By Kenneth J. Souza
ATTLEBORO, Mass. — For Anna Rae-Kelly, it’s hard to believe that 10 years has elapsed since she first embarked on her annual mission to fast for priests.
“It’s been a privilege and each year I’m just astonished with the response,” Rae-Kelly recently told The Anchor. “Priests need us and we need them. I think that’s what I love about the priesthood. We’re like a four-legged table, we can’t do without one of the legs.”
Back in 2005, Rae-Kelly noted how the wounds from the priest abuse scandal were still fresh in everyone’s minds and “Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, OFM, Cap., was being invited to shut down the seminary because there were no applicants for the priesthood and there was so much money needed for the lawsuits,” she said.
But instead of just sitting back and ignoring the problem, the parishioner from St. John the Evangelist Parish in Attleboro decided to make a humble sacrifice on her own to pray for the priesthood.
“I really felt I needed to do something about it, and I fasted on my own for about seven months just for the protection of the priesthood because without them, we don’t have the consecrated Host and we don’t have Confession,” Rae-Kelly said. “Like all Catholics, I was very afraid of what this assault on the priesthood would cause because, to me, it is also an assault on the Eucharist.”
When she first came together with a group of like-minded lay people at La Salette Shrine in Attleboro a decade ago that has been involved with the annual event to this day, she wasn’t sure if the idea would ever fly. In fact, there were a couple of naysayers who tried to discourage her.
“I remember being at La Salette Shrine and asked if I could talk to the people and someone asked me, what are you going to talk about? And I said: ‘fasting,’” Rae-Kelly said. “And he told me not to bother, because Americans don’t fast. Well, 202 people signed up for that first day.”
Even despite this impressive first effort, Rae-Kelly admitted she thought it would be a one-time endeavor.
“I thought it would just be for the one year,” she said. “I thought that would be it. I was ready to say I did my best and be done with it. And then requests started coming in from places like Beijing, China and Vietnam and I thought to myself: how did they ever hear about this?”
Attributing the ongoing success of the annual Lay Fast for Priests to the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit and, in particular, the intercession of the movement’s patron saint, St. Therese of Lisieux, Rae-Kelly has been continuously awed and surprised by the yearly response.
“It really began to take on a life of its own,” Rae-Kelly said. “Each year has seen a huge increase in numbers, but this year has been astonishing! Ten weeks ago my husband John and I had some very bad things happen to us — they were crippling events. So we had to let it go for a while and the weeks were going by and I was getting more and more anxious. Just about four weeks ago (our group) met at the La Salette Shrine and I asked everyone to pray to St. Therese of Lisieux — the great hidden saint of Carmel. And we all said a Novena for nine days and this year she would help spread word to more than 100 countries for the first time ever!”
From the humble beginnings of just a little more than 200 people signing up at La Salette Shrine a decade ago, Rae-Kelly now estimates than there will be “more than 100 million fasting with us from all over the world” on October 17 from dawn to 3 p.m., this year’s designated nine-hour Lay Fast for Priests.
Rae-Kelly remains awestruck by the global outreach this simple, prayerful effort has achieved.
“I just received a message from a Carmelite from New Zealand who said 7,241 Carmelites from New Zealand will be fasting with us on October 17,” she said. “There is a cardinal from Nigeria who sent word out to every single parish in his diocese asking everyone to fast for priests on that day and another archbishop from Africa has done the same thing. Last year, one of the villages in Africa even translated the information about the Lay Fast for Priests into Zulu and the whole village fasted from water on that day. It just leaves me speechless with the way Heaven has touched earth.”
Even from war-torn countries like Iran and Iraq, Rae-Kelly has received touching messages of support.
“There are women from Iraq and Iran who would be flogged publicly just for speaking the name of Christ who will be fasting with us again this year,” she said. “I’m awestruck at the love that Christ’s children have for Him in the Eucharist that is given to us through priests.
“I received a beautiful photograph online last week of three soldiers serving this country overseas, sitting with their combat gear, and all three were smiling and they wanted to let us know that they would be fasting for priests with us this year. They couldn’t reveal their location because they were in harm’s way, but they wanted to let us know they were with us.”
Unlike the traditional fast from food and water, Rae-Kelly said the nine-hour fast can take many forms — from giving up TV or social media to abstaining from electronic devices altogether.
“Even something as simple as not putting butter on your bread is a sacrifice,” she said. “Yes, it’s not a three-day fast and it’s not even a complete one-day fast, but in that short nine hours the Lord can allow you to face difficulties that you could never have imagined would come your way. And as you face each difficulty and overcome it for priests, God sees the love you give it with. It doesn’t matter how grand the offering is, it’s how much love we put into it.”
Rae-Kelly feels blessed to have had the ongoing support of her dedicated nine-member lay fast team, along with the support of the priests and bishops of the Fall River Diocese over the years.
“There are only nine of us on the lay fast team and we work together and pray together to do this and every one of our lives has been touched in astonishing ways,” she said. “It’s been a tough journey for every member this year, but it’s been worth it.”
The 10th annual global Lay Fast for Priests will conclude at 3 p.m. on October 17 with a special Benediction inside the main church at the Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Attleboro, during which Rae-Kelly said there will be a procession with scrolls of names of those who pledged to participate.
“We’re going to have a procession with scrolls of names — thousands of names, because every single name I’ve promised will be placed on the altar at La Salette Shrine before the Blessed Sacrament,” she said.
Those interested in attending are encouraged to do so, and Rae-Kelly also asked for help with the procession of names.
“Anyone who could come to help would be appreciated,” she said. “We have so many names that need to be carried up to the priest that day. There will be Benediction and then the Divine Mercy Chaplet — it probably will only last about 45 minutes — and then we will all break our fast together.”
“I met a lady who is 92 years old recently and she told me that God has kept her alive for a reason,” Rae-Kelly said. “She said her new vocation in life was prayer and she said she’ll be fasting with us on October 17. Seeing all these people make these sacrifices leaves me speechless and I’m humbled.”
For more information about the 10th annual global Lay Fast for Priests, visit http://annaprae.com.