A childhood curiosity creats a vocation


HILTON HEAD — Following Father Michael McCafferty into the halls of St. Francis by the Sea School calls to mind a scene from “Going My Way” with Bing Crosby as an affable parish priest.

It’s the chorus of “Hello Father” from children kept to a barely restrained explosion of excitement by teachers that is so similar. He is fairly mobbed when he sits down to tell a story.

“That’s OK,” says Father McCafferty, “I’m the oldest of nine. I’m good with kids.”

He knows how to relate to children, but when he was their age, his experience was something that is probably alien to all of them. He knew he wanted to be a priest when he was 6 years old.

McCafferty was born into a Chester, Pa., family in 1954. His parents, the late Leonard and Anne McCafferty, though not always practicing Catholics themselves, saw to it that their children were educated in parochial schools.

The priest can pinpoint the event in his life that connected him to the religious vocation in his childhood. It was the celebration of his great-grandparents 50th wedding anniversary. His uncle, Joseph Wolf, a Franciscan order priest, said the Latin rite Mass in their dining room.

“I remember that I went up to uncle Joe and he just started showing me things, explaining them to me and letting me touch them,” he said. “It fixed the idea in my head from that time on.”

The idea stayed in the back of his mind through grammar school and faded somewhat in the questioning years of high school. After graduation, McCafferty joined the Navy for four years. While stationed on a ship, he found his somewhat anemic faith challenged by evangelical Christians.

“I had a spiritual awakening in the Navy,” he said.

He began reading about the history of the Catholic Church and his values were cemented. He left the Navy and went to the Franciscans. His seminary formation was in Massachusetts and New York. He was ordained on May 22, 1987, in Albany, N.Y. Besides being able to enjoy a little poetic justice from being passed over for altar boy selection in fourth grade, his vocation had a profound effect in his life.

“My decision to become a priest probably influenced my mother a lot to come back to the church,” he said.

Father McCafferty stayed in the Franciscan order for 15 years. His first assignment was in Charlotte, N.C., lasting four years and then on to Syracuse, N.Y., for one year. He felt most at home in the south and came to South Carolina in 1992 to become a diocesan priest. He was incardinated and assigned to St. Joseph’s in Columbia for a year then to St. Thomas More at the University of South Carolina where he worked with students for five years.

The university was a refreshing, yet challenging ministry.

“It seems like you have to recreate the wheel every year,” Father McCafferty said. “You don’t have the things you have in a regular parish. You deal with questions of faith, marriage, struggles with life, kids who are reconnecting with church or struggling with sexuality and relationships.”

The Franciscan returned to regular parish life when he, appropriately, landed at St. Francis by the Sea in Hilton Head two years ago.

Parish life, with all that is expected and unexpected, provides daily challenges. Few careers follow an exact job description and the priesthood is one of them. A priest must deal with a variety of people, young and old, and different cultures. He has to baptize, marry, bury and celebrate all the sacraments while fostering his community and balancing any tensions within it.

St. Francis by the Sea has a lot of retirees and a large Hispanic community. The parish recently built a new elementary school.

“We are a dynamic parish, experiencing a lot of growth,” Father McCafferty explains. “It can be a little overwhelming at times but the daily routine of parish life gives structure and form to my life.”

As is his due, time away from his responsibilities is valuable. He has two dogs, an exercise regimen and an avid interest in reading and antiques. He schedules time off the island and also attends a priests’ support group.

Plans change, however. A scheduled vacation recently had to take a back seat when two parishioners died.

“It’s a balance,” Father McCafferty said. “You have to take time for yourself, or you burn out. I can tell when I have had enough. It feels heavy, and I feel I have nothing to give.”

With all the demands in the life of a priest, rewards are precious.

“I really take delight in the unexpected thank you’s,” Father McCafferty said. “Somebody will come up to you and say ‘thank you for being a priest’ or ‘that was a beautiful homily, it really touched me.’ Those are things that really sustain me. When I get frustrated or angry it always seems that someone will come up and say ‘thank you.'”

Another special reward is the lapsed Catholic who finds a way back to the Church.

“They trust me to let me take care of this with them,” he said, “to help them reconcile themselves with God and the Church. It happens every now and then, especially at Christmas. Those are high moments.”

From his experience, Father McCafferty believes the character requirements of a priest are many: they have to be compassionate, patient and a good diplomat.

“Sometimes we walk a very fine line trying to keep people happy,” he said. “You have to be someone who’s not afraid of hard work. You’re not only a priest, you’re a janitor, policeman and doctor. A priest is a general practitioner. There’s a little bit of everything involved.”

He believes that a common misconception of the priesthood is that somehow they aren’t human.

“Some people believe that the minute we put the collar on we somehow step outside of the human race,” Father McCafferty explained. “That we don’t get angry, lonely or frustrated. I think that one of the characteristics priests have to have is approachability. People want to be able to come up to you and not have you be the great and powerful Oz.”

Father McCafferty believes that in order for the Church to be meaningful in people’s lives then the clergy has to be present in their lives.

“A priest isn’t above the church he is within it,” he said. “He shares the joys and sorrows. You can’t do it all but you can try to do your best. There is no such thing as the perfect priest. Only Christ is the perfect priest. We have to struggle along with our frailties and follow his example. That’s what a priest is supposed to be.”