The Saint Paul Seminary has spent its years of formation and training and practice, towards the crucially important interface between the Church as a community, and the individual human soul: the parish, and parish ministry. So the Committee therefore looks first for a truly outstanding and representative parish priest, from among the MANY who are just that. The choice was difficult.
But east of the IDS tower, and east of the Cathedral dome, there is an area formerly devoted to corn and cattle, and not to chemistry and condominiums, which probably illustrates the challenges of 21st-century priesthood at its clearest. And this recipient offered and offers there an outstanding response.
It is the response for our time. This first recipient of our Award was ordained only three years after Vatican Council II had closed. That meant that his formative years - in looking back, perhaps in the best possible setting - these were at a time of the ferment which some remember so clearly. Those older than he were already in positions of responsibility - and at times of seemingly endless conflict and loud discontent.
It was ten years after that ordination, and therefore in 1978, that the first of the two major suburban pastoral assignments to our honored recipient came. His more than ordinary skills at reconciling conflicting forces were apparent even in that assignment. It was an era in which - almost close to heresy - priests began living in residences not buried in the parish offices! Schools were suddenly, and unthinkably, in very shaky financial condition, and even ideological condition. Their precious heritage of the seeming endless help of dedicated women religious was evaporating - and so were their schools. Church buildings had to be built - or recycled from empty school corridors. The location of a freeway became a critical factor in suburban pastoral ministry. Increasingly gifted - and aggressive - parish councils were becoming a central part of parish existence.
Into this arena came the one whom we honor first. His formation and mentors had been of the best. Initially, the pastor of the Cathedral, to which he was first assigned. And even before that, there was the powerful figure of Msgr. Thomas Meagher - an uncle who was a vivid, energetic, informal giant, and the director of the newly emerging "Catholic Charities" of the Archdiocese.
Our first Recipient twice came to growing, energetic, suburban-fringe parishes. They were uneasy. There were divisions - fierce divisions - along theological lines (the faction which wanted to build its own school, with its own safer theology); there were divisions along personal lines - support of, or hostility towards, their incumbent parish priest.
In an outstanding fashion, in the consensus of this Committee, this Recipient came into these places with three priceless ingredients: a kind of spiritual poise; an intense and even enthusiastic satisfaction in his own priesthood, which he conveyed verbally and often, and with absolute consistency; and thirdly, a priceless gift of capacity to gather a skilled and dedicated staff, and with utter comfort to allow them to grow in their positions, and minister to their parish each with his or her own gifts, with our Candidate's complete enthusiasm and support.
He showed it. In personal visitation of ill parishioners in a hospital, for example, once each month, as inexorably as IRS. In a devotion particularly to priests - ALL priests, not least those who had met troubled times in their personal lives. (In repeated instances they were invited by him to live in his rectory, with constant support and understanding.) He is noted for his hospitable gatherings of priests on significant sports occasions. One can only speculate that the world series must have been parallel to open heart surgery in his enthusiasms. In a fine admini strative sense, twice he has lovingly rescued and restored historic and important church buildings - as a skilled conservator. He is at his best in what are described as "staff-intensive parishes", and sees himself there as a prayer-leader, holding the vision of the parish on target spiritually. He is a man who respects the gifts of his staff, and was quoted as one who "is not afraid to hire people who know more that he does." And again, "he is a priest who sees the larger picture and the longer road, and is not caught up in the lint of life." This, we submit, is a truly outstanding pastor among many such - and our first recipient of tonight's award: FATHER MICHAEL ARMS.
(Text adapted from the St. Paul Seminary, School of Divinity alumni newsletter.)