Saying ‘thank you’ on World Priest Day Grows
By Josh Zywien
When parishioners of the Diocese of Knoxville, Tenn., offered a simple “Thank You” to their bishop and priests six years ago there was little thought that their small token of gratitude would explode into a worldwide celebration.
What was a simple addition to the diocese’s 10-year anniversary itinerary has now turned into the internationally celebrated World Priest Day, which will be held this year on Sept. 19.
“There wasn’t any early intention of expanding the celebration beyond our diocese,” said Bob Lange, national coordinator of World Priest Day. “However, we received so much positive feedback from priests saying how appreciative they were of the event. With such an enthusiastic response, we decided to try and share our idea with other regions.”
After expansion into other southeastern states, World Priest Day became an official international celebration on Sept. 17, 2000. The observance is sponsored by the Worldwide Marriage Encounter movement.
Catholics around the globe are encouraged to laud their priest by thanking them in “whatever way they see fit,” said Christine Baldiga, regional coordinator of World Priest Day. Christine and her husband Dave belong to Holy Angels Church in Upton and are Massachusetts representatives for Worldwide Marriage Encounter.
“Some families write notes, give gifts or simply say ‘thank you’ to their priest,” Mrs. Baldiga said. “It’s not a typical celebration in the sense that parishioners don’t convene and honor their priest in groups, although that’s certainly an option. People generally celebrate their priest individually.”
Mrs. Baldiga said that several parishes are working together on a letter writing campaign this year. Every priest in the Worcester Diocese would receive a personalized note.
“You’d be surprised how much that means to your priest,” Mrs. Baldiga said.
Mr. Lange agrees.
“With the amount of work our priests do, with how many lives they help change, this is the least we can do,” Mr. Lange said. “Rather than making this a one day thing, we should really think about expressing our appreciation every single day.”
The Knoxville Diocese is encouraging its parishioners to “adopt-a priest” this year. Families in the parish pair up with a priest and are encouraged to do little things throughout the year that show appreciation for his work, Mr. Lange said.
Mr. Lange stresses the importance, though, that parishioners take it upon themselves to creatively thank their priest.
“If we celebrate World Priest Day by having each parish host their own event, the priest has to get involved and do some work,” he said. “The idea is not to make the priest work, but rather to allow him to relax and let us display our thanks.”
Worldwide Marriage Encounter’s Web site offers starter kits to parishioners looking to find creative ways to get members of their parish involved in the celebration. Participants can purchase items commemorating World Priest Day that range from pencils and stickers to coffee mugs and T shirts.
“Those tools help raise awareness in a parish,” Mrs. Baldiga said. “The whole idea is to get people to join in thanking their priest for the unselfish service they provide to us every day.”
Susan Hanson, a parishioner at St. Catherine of Sweden Church in Worcester has been involved in setting up a “Prayer for Priests” schedule for the last three years. And, though her program has no direct correlation to World Priest Day, Mrs. Hanson insists that it helps serve the same purpose.
“Our priests are going through a tremendous time of questioning their priesthood,” Mrs. Hanson said. “The societal pressures of the recent sexual abuse scandal can be overwhelming and prayer is vital in supporting our priests.”
Steve Tuttle, a parishioner at Sacred Heart Church in Milford and member of Worldwide Marriage Enounter, voiced similar concern about the scandal “tainting the excellent job good priests do every day,” he said.
“Regardless of guilt, the entire priesthood gets painted with the same brush,” Mr. Tuttle said.
In fact, the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has caused some laity to question the intentions of World Priest Day, Mr. Lange said. He dismissed such assertions, however, pointing out that the celebration was intiated before the scandal.
“We’ve always loved our priests,” Mr. Lange said. “We pray for the 99 percent (of priests) who weren’t involved and we pray for the one percent who were guilty.”
Mr. Tuttle and his wife have displayed such affection. In the past, they’ve provided their pastor a key to their home.
“With all of the negative stuff they sometimes have to deal with, we want to provide them with a place where they can come and just relax,” Mr. Tuttle said. “We want them to be able to just relax in a social environment.”
With the ministry of people like Mr. Tuttle, World Priest Day has continued to thrive, Mrs. Baldiga said. The celebration has expanded over the last few years into Worldwide Marriage Encounter’s footprint on more than 70 different countries.
“We aren’t quite sure which specific countries celebrate the holiday, but we do know that there have been international dioceses that honor their priests on World Priest Day in one way or another,” Mr. Lange said.
“We hope that word continues to spread both internationally and domestically,” Mrs. Baldiga said. “It’s a great thing to participate in. Every priest should feel appreciated.”
Worldwide Marriage Encounter is an international organization that, aside from fostering the relationship between parishioners and their priest, offers weekend experiences that aim to strengthen the connection between married couples.
Information about World Priest Day and Worldwide Marriage Encounter is available via their Web site at wpd.wwme.org.