By Meg Ferrante
The Mother’s Day brunch at St. James Catholic Church in Madison was just starting to break up when a stranger entered the social hall. He was covered from head to toe in grime. He almost looked like he’d been in a fire.
There were some murmured whispers. A few people jumped to get him some food. But one man sat down with him. Prayed over his meal and offered to listen as the stranger, in clear agony, clutched his head and shared his story. Homeless and hungry, the stranger had hitchhiked from Maryland and was waiting for a ride to Texas where he hoped to start his life over. He was ashamed to be there, ashamed to be asking for help, but he didn't know where else to turn.
As the last few families scrambled off to pamper their mothers, one man reached out to touch this stranger’s arm, let him know he had time. All day if necessary. In fact, just weeks away from giving himself to God as a Catholic priest, Tim Gallagher just happened to have a lifetime.
A lifetime ago, Tim Gallagher was a tight end for the Morgan County Bulldogs, chasing girls and trying to fit in just like the rest of his classmates. He joined the Army because he didn't want his parents to have to pay for college. He served in Operation Desert Storm and then attended the University of Georgia like so many of his friends. He had a career as a physical therapist, did volunteer work building houses in Mexico and was looking forward to marriage and a family.
A bit adrift in his Christian identity, Gallagher was involved with a Protestant missionary group and not even going to Catholic Church all the time. Then something happened. Not a lightning strike or a miracle. More like a slow-growing seed that began to bear fruit. Or the pieces of a complicated puzzle falling into place.
He decided to settle his questions about Catholicism by praying the rosary. He studied with an Apologetics class to learn more about the reasoning behind Catholic teaching. He joined a young adult ministry and social club. And the capstone on his reconversion was returning to the sacrament of reconciliation--confessing his sins to a priest--which he had not done in a decade.
"When my faith was awakened to the fact that the [Catholic] Church was really the true Church, my belief in the sacraments was awakened," Gallagher said. "I came to see priesthood and marriage as gifts from God. Priesthood became an option. But deep inside I thought I could never do that."
This past Saturday, the Archdiocese of Atlanta ordained eight new priests in a three-hour ceremony at the Cathedral of Christ the King. And Sunday morning at Madison's tiny St. James, a record crowd crammed the sanctuary to celebrate Fr. Timothy Joseph Gallagher's first Mass. Nearly 300 were in attendance, with overflow in the social hall watching on closed-circuit television. At the altar, Gallagher was surrounded by seven priests, three seminarians, two Franciscan brothers of the Primitive Observance, one deacon and four altar boys.
The choir was tripled in size for the occasion. Mothers and grandmothers were escorted to their seats in front of 58 family members. Pomp and circumstance was on full parade. "There's no stopping an exuberant celebration, especially when the congregation is so proud of one of their own," said Monsignor Peter Dora, priest at St. James.
But there were many solemn moments as well. Fr. Brett Brannan, the Vice Rector of Mount St. Mary's where Gallagher attended seminary, spoke of Gallagher's coming responsibilities.
"A priest is a priest not for himself. A priest is a priest for his people," Brannan said.
He reminded Gallagher that he will be tempted and discouraged by the devil, as Satan knows that a priest's job is to bring people to Jesus and Jesus to the people. But he praised Gallagher's joy for life.
"People need joy in their priests. And why not? We have the greatest message in the world to share!" Brannan shared with the congregants.
Gallagher took the lead at last when he gave voice to the liturgy of the Eucharist for the first time.
"This is the point where I bring about true body and blood of Jesus," he explained in an earlier interview. "It is the apex of every priest’s existence, to consecrate the bread and wine into the true presence of Jesus." This, he said, was one part of the planning making him nervous. "I'm just going to try to do my part to keep a prayerful presence with the Lord in the Mass and hopefully I won’t mess it up."
"The Lord be with you," he sang, beginning the commemoration of the Last Supper, the final meal that Jesus shared with his disciples.
"And also with you," answered the church.
"Lift up your hearts."
"We lift them up to the Lord."
And on he sang. His voice cracked, but only once. He slowly relaxed into the prayer like a man born to pray it.
Following his reconversion, Gallagher made a fateful move by telling an old friend. He was a priest Gallagher didn't realize was working to advise Catholics in Atlanta who might be interested in priesthood. The priest shepherded Gallagher through classes to help him understand God's will and eventually forced an application for priesthood on him. It sat on his desk for more than a year.
The application might well have continued collecting dust if not for divine intervention.
"God made it obvious he wanted me to take next step," Gallagher said.
While in Jamaica, doing physical therapy for the handicapped children of Mustard Seed mission, he made a bold offer to the mission's priest. "I'll leave it all to do this," he told Fr. Gregory. He loved mission work and secretly hoped it would be a way out of priesthood.
Gregory turned him down, telling him he was needed more as a priest.
"It was those kind of things..." Gallagher said. "God giving me voices here and there, putting people in my life at different times, me resisting it all the way. It was a battle."
He finally decided to put off deciding. He would become a seminarian and pray more about it.
Seminary was no less a challenge for Gallagher. He had to readjust his attitudes about priesthood in general. "I thought only weird guys pursued that. But there were normal guys, going through the same process, guys praying to follow in the steps of Jesus. The attraction to women and marriage was still very strong , but we just prayed and tried to listen to God."
He fought another battle trying to understand God's will for which order of priest he should join. He spent a year with the Franciscans of the Primitive Observance, who live in ultimate simplicity, pray all day, sleep on the floor, hitchhike rides and beg for their food. Ultimately he felt himself called back to Archdiocesan life where his interaction with a congregation is assured and where, thanks to his time with the Franciscans, he plans to live, like his hero St. John Vianney, as a "simple parish priest."
Every story has a back story, and the interesting one here lies in Tim's mother, Becky, who is Baptist.
She said that she and Tim's dad, John, spent 90 percent of their dating days wondering how a Catholic and a deep-south Baptist could ever make it work. She's as proud as anyone about Tim's choice and credits Tim's insight and deep beliefs to being brought up in a home with two separate practices of faith.
"We would visit my parents and go to Baptist church to honor them," she said. "The four-hour car trip would usually spawn a discussion of our faith. Sometimes heated. We all came to the conclusion that our faith was the same, though our practice was different."
Becky, who attends Antioch Baptist in Godfrey, was overjoyed when her 90-year-old mother agreed to attend the ordination and first Mass, the only family member to do so.
"She's been telling people, 'When everybody gets to heaven, everybody's going to be rubbin' elbows with people of all different religions, even Catholics, so we'd better get used to it here on earth.’”
John has his own interesting tale to tell. In the seminary himself for three years, he never pushed it on his kids. "I wonder if I might have done more," he said. "I prayed that they would do what God would want them to. So this was God's will. I knew it would work out."
In two weeks, Gallagher begins his first assignment, as a parish priest right down the road at St. Pius XII in Conyers. St. James' priest says this poses only one problem. Loss of bragging rights. "We could say we had the largest number of seminarians proportionally speaking of any congregation in the Atlanta archdiocese, possibly in the whole country,” he said. “All of that came to an abrupt end yesterday." He was quick to point out that as God has blessed this little congregation with a priest, the church will continue to pray for another. (And a return to distinction.)
Gallagher ended the Mass telling the youth of the church to listen for God's calling and have the courage to answer. After all, in his case, he says, "for me to do this is evidence of God’s mercy and grace in the world. I think He really had to change my heart for me to pursue this. In His mercy and patience, Jesus is calling men to be priests. Jesus is calling all of us to follow Him. Any sacrifice is worth gaining heaven."