethnic background.
MB: Let us talk a little bit about the subject of health care reform, which, as you well know, has so engaged the public in contentious debates all across the nation as seen in those town hall meetings on the subject, and which has stirred so much emotions and passions among the various partisan factions involved in the debate. In this regard, do you think the great social teachings of the Catholic Church, as enunciated by Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI, are relevant today in helping to enlighten the present discussion on the subject of healthcare reform in this country?
Msgr: You are right, Mannie. There’s no question those social encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI, as well as similar encyclicals of subsequent popes, continue to have social relevance in addressing such fundamental problem as providing healthcare for all the people of God.
MB: One final question on the subject, if I may. Do you agree with President Obama, who recently told a number of religious leaders in a conference call from the White House, that healthcare reform is a moral issue, not just a simple question of economics and whether the government has a role to play in reforming health care?
Msgr: I wholeheartedly agree with President Obama that healthcare is a moral issue and, therefore, it should be treated as a right and not a mere privilege of economic circumstance and those who can afford it. I believe most people consider healthcare to be a moral issue. By the way, Mannie, the Catholic Church and the Catholic Bishops in the United States have always spoken in favor of treating healthcare as a matter of right and not a mere privilege.
Tune in to the following issue of “The Tolucan Times” for Part II of “One on One with Monsignor Robert Gallagher…”