A joy-filled journey to the priesthood

Deacon Phillip Dufour credits his Catholic education, diocesan priests for helping nurture his call to the priesthood

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BRISTOL — The Catholic Church will welcome a new priest when Deacon Phillip Dufour of Bristol is ordained to the priesthood at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul on Saturday, June 30 at 10 a.m.

Deacon Dufour, who turned 26 on June 25, will be the only man ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of Providence this year. His ordination comes amid the recent news that his own alma mater, the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence, has no applicants for the 2018-2019 academic year from within the Diocese of Providence.

“It’s of course something that doesn’t have any precedent in recent years,” the deacon said. “It’s a call for clergy and lay faithful of the diocese to continue praying for vocations to the priesthood, but also to take that extra step. If we see the qualities that would make a good priest for our diocese, actively encourage young men to consider answering the Lord’s call.”

His own journey to the priesthood was encouraged and supported by his parents Denise and Jerry Dufour, also of Bristol, as well as by Father Henry Zinno, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (OLMC) in Bristol.

“He started thinking about it in grammar school,” Jerry said. “The first memory I have is that one of the parishioners (at OLMC) looked at me and said ‘He’s going to be a priest.’ He was in fourth or fifth grade. He was an altar server and you could tell he took it seriously. He wasn’t fidgeting, he was very focused. You could tell it was important to him. It kind of got us thinking.”

Jerry and Denise, both OLMC choir members, sent Phillip to the parish school and to Bishop Stang High School in Dartmouth. Mass attendance was always woven into the fabric of the family’s life, and Phillip and his sister Elise often accompanied their parents in the choir loft.

“The kids were so used to coming to church with me,” Denise said. “They would listen to the music and the words, they’d start singing those things around the house. It was never, ever an issue of ‘I don’t want to go to church today.’”

“The kids have always had the exposure that church is a positive experience,” Jerry said. “It’s not a chore. It’s really been a core part of our life.”

Phillip noted that Father Zinno made “comments here and there” over the years about Phillip being called to the priesthood, “not in a pushy way but in a very fatherly way he’d kind of point things out and gently encourage and I’m so glad he did.”

But it was in his junior year of high school that Phillip decided to seriously pursue the priesthood, thanks partly to his time at Bishop Stang.

“Stang is an excellent school, very faithful to the teachings of the church and the practices of our Catholic faith,” Phillip said. “I was very interested in my theology classes there. I finally made the decision, this is something I can’t ignore. I got in contact with the vocations director, who at the time was Father Michael Najim.”

Bishop Thomas Tobin’s invitation to a day retreat at Our Lady of Providence Seminary followed, which Phillip “absolutely loved,” he said. The retreat was a chance for him to find out about the seminary, what his course of study would look like and ask questions about loneliness in the priesthood.

“I won’t say we were surprised,” said Jerry. “But we learned so much throughout the process. Our thought was always conventional college and then decide if you want to join the seminary. So at 16 or 17 to jump right in, it’s like, okay, what do you really know at 16 or 17 years old? So we talked a lot about it.”

After graduating from Stang in 2010, Phillip went on to Our Lady of Providence and Providence College, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 2014. “From there, Bishop Tobin assigned him to the Pontifical North American College in Rome, where he studied at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, also known as the Angelicum. He graduated from the Angelicum with a Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree.

Jerry and Denise were in Rome for Phillip’s ordination to the diaconate on Sept. 28, 2017 at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Deacon Dufour will be in residence at OLMC until his ordination. This summer he will serve as assistant pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Wakefield beginning July 9. He will then returns to Rome in the fall for a final year to obtain a Licentiate in Sacred Theology, the ecclesiastical equivalent of a Master’s Degree.

“It’s been an amazing experience to study in the shadow of the dome of St. Peter’s, said Phillip. “Also to be acquainted with other seminarians and other priests from around the country. I have friends now in Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Texas, Florida. To have that network of fraternity among the seminarians and priests of our country has been an enormous blessing.”

When Denise and Jerry learned that their son would be studying in Rome, “definitely we were thrilled,” said Denise. “If you could choose a place for your son to study, what better place than Rome? But we had other feelings too — he would be away, we wouldn’t see him for a couple of years. We’re a close family. So that took a little adjusting.”

But the family worked out a way to keep in touch through texting and Saturday morning Skype calls around 8 or 9 a.m., which corresponded to just after lunchtime in Rome.

“We got to know the back wall of his room, the icons and the jackets hanging on the door,” Denise said with a chuckle.

In addition to taking a course in spiritual direction, Phillip also studied dogmatic theology, moral theology and the writings of saints like St. Catherine of Siena, Dame Julian of Norwich and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. While these may seem abstract academic exercises, Phillip said they are vital to being a pastor.

“In order to be a good spiritual director you need to have a solid grounding in the teachings and doctrines of the church, because you need to be thinking with the mind of the church,” he said. “You also need to have an understanding of moral theology and the spiritual life, what are the different movements of the Spirit working in someone’s life, the different stages of conversion.”

The deacon said he is most looking forward to administering the sacraments as a priest. “Just because of what we know the Mass to be — the source and summit of the Christian life,” he said. “What we know the sacraments to be — those conduits of God’s grace and love being passed on to his people. To be able to be the instrument, the one God works through to communicate his love, mercy and truth is just amazing.”

Phillip also expressed a desire to preserve the importance of beauty in the liturgy.

“I was brought up with beautiful liturgies at Our Lady of Mount Carmel,” he said. “The sacred liturgy has to be the hallmark of every Catholic parish. We have the labels of ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive,’ but the way I see it is, you have to be Catholic about the liturgy, which involves things we’ve had in our tradition for thousands of years.”

But it’s not just a matter of doing the liturgy in a certain way simply because that’s the way it’s always been done. The elements of the Catholic Mass have deep roots in scripture.

“We’re imitating the heavenly liturgy as portrayed in the Book of Revelation,” Phillip explained. “It symbolizes our prayers arising before the throne of God.”

Beauty is also an important part of the Catholic liturgy, not for the sake of opulence but as a dignified way of worshiping God, of drawing people closer to God and of evoking the transcendent, Phillip said.

As a new priest, Phillip will celebrate his first Mass at OLMC on July 1, the day after his ordination.

“We can’t envision him being anything else,” Jerry said. “He’s so comfortable with who he is and relaxed about it, he exudes a self-confidence and self-assuredness. You know it’s the right thing.”