By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
FALL RIVER, Mass. — For Deacon Christopher M.J. Peschel, tomorrow’s presbyteral ordination represents the “end goal” of a more than seven-year vocational journey.
“It still hasn’t even hit me that I’m done with school,” Deacon Peschel recently told The Anchor. “It’s been a huge chunk of my life. I’ve had ups and downs, for sure. The constant, I think, was that there was always that great prize that was desired after, and I kept my eyes fixed on that. I didn’t sweat the small stuff when I had a bad day.”
Bishop George W. Coleman will ordain Deacon Peschel as a priest for the Fall River Diocese tomorrow during a Mass celebrated at 11 a.m. inside St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fall River.
Having served the diocese as a transitional deacon since January, Deacon Peschel is filled with great anticipation at the prospect of beginning his priestly ministry.
“I’m definitely looking forward to celebrating Mass on a daily basis,” he said. “And I hope to be able to offer myself for Confession regularly. That’s the Sacrament we have for reconciling people and I think that the priest, among his roles, is a reconciler. If he’s a true shepherd for the people, he’s going to want to keep people in the fold and keep them reconciled and not let the sheep go astray or wander.”
Expressing great relief and excitement as he prepares to take that all-important final step, Deacon Peschel said it’s been a long and, at times, challenging road.
“My first three years (in seminary) were at St. Charles Borromeo down in Philadelphia,” he said. “I was the only one from the diocese down there and my family was 300 miles away, so it was a new experience for me. To be honest, I didn’t always find it hospitable down there, so that was one of the most challenging times for me.”
With the help and support of two key priests, Deacon Peschel said he was able to overcome these challenges and complete his first three years of studies in Philadelphia.
The first was Father Peter Stravinskas, who is an editor with Newman House Press based in New Jersey.
“Father Stravinskas lived just across the river in New Jersey (and) a priest of this diocese knew him well and hooked us up, because I didn’t know anyone in Philadelphia,” Deacon Peschel said. “Father Stravinskas became like a spiritual father to me. He was tremendously helpful during my time there and we kept up a good friendship, even after I returned to Boston.”
As a gesture of appreciation, Deacon Peschel has asked Father Stravinskas to vest him during his ordination Mass tomorrow.
The second priest instrumental during Deacon Peschel’s time at St. Charles Borromeo was his then-spiritual director — a former pastor of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who has since become the bishop of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands: Bishop Herbert A. Bevard.
“When I was in Philly, one of the only reasons they would let us out of the seminary was to go see our spiritual directors,” Deacon Peschel said. “So I had just about every Friday afternoon free, and I’d drive from the seminary over to North Philadelphia and meet with Bishop Bevard and then he’d take me on tours of different parts of the city. That’s how I got to know the city, by spending time in his passenger’s seat and getting to know some of the history and different cultures down there. It helped put things at ease at the end of the day.”
Deacon Peschel is proud that Bishop Bevard will not only be attending the ordination Mass tomorrow, but he will also be preaching the homily during his first Mass, to be celebrated on Sunday at 1 p.m. at his home parish of Annunciation of the Lord in Taunton.
“We’ve kept in touch and I’ve actually been down to the islands to visit him twice,” he said. “When I received the date for ordination last summer, I gave him a call and asked if he’d be willing to come up to Fall River to preach the first Mass. And he said: ‘It’s on the books.’ So he’s coming and is going to be spending the whole weekend up here. I appreciate his being here very much.”
“I wouldn’t be here today if they didn’t talk me through some of the things going on, that’s why I invited Bishop Bevard and Father Stravinskas up for these Masses,” Deacon Peschel added. “There were many times where I just wanted to throw the towel in and call it quits, but when challenges arise, you’ve got to keep good, solid, open communication with priest advisors — your spiritual director, for sure.”
While Deacon Peschel may have faced some difficult times during the past seven years, there have been many highlights, too — not least of which was the opportunity to attend World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain in 2011.
“It had been six years since I had been to World Youth Day and it was the first and only World Youth Day that I had been to as a seminarian,” he said. “That was a great event and I was there with (fellow seminarians) Jack Schrader and Eric Queenan at the time. We had the opportunity to attend a Mass one of the mornings with Pope Benedict that was just for seminarians. It was still a crowd, but it was much smaller. I remember being maybe five or 10 feet away from the Holy Father as he came in for that Mass and it was really breathtaking. That was one of the high points for me during my formation.”
During his time in seminary, Deacon Peschel said he developed a great interest in studying the Sacraments and he became particularly fascinated with the Sacrament of Confession, which is the subject of an in-progress thesis for his second master’s degree.
“There was an interview that Pope Benedict gave back a few years ago to confessors and spiritual directors when they were gathered in Rome,” Deacon Peschel said. “He said that the New Evangelization is going to begin in the Confessional. I found those to be not only haunting words, but a real challenge to priests — especially someone like me, who’s being ordained in the midst of this New Evangelization.”
Deacon Peschel said Pope Francis has similarly stressed the importance of Confession by publicly confessing himself.
“There was a famous picture of him kneeling down at the confessional,” he said. “Without him explicitly saying it, I think he’s calling people back to the confessional, too, because the reality is the difference between a practicing Catholic and a non-practicing Catholic is one Confession. I also see the Sacrament as being integral to reconciling people to the Church and bringing those who have lapsed in their faith back into the fold.”
A parishioner of Annunciation of the Lord Parish in Taunton, Deacon Peschel graduated from Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Overbrook in Wynnewood, Pa., before returning to study at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton in 2010.
Since the summer of 2013, he has been serving at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Attleboro, and Deacon Peschel’s previous assignments have included stints at St. Pius X Parish in South Yarmouth and St. Patrick’s Parish in Wareham. He also studied Portuguese Language and Culture at UMass Dartmouth and Spanish Language in Puebla, Mexico.
He is a fourth degree member of the St. Paul’s Council No. 12252 Knights of Columbus in Taunton.
Deacon Peschel earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, and recently received a master’s degree in divinity from St. John’s Seminary.
He is the son of Bruce Peschel and Linda (Ferreira) Forte and he has three younger brothers, all of whom will be attending the ordination Mass.
“I had a few aunts who didn’t attend my diaconal ordination, because they live farther away,” he said. “But my aunt from Virginia, who’s been tremendously helpful to me, and another aunt who lives down in Florida will be attending. My family is very happy. I hope everyone will be able to come.”
With Bishop Coleman’s impending retirement, the notion that Deacon Peschel may very well be the last priest he ordains is not lost on him.
“I’ve appreciated Bishop Coleman’s fatherly presence,” he said. “He’s a consummate gentleman. In the encounters I’ve had with him — either in meetings or in the Sacristy of the cathedral before Mass — that’s the immediate impression that I get.”
Deacon Peschel said he and Bishop Coleman also share a mutual appreciation for academics and Catholic education.
And the two have even had opportunities to bond over their interest in classical music and a non-Church related hobby.
“We’ve talked a little bit about one of my hobbies, railroading, which is also an interest of his,” Deacon Peschel said. “We’ve talked about the old train lines that used to come from Providence, R.I. into Fall River and used to run down the Cape. We’ve been able to chitchat about those things on a lighter note.
“He’s also a great connoisseur of classical music. I have some interest in music myself — I play the organ and know a few of the composers — but I was impressed that whenever we were in the car and something would come on the radio, he’d immediately know the composer and the work before it even popped up on the screen.”
Given Deacon Peschel’s fondness for Catholic schools and his 20 years of Catholic education, it’s not surprising that he hopes to be involved with a parish that has an active parochial school.
“Although I don’t yet know where I’ll be assigned, I’m praying that I go somewhere that has a school,” he said. “I realize the importance of the presence of a priest in Catholic schools and I’d really like to be a part of that. I think it’s helpful because when you get to know the students, you get to know their parents and you really get to know some of the younger families (in the parish). You establish friendships to a certain degree, and I think it’s very helpful for a priest to have solid married friends that are bringing up families in today’s world.”
“I’m looking forward to starting my ministry here in the diocese as a priest,” he added. “As soon as I walk out the doors of the cathedral (tomorrow), I’ll be a priest of this diocese and it’s a go.”
Deacon Christopher M.J. Peschel will be ordained to the priesthood by Bishop George W. Coleman tomorrow during a Mass celebrated at 11 a.m. at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fall River.
Deacon Peschel’s first Mass will be celebrated on Sunday at 1 p.m. at Annunciation of the Lord Parish in Taunton.