It happened more than a decade ago, but the Rev. Garry Welsh said the event was a turning point in his life as a priest.
“I woke one night to the sound of wood burning,” recalled Welsh, then pastor of St. Ludger Catholic Church, a parish in the small town of Creighton, Neb. “The rectory caught on fire.”
Welsh descended from his second-floor bedroom to search out the source of the fire.
“I saw a kind of a glow at the end of the hallway, and when I walked down toward it, I discovered the kitchen was on fire,” he said.
The black smoke was so thick that Welsh became disoriented. He suffered burns on both of his hands and feet.
“They tell me — I don’t remember much about the night — that I did walk across a floor that was on fire. It was a laminate floor, so it was hot and it burnt the bottom of my feet,” Welsh said. “I was in the hospital for quite a while. I had to learn how to walk again.”
Investigators traced the cause of the fire to a candle that Welsh had left burning on the stove, he said. The rectory had just been renovated, and it and all of its contents were destroyed.
Recovering from his injuries kept Welsh away from full-time ministry for quite some time. Now, however, he’s on loan to Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Land O’ Lakes. And despite the fire’s destructive nature, Welsh said it held lessons for him.
“I think what it gave me, as I look back now, is that it gave me a better appreciation of the struggles people go through,” Welsh said. “I was in a wheelchair for quite a while. I think it made me understand (the impacts of) when people start to lose their mobility.”
The experience gave him a greater appreciation of being able to do things independently and changed his perspective on life, people and the priesthood, he said.
“It changed my outlook on ministry, entirely,” Welsh said.
Before the fire, Welsh said he was a priest that was driven by a schedule. The experience of the fire, and recovering from it, however, softened and mellowed him. Welsh became more aware of the value of savoring the gifts that God bestows.
“Before when I would visit with people, it was very much an in-and-out, I’ve got other things to do,” he said. “Now, I take more time. I’m more liable to sit with people and listen to people a little bit more.”
Before the fire, Welsh said he was an ambitious priest. That changed, as well.
“As a priest, I used to try to be the best,” he said. “I discovered that when I try to be the best, it’s all about me. What I try to do now is that I try to be the priest that people need today. So, when someone comes to me, my prayer always is: ‘What do you need from me as your priest, now?’
“That might be a listening ear. That might be some advice. It might be a pat on the back to say you’re OK. It might be that you need me to sit and listen to your joke and laugh at it, even if it’s bad.”
Welsh said he asks himself: “What does this person, or these people, or this group – what do they need from me, now?”
“They don’t need me to be the best priest. They need me to be their priest, their priest who loves them,” he said.
Welsh was born in England to Scottish parents, but grew up in Ireland. He came to the United States in 1998, and was ordained three years later in Nebraska. Welsh said spiritual needs are universal, to know that spiritually, they’re loved.
When fellow priests and brothers are struggling, Welsh reminds them that “we make priesthood difficult because we think it’s about doing,” he said. “It’s more about being.”
“When we’re ordained, we’re ordained to be in the image of Christ. And we forget that and we’re lost in our own image,” Welsh said. “And we get disappointed, and the people get disappointed. We don’t get fulfilled, and the people don’t get fulfilled. And we all end up in this bad place.”
Instead it should be more about the image of Christ. “What did Christ instruct us to do?” Welsh said. “He said, ‘Love one another, as I have loved you.’”
“That’s the key, I think, to all faith,” he said. “No matter what we do, we have to do it with love. People will respond to love.”
When Welsh officiates the mass, he begins with a reminder that those present are on a journey together. As such, they are bound to stumble and fall. But they are there to help each other and to continue together on the journey, he said.
When he prepares his homilies, he consults a number of sources and draws on his personal experiences.
“As a priest, I struggle like you struggle,” Welsh said. “I have good days and bad days. I have high moments and low moments. We’re journeying together.”
When others hurt him, he said, he realizes he is unable to forgive them. “I ask God to forgive them,” he said.
Like commentator Bill O’Reilly, he enjoys being pithy.
He also recalls this bit of advice offered by a professor when Welsh was learning to write homilies: “In three minutes, you’ll move hearts. In 10 minutes, you’ll freeze butts.”
Welsh, who has been an associate and a pastor at several churches in Nebraska, said he has never requested a particular assignment, trusting the Holy Spirit will lead him to the right place to use his skills.
Currently, he is on loan to the Diocese of St. Petersburg, from the Archdiocese of Omaha. He’s not sure how long this assignment will last.
“When I came down here, my archbishop said, ‘This is for three years.’ And, I said, ‘Well, let the Holy Spirit decide that.’”