THEY WILL FOLLOW HIM
BY LAURA DISERIO
Father Paul Helfrich, a Catholic Priest and University Chaplain at Boston University, proves his close relationship with students this Christmas season.
This Sunday, with the second purple candle on the Advent wreath now burning, Father Paul Helfrich gives his homily about “repairing your spiritual road.” He compares Boston’s “Big Dig” to each student’s spirituality. Both need to undergo a little construction in preparation for the Christmas season. His message is simple: “Prepare the Way of the Lord: Go to confession.”
As he looks out onto hundreds of BU students, he smiles warmly. With all the lectures these students have to attend throughout the semester, they voluntarily come to listen to him, and he gives his homily, not back on the altar, but down in the aisle among them. He is a fairly tall, middle aged man, but his hair is as white as the little lights dribbled on the Christmas tree in the right corner of the church. There are no candy canes or expensive ornaments hanging from this tree, just the white lights and simple ivory carvings of angels and doves, as if to remind everyone of the true meaning of the season.
At the end of mass, Father Paul tells students that, together with five other priests, he will be available that following Tuesday night to “celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation” or “the sacrament of forgiveness and healing” as it is referred to in the bulletin. He also reminds students of the programs he and staff are organizing this Christmas like “Santa’s Helpers Toy Drive,” a “Hanging of the Greens Service” to decorate the chapel, a food drive, as well as their weekly spaghetti dinners and prayer groups.
Even before the recessional music stops, students are signing up for the programs on the sheets in the entranceway. Father Paul has proven once again that because of his strong rapport with BU’s Catholic students, he can count on their support during this holy Christmas season.
Born on October 27, 1956, in Cranford, New Jersey, Paul Helfrich was the third child in family that would eventually include seven. Together with his six brothers and sisters, he grew up attending Catholic schools and practicing strong faith. After graduating from high school, Helfrich attended Rutgers University in New Jersey where he earned a BA in history. It wasn’t until after his college graduation that Helfrich began to seriously think about his future.
While working at JB Williams, a pharmaceutical company in his hometown, he gave a great deal of consideration to the next step in his life. At this point, he was in his early twenties when most people his age were considering a career and marriage, but he wondered, “Is that all there is to life?” With this question in mind, he proceeded to pursue law, a field that had always interested him, at Seton Hall Law School. “I always wanted to be a lawyer. Something about it appealed to me, a sense of justice,” says Helfrich with a sense of pride.
As a priest and a university chaplain, Father Paul has brought that sense of justice to BU and the Boston community. Throughout this semester and the last, the occurrences of child abuse by priests have been like a dark cloud looming over the Catholic Church. While some members of the clergy would rather avoid this topic, Father Paul calmly takes a slow, deep breath and seems more than willing to talk about it.
He explains how he addressed students about the scandal on many occasions last semester, both in his homilies and on flyers handed out at mass. “It made students mature in their faith and understand that it doesn’t rest in a ‘perfect priest;’ it rests in Christ” Father Paul says. “It is has also brought into light the whole issue of the sexual abuse of minors, not just in the church, but in general.” While Father Paul is upset by the injustice within the Catholic Church, it is clear that he believes students can overcome the challenge of this controversy using the very faith that they question at a time like this. While students may not be able to help victims of the scandal, with their renewed sense of faith, they will find that there are others they are able to help, particularly during the holiday season.
It was the renewed faith of two of his sisters that provoked Helfrich to become more active in his religion while he was studying law. “Their enthusiasm, joy and peace really caught my attention,” Helfrich recalls, and his eyes light up. In 1980, two years before he graduated with his JD from law school, he joined the newly founded Brotherhood of Hope who, according to its website, is “a canonically recognized Catholic community of brothers and priests consecrated to Christ, dedicated to evangelization, and committed to a life together as a spiritual family.”
As a member of this group, Helfrich took a vow of “chastity, poverty, and obedience” and he served as a director of formation, a member of the advisory council and treasurer. Throughout his work with the Brotherhood, however, Helfrich continued to practice law, even after 1992 when he returned from studying in Rome at the request of the Brotherhood. It wasn’t until 1995, when Cardinal Law asked the Brotherhood to relocate to Boston, that Helfrich put an end to practicing law.
“The more I practiced, the more I began to see that even though [law] was a noble profession, I felt that my life could be better lived serving Christ,” he explains. After coming to this conclusion, Helfrich entered St. John’s Seminary of Brighton, MA in 1998 and began his studies for the priesthood. “I never thought twice about leaving law,” says Helfrich. I think the thing that gave me more questions was about not being married.” Without flinching he adds, “But this is where I should be,” and there are many who agree.
Karen Mulholland, another campus minister and fellow St. John’s graduate, describes Father Paul as “very approachable,” and “a great person.” Although she is soft-spoken and appears very reserved, she openly talks about how students really respond to him because he is always willing to answer any questions students may have.
It seems Father Paul doesn’t just work well with students, but with the entire staff of ministers at BU’s Catholic Center, also known as the Newman House. Together, Father Paul and his staff help to organize special Christmas programs like “Santa’s Helpers Toy Drive,” which Father Paul says students really respond to. “Each year we take more names for “Santa’s Helpers,” he claims. “Last year, we agreed to get presents for 110 children in need. This year, we took 125 names and were able to get presents for all of them.”
The children who will benefit from “Santa’s Helpers” are under the age of 18 and their names provided to Father Paul by the Massachusetts Department of Social Services. “For me, it is very encouraging to see how the students respond to this need. It shows a great desire to help others and a very generous spirit” remarks Helfrich.
The year before he graduated from the seminary, Father Paul was assigned to the BU Catholic Center as an intern. He claims, “This experience was instrumental in my deciding that I wanted to be a campus minister.” It was then that he had his first chance to work with students he describes as “so alive, energetic and enthusiastic.” On May 27, 2000, Helfrich was ordained as a diocesan priest, meaning that unlike a religious priest, he does not belong to an order such as the Franciscans or the Jesuits. Rather, he belongs to, and is assigned by the Archdiocese of Boston. Father Paul knew where he wanted to be, however, and so he had previously interviewed with the head of the Archdiocese expressing his interest to be assigned to BU. This is where he was appointed to by Cardinal Law on the day he was ordained.
“We started off on the same footing. I was a freshman and he was a newcomer too,” recalls Melissa Centeno, a student receptionist at the BU Catholic Center. Her desk faces the piles of gifts for the “Santa’s Helpers” program and bags of food for the food drive. Like many of the students working in the center, Melissa, who is now a junior, is a volunteer who simply enjoys helping Father Paul. “I’ve always really liked him and having conversations with him, and now that I work with him, I have a chance to talk with him more,” she explains.
At first it is difficult to understand how any priest can relate to students like Melissa, his lifestyle being so different from theirs. But Father Paul’s own experiences as a college student and graduate student help him to understand the stresses students here face. At the same time, his strong faith allows him to be, as Melissa describes, “a beacon of hope.” “He is approachable,” she goes on to say. “He’s the type of person you really feel comfortable with because he’s so honest and straightforward, and he likes laugh.” Melissa also participates in the retreats that Father Paul organizes with the other ministers at the Catholic Center. “One girl was questioning leaving BU,” she said. “But because of Father Paul and the retreat, she found a community here and decided to stay. She felt comfortable talking to him as I do.”
It is the questioning nature of students that Father Paul enjoys. “They have a lot of questions,” he chuckles. “I like that because it helps keep me fresh, always asking, ‘Why do I believe and how can I communicate that?’” BU also has the added challenge of being a non-Catholic university, and it is not uncommon for a diocese to provide a religious order with priests if need be. For example, it would be possible for the Archdiocese of Boston to provide the Franciscans at BC with extra priests. Knowing this, it is a little uncertain as to why a priest like Father Paul would choose a secular university instead of a Catholic one where he might be guaranteed more support from students and faculty. To this he surprisingly responds, “I prefer a non-Catholic school.”
As he explains, “In a Catholic school, there are external supports that people can take for granted like crucifixes in every classroom. So, a student’s personal investment in their faith is lulled into a false sense of security. Here,” he concludes, “there is an opportunity for faith to be strengthened.” The increased response of students to the Catholic Center’s welfare projects this Christmas season is certainly a reflection of how students’ faith has been strengthened. “Each year we take more names for ‘Santa’s Helpers,’” Father Paul notes.
In a month, however, another Christmas season will have passed and Father Paul and the pastoral staff will have to start work on other projects. Although the priest has many other daily responsibilities, he has several long-term goals as well. First of all, he would just like to stay at BU for a while. He describes himself as a more “stable person,” and that it would be good for the university to have some consistency since there have been three different Catholic priests present at BU in just the last few years.
The general policy of the Boston Archdiocese is that a priest remain at a position for nine years, but Father Paul shrugs, smiles and says, “whether that applies is still a question.” Eventually the priest would also like to expand the newly remodeled Newman House since it can barely hold the 80 to 100 students who come for the weekly spaghetti dinners.
For now, however, Father Paul seems very content seated in a cherry-wood chair in his light-blue office. Unlike most people at this time of year, he has an aura of peace and harmony around him that probably stems from his confidence in all the staff and students that are participating in his Christmas programs this year. The words he spoke before now more than ever seem to ring true: This is where he should be.