May 18, 2011 Russ Tarby Uncategorized
The Rev. Father Charlie Major may be a man of God, but he’s also a man of the people.
“Over the years I’ve preached a lot of social gospel rather than a lot of credo gospel,” he said last week as he reflected on his 34 years as pastor of St. Joseph the Worker Roman Catholic Church in Liverpool.
He has always been more interested in how Christianity plays out in everyday life than how it plays out in church.
“Being a good priest is not about saying Mass right,” he said. “It’s more important to do the social thing, to interact with people.”
Now as he prepares to retire as St. Joseph’s pastor at age 78, Father Charlie recalls how his interactions with his congregation, with fellow ministers and with the world at large have blessed him with a full and satisfying life.
“I could’ve been a doctor or lawyer or Indian chief,” he said, “but by being a priest I’ve gotten as much out of my life as I could.”
That’s not to say it’s all been a bowl of cherries.
Less than three years after he arrived in Liverpool from St. John the Evangelist in the city, St. Joseph’s closed its elementary school, a move that drew harsh criticism from diocesan leaders.
“The bishop was very unimpressed,” Father Charlie remembered. The economic crisis which led to the school’s closing soon caught up with parochial schools across the Syracuse diocese, he noted. “But it happened here quicker, and I was cited for poor pastoral leadership.”
In the mid-1980s under Father Charlie’s guidance, however, the parish paid off the debt it had accrued for the church it built in 1973. “I burned the mortgage,” he recalled with a smile.
Raising money is an ongoing chore for all church leaders and is becoming even more of a burden now that congregations are shrinking. One of Father Charlie’s responses to that task was to practice what he preached. He resolved to make a personal contribution every Sunday.
“I got my own envelopes,” he said. “My parishioners taught me that that’s the way to support our fund-raising efforts.”
In October 1990, the parish celebrated its 100th anniversary. Nineteen years later, in 2009, Father Charlie marked the golden anniversary of his ordination into the priesthood.
That milestone was especially enjoyable for him because he felt like a new man. In 2007, he had undergone treatment for alcohol dependence, a personal struggle which he took public. He shared details of his battle with “John Barleycorn” with his congregation before, during and after his rehab stay at the Guest House in Rochester, Minn.
Recovery, he said, “is a marvelous thing for me. I have a whole new life now.”
Father Charlie sees one of his life’s greatest accomplishments as “living out the meaning and message of Jesus in a consistent yet varied and joyous fashion,” and for him a crucial part of living out Christ’s example is to address the moral concerns of modern society.
“War, hunger and poverty – these are things that must concern us all,” he said. “I’m not as concerned about abortion as I am about children who are born to parents who aren’t able to feed them or educate them or take care of them.”
During his tenure as pastor, St. Joseph’s expanded its food pantry which now aids more than 100 hungry families each week. The parish has also become a partner with such agencies as the Oxford Inn, Jail Ministry, the Samaritan Center, Operation Southern Comfort, the Dorothy Day House and the Sarah House.
Over the years, because of the progressive views he has expressed from the pulpit, Father Charlie has had to dodge flak from congregants, colleagues and occasionally his superiors.
“It goes with the territory,” he said. But he’d rather be controversial than inconsequential.
“I don’t want to be bland,” he said. “I don’t want to toss cotton candy to people. I want to give them something to chew on.” For instance, he’s a longtime advocate of married priesthood and women priests, especially given the extreme shortage of ordinations in the 21st century.
Father Charlie has enjoyed exploring the edges of Catholicism, he said, rather than the center.
“I’m not the first to try a few new things and I won’t be the last,” he said. “I may have been a little ahead of the curve.”
Last Masses slated June 4 and 5
While he officially retires on May 30, Father Charlie Major will preach at all four Masses at St. Joseph’s on the weekend of June 4 and 5. He’ll say the 4 p.m. Mass on Saturday and the 8 a.m. Mass on Sunday and deliver the homily at the two later Sunday Masses.
Following each Mass he’ll meet with parishioners for coffee at the Parish Center next to the church, at the corner of Sixth and Tulip streets; sjwkrchurch.org.
In retirement, Father Charlie plans to live at the Nottingham, to play golf and bridge and to visit other churches of all denominations.
“It’ll be fun for me to go to church,” he said, “including some other than Catholic.”