My favorite priest

By Dermott J. Mullan

 

Homiletic and Pastoral Review, December 2003, p. 72

 

I still remember the first sermon I heard from Father Henry Sims back in July 1972. My wife and I were on vacation in Maine with our first child when we attended Mass in St Patrick’s in Newcastle. The pastor, Father Sims, mentioned that although God had to take care of some large things, such as the solar system, He could still also take care of you and me. “And thank God He does!” were his words. I had never heard a priest mention a topic that was even remotely close to my work (astronomy), but here was Father putting God’s care for me in an astronomical context.

 

Then he said: “I always recommend that people read the Bible every day, even if it’s only one verse. Someone may object: but if I read only one verse a day, I’ll never get finished. But that’s okay: you can finish it in heaven”.

 

With those two items, Father Sims got my attention. From 1972 until his death in 1999, every time we were able to return to Maine for vacation, we always went to Father Sims’ Mass.

 

I was deeply impressed by a practice that Father Sims had in preparation for weekday Mass. After preparing the altar, he knelt down on the top step of the altar, gazing at the tabernacle for at least 2 or 3 minutes. I have never seen any other priest prepare for Mass in that way.

 

Every summer, I would go to Father for spiritual direction and for sacramental confession. He always set aside a couple of hours to deal with whatever topics I wanted to discuss.

 

On one occasion, I had just received news that my mother had terminal cancer. Father helped me prepare for my mother’s death by means of a technique that at first seemed bizarre: he rose from his chair, walked to the door, opened it, and left the room. Then he came back in to explain that death was like passing through a door, and my mother was getting ready for that. However, Jesus has already gone through the same door, so He would there to help my mother when her time came.

 

In one memorable confession, before he assigned me a penance, he asked: “Who do you pray to? God the Father, or God the Son? Your answer will determine what penance I give you.” Prior to that time, I had never really thought much about praying to God the Father, but from that confession on, Father Sims’ question led me to reflect on a whole new aspect of prayer.

 

During a general confession, when I had asked Father to guide me through the examination of conscience, he stunned me by asking, in connection with the Fourth Commandment: “Have you any favorites among your children?” It had never dawned on me that such an attitude might be sinful. Father Sims certainly treasured my children: during the last few years of his life, he set aside a ten-week interval each year, and on one day of each successive week, he celebrated Mass for each of my children individually.

 

On a unique occasion, he celebrated Mass in our vacation home. He said that the Mass would bring down God’s blessings on all who use that home, whether they are believers or not: “Those visitors who are not believers will not know where the blessings are coming from, but we will know”.

 

A year before he died, Father Sims wrote me a multi-page letter covering certain aspects of the priorities that should occupy my outlook on life. The wisdom, kindness, and practicality of the letter are striking. “Give the Lord everything in your life”, he told me, “and He will take everything”. He knew the meaning of those words personally: as a convert to Catholicism, he was full of joy and enthusiasm for the Church. He helped so many people into the Church that the Catholic Digest ran an article about him.

 

Now that Father Sims is dead, I pray for him in every Sunday Mass because of a certain habit he had during his own Masses. When it was time for the Gloria, he would raise his hands and eyes to heaven and say in a highly unusual way the words “Glory to God in the highest”. What was unusual was the way in which he would pronounce the word “glory”: the “O” was uttered as a long-drawn out sound which left me wondering if Father was perhaps seeing the glory of God’s presence right then and there. Now, at every Sunday Mass, my mind turns to Father Sims during the Gloria, and I pray God to admit into the glory of heaven this holy priest who was truly a shepherd to me for almost thirty years.