By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 28, 2006
To the seminarians he inspired over the years, Monsignor Thomas Wells exuded joy in everything he did: celebrating Mass, orchestrating large ski and golf outings, simply gabbing on the phone for a few minutes with people he loved.
And those he befriended know he would have found joy in seeing four Maryland men who worked with him be ordained yesterday for the Archdiocese of Washington. The four, with another ordained last week for an Illinois diocese, are nicknamed "the Wells guys" because they were inspired by the beloved priest, who was killed by a homeless man in the rectory of his Germantown church in 2000.
Before an overflow crowd of about 2,700, the Wells guys were among a dozen men who became Catholic priests at a solemn yet joy-filled ceremony at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington.
One by one, the names of the new priests were proclaimed "for service of the church of Washington." One by one, each answered "Present!" When they turned to face the congregation -- which gave them a long, heartfelt round of applause -- some struggled to contain their emotions. Blinking eyelids, bobbing Adam's apples and firmly pressed lips betrayed their composure.
Theirs is the second-largest group of new priests in the nation, and the largest class in the Washington Archdiocese since 1973. Nationwide, the number of new priests is declining. Final figures are not available, but initial reports suggest that 359 men will be ordained this year in the United States. That is a decrease from 438 last year and 454 in 2004. The Arlington diocese is ordaining seven, its largest class since 1999.
Even more remarkable is that so many priests in the Washington Archdiocese were nourished in their faith by one man. Four had worked with Wells at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Bethesda, and one met him at a parish in Bowie.
"It's so rare to see this many from one place," said the Rev. Edward Burns, who heads the office of vocations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It just shows the impact one priest can have."
Wells had worked at Our Lady of Lourdes for a couple of years in the 1980s and then for five years in the 1990s. A year before his death, he was transferred to Mother Seton Parish in Germantown. Soon after he was killed, his friends set up the Monsignor Thomas M. Wells Society, which provides financial assistance to seminarians, sponsors retreats for men considering the priesthood and encourages prayer.
Now some of his proteges are drawing widespread attention. Outgoing Washington Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick prayed at Our Lady of Lourdes on Friday night. Each of the newly ordained priests was to have Masses this weekend.
A procession of more than 200 churchmen, including 180 priests, opened yesterday's two-hour ordination liturgy. Incense filled the vast, soaring nave. Happy women among the families of the 12 new priests dabbed their eyes with tissues. Little girls in flouncy dresses and hair ribbons pretended to be grown-up. And 8-year-old Dillon Smith, who said he wants to be a priest, watched the ceremony through a mini-telescope.
"It's been since 1973 that we've had a class this large, so what a great blessing that is from the Lord for us," said McCarrick, presiding at his last ordination because of his retirement in July.
Wells was 56 when he was killed six years ago. His sister, Mimi Shea, was at the ordination. "It's the first time I really feel, 'Wow, his death meant something,' " she said.
"I mean, I've never seen so many people so happy," said Shea, who directs the religious education program at Sacred Heart Church in Bowie, where Wells is buried. "The faith in this room is amazing."
The men Wells mentored invariably invoke his zest for life in describing the gregarious man who was jauntily called "Boomer."
He encouraged them to enter the seminary and stick with it. He organized groups to ski out west and play golf. He talked regularly with them on the phone, and "we'd just laugh for five minutes, nonstop, and then hang up," said one of the new priests, Rob Walsh, 36, whose family knew Wells for years.
"We were stuck in traffic once, and suddenly he's laughing at the top of his lungs, nonstop," said another of the new priests, Greg Shaffer, 34. "Then he says, 'I'm just thinking of the party we're going to have after you're ordained, after your first Mass.' "
"If it wasn't for his death, I wouldn't have seen it so clearly," said Andrew Royals, 26, whose family became close to Wells when the priest was at Our Lady of Lourdes. "It was almost like a bugle was going off in my ear. I thought, 'I could try to be one of those guys.' "
Although the men and others who knew Wells say they are grieving, a celebratory air surrounds this weekend because many believe Wells's spirit and the prayer that followed his murder are directly responsible for last week's ordinations.
Shaffer, Royals and Avelino Gonzalez, a 41-year-old Cuban-born naval engineer, were members of Our Lady of Lourdes. Walsh was raised in Sacred Heart in Bowie, another parish Wells had worked in. Another priest, Mike Lavan, 43, also belonged to Our Lady of Lourdes but transferred to the Rockford, Ill., diocese after Wells's death. He was ordained there recently but returned to Bethesda to join the events and celebrate a Mass.
"I believe he has a much greater influence now than he had on Earth," Walsh said Thursday of Wells as the Washington class met for a rehearsal at the shrine. "Father Wells's prayers are doing such good, not just for us, but for this whole group."
Many at Our Lady of Lourdes also credit the ordinations to their method of prayer. Unlike most churches, the parish takes the wafer consecrated at each morning's Mass -- which Catholics believe is the body of Christ -- and puts it on display all day, every day, in a side chapel.
It was Wells's handling of the Eucharist -- the wafer and wine used in Communion -- that parishioners and the new priests say so vividly represented his faith.
"When he lifted it up, his eyes were clearly focused on it, in what appeared to be deep prayer, and that was very moving. And he did that Mass in and Mass out. He held that, and he prayed," Cecilia Royals, Andrew's mother, said. Grieving for Wells, she said it would take 10 men to replace such a priest.
Years ago, Wells and some of his guys talked about taking a golf trip to Ireland to celebrate if they became priests. Next month, on the anniversary of Wells's death, a group of them will do just that: golf, and celebrate Mass.
Staff writer Caryle Murphy contributed to this report.