FM = Father Mike
FB = Father Bill
I have the incredible opportunity in this church to open the church up at 6:30 in the morning while no one is here. The sun is rising, and it’s this incredible setting. So, I take advantage of the quiet in the morning. I would suggest to everyone who preaches, or is in any type of ministry at all, to have a deep, deep prayerful life in which they personally experience Christ as their personal savior. You have to have that relationship, in my mind. You have to have encountered Christ personally.
FM: We are on the scenic shoreline of Lake Tahoe, ready to meet Father Bill Nadeau at his parish, St. Francis of Assisi in Incline Village. Under his leadership, this parish community has grown spiritually as intentional disciples, better equipped to witness to the gospel. Father Bill’s preaching draws parishioners and many visitors to this church, most especially during the summer months, and during the winter ski season. Looks like a pretty neat place for anyone, but for all this scenic beauty, long before Father Bill arrived here, he ministered to prison inmates at maximum security prisons in Texas Arizona and California. In this wonderful setting, let us meet Father Bill Nadeau.
FM: Father Bill its great to be here with you.
FB: And the pleasure is ours to have you here, thanks very much for coming.
FM: Thanks for your warm hospitality, but you call this church St. Francis of Assisi, spirituality with a view. Why is that?
FB: Pretty obvious reason, if you look out our view windows. You are going to be able to see north Lake Tahoe. You will see the majestic mountains, the beauty of the trees, and it invites all of us to appreciate the beauty of God’s environment.
FM: It brings us all to a sense of spirituality and reflection.
FM: Let me ask you this; the great American writer, John Updike, was once asked, “What’s your favorite piece of scripture?” He thought about it and he said this, it comes from Thessalonians, St. Paul. “Don’t stifle the spirit.”
FB: I love that.
FM: Don’t quench the spirit.
FB: Love that.
FM: You are a guy who has not quenched that spirit.
FB: No need to do it here.
FM: How do you energize people?
FB: I think they bring the energy here, what happens is that we have a lot of tourists and seasonal parishioners. They come in with their families, their families are pretty vivacious. The kids are joyous. We take advantage of that. I think you just get energized by their energy itself.
FM: You embrace the idea of intentional discipleship. Can you explain?
FB: Oh, I’d love that. Actually, its based on divine renovation. I am sure you are familiar with that, with Father James Mellon. Its this whole idea of they need to make a choice to be evangelizers. So, we encourage them to do that. We started out 13 years ago using the common terminology; lay ministers, lay volunteers. That didn’t quite fit what we were aspiring to do because we wanted them to understand that they are disciples by their baptism, and then they had to intend to share that, so that they could become apostles. So, our next step going from lay volunteers, then intentional disciples, is we eventually move them to help them recognize that they are going to be apostles. Not only do they have this personal commitment to Jesus Christ because of their discipleship, but then they want to get out and share it. They want to live it and be filled with that whole concept. So, we really appreciate the concept of; all of us share in the priesthood. We emphasize that here a lot by their baptism. Just have different responsibilities.
FM: So, I look at your biography and I say to myself; this is an activist. You are an activist.
FB: I would agree with that. I would agree with that.
FM: It goes back to your foundation, to your formation as a priest?
FM: As an oblate, can you explain who are the Oblates of the Mary Immaculate and how you got started as a priest?
FB: The oblates were very influential in my life from the perspective that when I was at the University of Minnesota, I used to always make retreats with the oblates and then I was captivated by their concern for justice and work with the poorest of the poor. What attracted to me especially, was they had a carism in the constitution that encouraged the priest to actually work in the prisons, and that was something I was aspiring to, even before priesthood.
FM: There was a Father Joe O’Brien?
FB: Oh, Joe?
FM: Who was your mentor.
FM: Young priests need mentors.
FB: There you go, exactly. He would come to the seminary in San Antonio every orientation of the new freshman class, and he would encourage those of us that would like to work in the prison system, to consider doing it. So, it caught my attention immediately. Father Joe himself was rather gruff on the outside. Perfect fitting for a prison chaplain, but on the inside, he was very warm, caring, and compassionate. So, he invited us, and I went to the correctional institution in Huntsville, and ministered with him for three summers as I did my master’s in criminology.
Then, I realized this is a carism I had. This was a gift that I could share. I had gone with another couple of seminarians who were a little intimidated by it, or they saw it wasn’t their calling. I preferred very much to consider doing that as a full-time ministry. The provincial after I was ordained knew that was where my heart was, but he felt that I should have some practical experience, so he unfortunately put me in seminary to teach. Did that for three years and went over to Stockholm, Sweden where I could learn the penal system there, which was more in restorative justice. Then, I came back from that experience in the missions, then the provincial allowed me to work in the prisons. So, I did five years with the Huntsville State Prison, and then I did 25 years with the federal system. So, I have a great knack for working with parishioners. I treat them as thugs and thugettes. We get along well. It was a great experience for me. Something I really appreciated, and I felt that was the calling I needed to do. I had the energy to work with them and it was where I needed to be. That was where I needed to be.
FM: As a preacher, you are a storyteller. You have a new book out, Reflections of Father Bill. I have it right here, actually. Reflections of Father Bill—A Finely Tuned Balancing Act. What’s the subtitle about?
FB: Actually, the parishioners had done this. It was their idea of they have been introduced to a faith that calls them to be disciples. They figured they wanted to evangelize, so they asked if they could go ahead and compile some of the homilies that we had shared. So, it all came from them. There is a list in the back of the book, as you will probably notice, of 12 people that were actively involved in making this happen. I had very little to do with it, in reality. They named the book, and they know that I enjoy the outdoors, paddle boarding is something that I do each morning, if I can. They were out there to capture a picture which is on the cover, and it is actually a reflection of myself and then the beauty of Lake Tahoe itself.
FM: You are a storyteller, but you are also someone who is an active preacher. I mean you can’t ignore Father Bill while you are here in this church.
FB: There’s some truth in that. A clear example is if the babies cry, they—parents like to do the quarterback sneak. I will call attention to them. I say, “No, no, no quarterback sneak. We are baby friendly here, please come back and enjoy the homily.” I will share with them that I worked in a prison for all of those years and never heard a baby cry. So, when I came to the parish setting, for me it was a very welcoming sound. Our parishioners are very appreciative that we encourage the young children to be actively involved. They run up and down the aisle, I will come down and meet them. They are starting to cry, I will try to go over and hold them. Sometimes they stop crying, other times I give them back right away to mother and dad, so that’s pretty quick on that one.
FM: Has any baby decided to visit you overnight, will you continue to babysit?
FB: No, no. No need. That’s not going to happen. The phone rings—a great example—when the phone rings and I am preaching, not to embarrass them, I go over to them immediately. Say, “Is it okay if I answer your phone, please?” “No, Father, we are embarrassed.” I pick up the phone, “She’s in church right now praying for you, but you can call back later.” So, the phone ringing doesn’t bother me either, unless it’s a real estate agent. We have a lot of them up here. Real estate agents can turn their phone off. Doctors, fire, first personnel—no.
FM: Toward the end of your book, you write the most challenging part of my ministry during the 25 years I worked in prisons was getting inmates to believe in their self worth and God’s love. How do you do that?
FB: That was really difficult. They are pretty much pessimistic. They are hard on themselves because they are hard on everyone else. You have to try and find their humorous side, and their tender side. Then, help them to understand that in God’s eyes we are all equal. We do bad things, but God still loves us.
FM: I wonder for most of us who are parish priests, isn’t that what we have to do for just about everyone?
FB: Totally agree with that. Absolutely agree with that. You do it yourself, I am sure.
FB: Same thing. You know, get them to appreciate God’s love for them. But, we seem to always focus on you have to love Jesus. Sometimes I think the focus has to be the opposite. See if you can focus on how much Jesus loves you. Understand what he did for us. You know? Total self sacrificing love.
FM: We call it a grateful heart.
FB: Grateful heart. I love that.
FM: You have a New Year’s homily, which is entitled The Lord’s Blessing. Which, begins with a very funny anecdote and then it goes into how we must be grateful at the new year, but then you go into a piece that is so touching, so poignant and its about your early ministry in the prisons. Could you read that one little selection?
FB: I would be happy to do that. So, I had been ordained for only five years and had been recently assigned to the Texas Department of Corrections in Huntsville, Texas. I was ministering to the inmates in the Ellis Unit, where death row is. James Applebaum was a convicted killer, who had been on death row for over 27 years. On the day before he was about to be executed, he asked if I would have his last meal with him and pray with him the following day prior to his execution. The warden granted me the permission. I was nervous. I obviously did not sleep all night. Instead, I searched the Old Testament for a fitting prayer for a Jewish inmate. I simply asked the Lord to guide me as I read the sacred scripture, the Holy Spirit led me to the Book of Numbers, Chapter 6, Verses 22 through 27.
The next day, James and I bowed our heads, held hands and we prayed. We walked together, escorted by the warden, and several security guards to the gas chamber. I told him, look into my eyes, and I would look into him as he would be taken to his eternal resting place. We prayed the same prayer that Aaron bestowed upon the Israelites before they began their journey to Mount Sinai to the promised land. The prayer was this; may the Lord bless you and keep you. Let the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord look kindly upon you, and give you peace. A hurtful memory.
FM: Today’s gospel from St. John reminds us that Jesus is the bread of life. It’s this bread that sustains this community of St. Francis of Assisi, in Incline Village.
FB: The Lord be with you. A reading from the Holy Gospel According to John. May the Lord always be on our minds, forever on our lips, and always in our hearts. We are asked to reflect on the 6th chapter once again. The Jews murmured about Jesus because He said I am the bread that’s come down from heaven. They said, “Is this not Jesus, the Son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? How can he say that I have come down from heaven?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Stop murmuring among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him near to me, and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets. They shall all be taught by God. Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from me, comes to me. Not that anyone who has seen the Father, except the one who is from the Father, He has seen the Father. Amen, amen I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died. This is the bread that came down from heaven, so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven, whoever eats this bread, will live forever, and the bread that I give will be my flesh for the life of the world.” This is the gospel of the Lord.
It happened to be that these two boys were born at the same time back in the 1890s. One was born in eastern Europe in Yugoslavia. The other was born in a small town in Illinois. What they had in common, was they were both altar servers and they both had made the same mistake. How many of you have ever been altar servers? Flawlessly have you done that? No, we have all made mistakes, right? How many of you would tickle your buddies when they came with the paten under their chin? Remember doing that? Those were the days when you had to hold the paten and the priest would lecture after you finished doing that? In this case, both boys had failed to catch a host that has dropped on the paten and the sacred host fell on to the ground. The priest in eastern Europe shouted at the little boy and said; “You clumsy kid. You get down there and pick up that sacred host, and you eat it and you will never be an altar server again.” Totally crushed. Embarrassed, never came back to mass again. His name, Marshall Tito. Remember the communist leader for 37 years? Left his faith because of the harshness of this priest.
On the other hand, southern Illinois, little boy did the same thing, but the priest reacted totally different. “Son accidents happen.” As he said that, he stooped down, picked up the sacred host, and consumed it himself. That boy ended up becoming a priest and a bishop and we know him as Bishop Fulton Jay—true story. The way we react to people makes an incredible difference on how they either live or leave their faith. I hope you realize as intentional disciples, the way you live your faith each day, is either going to bring people closer to Christ, or maybe lead them even further away. It’s our responsibility. We all have that responsibility.
Appreciating the mystery of God’s love is a struggle. Because, God, in my mind, is a master of disguises. God sits right next to you. Your spouse, your friend, a stranger. Aren’t we challenged to define God in his many disguises? A story to help you—told about one of the students that went right here at Sierra Nevada College. He had told his girlfriend, “I am going to run down to the lake.” As he packed his backpack, fixed himself a couple of turkey sandwiches, a couple of bottles of water, put in some Twinkies. College students do that. Ran down to the lake. Had a favorite place he would sit. When he got there, he saw an elderly woman who was rather sad, sitting on the bench. He referred to as the bench, as the bench with a view, because his best friend had overdosed accidentally on drugs and the people of this parish wanted to do something for the parents, so they bought them a bench and they put it down at the lake and we blessed the bench. It’s there anonymously, but for him that was his bench.
So, when he saw the elderly woman there, he simply and politely said, “Would it be okay if I sit down here with you?” The woman sadly smiled and said, “Yes, that would be okay.” Opened up his backpack and took a drink out of his bottle of water, looked at her and asked her, “Would you like a bottle of water?” she smiled at him with a captivating smile and changed her demeanor and says, “Yes, you know what? I would like that bottle of water.” They started chit chatting and he asked her if everything was okay. With tears in her eyes, she began to tell her story of her own son, 19 years old, was murdered because of some issues concerning hate crimes. A year she had been grieving. Her heart was so saddened she could not get over the fact that her son was murdered.
She told the story, and then of course Chris shared with her his story, but he asked her, “Would you like a turkey sandwich?” Again, she smiled with that engaging smile that the sadness moved on. “I would like that.” So, they sat there the whole day, drinking water, eating their sandwiches, and telling their stories—sharing their feelings. All of a sudden, they weren’t strangers. He looked at his watch, “I am going to have to go, it’s getting dark, and I have a date with my girlfriend.” They hugged and parted ways. He went back to his apartment. The girlfriend looked at him, “What did you do all day? You have got this incredible smile on your face.” He said, “You are not going to believe this. I met God today, and she’s a lot older than I thought, but has a great smile.” She, on the other hand, went home to her daughter, same thing. “Ma, you look really happy today. What happened?” “You are not going to believe this, I met God today and he is a lot younger than I thought he was.”
God comes in incredibly hidden disguises. Until you and I get engulfed with the mystery of God and Jesus Christ is in one another, we are going to miss the significance of what it means to understand the bread of life. God comes to us in some incredible form of being tangible, edible, and consumable. We are a privileged community, because we do believe what Christ said today, “I am the living bread.” The puzzle for us, can you really understand that Christ is in the eucharist? None of us have ever been asked to define how Christ is the bread of life. We only have been asked this; to believe it with the gift of our heart and faith. So, when someone asks you how can that be true, you can shrug your shoulders and say, “I don’t know. Jesus never told me in the sacred scriptures, but I believe what he said.” What he said to me, “I am the bread of life.”
You are going to consume that bread tonight. It gives us this incredible opportunity to change your whole demeanor and behavior. To let go of the anger and the bitterness that was spoken of in Ephesians, and then to take on this incredible personality and style of being a compassionate and loving person. You are asked to bring your burdens and your sufferings and place them before the Lord today. That’s what Elijah did in the first reading. Did you hear that? He was being chased down by the mean queen Jezebel because he would not give up his faith? She had a hit man on him. He is hiding out in a cave. He hears a whisper, and the whisper says, “You don’t have to worry about this, Elijah. You are not going to die, even though that is what your prayer is. I heard your prayer. You said to me, ‘enough is enough, I want to die’, I am not going to let you die, Elijah. There is some bread right there for you.” And sure enough, Elijah took on a whole new demeanor. He surrendered his burdens to the Lord. He surrendered his problems to the Lord. My question is to you—as you kneel please, so you can understand the question—the question is this; silence your heart—what burden, what problem do I need to leave at the foot of the altar now?
FM: Mother Teresa once said God doesn’t ask us to do great things, rather asks us to do a small thing with great love. We have come to this small parish community here at Incline Village, St. Francis of Assisi. We met Father Bill Nadeau and his parishioners who have offered us great hospitality. We thank them for all they have done for us. In Incline Village, and for Sunday to Sunday, I am Father Mike Russo.