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Reflections of a bicentennial priest

Originally Appeared in : 9914-7/4/19

On July 4, 2019, the United States of America celebrates the Declaration of its Independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776. This nation at 243 years old has survived many wars, beginning with the Revolution, and many crises. Its politics have always been contentious because democracy is a messy business. But in the words of our great ally during the Second World War, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whose father was English and his mother American, “Democracy is a very bad form of government, but the others are so much worse.”


Growing up in Ohio, I always looked forward to the Fourth of July. In the 1950s and 60s, my parents would take my sister and me to a country club, where people sat on the grass or on blankets to watch the spectacular fireworks display put on, I think, by the National Cash Register Company, then headquartered in Dayton. Although the July days were often hot and humid, the evenings were considerably cooler, and there was something about the smell of the freshly cut grass of the golf course and the background chirping of crickets that lingers in my mind to this day.


After the firework display ended with a flourish, we would return to our suburban abode and make home-made vanilla ice cream, with a manual crank and rock salt—the only time during the year that we would go to such trouble over ice cream.


Of course, the Bicentennial celebration of Independence Day in 1976 was magnificent and memorable for all who experienced it, but especially for me, as I was ordained to the priesthood for service in the Diocese of Savannah on July 3, 1976, the Feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle, in the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, and celebrated my first Mass at Blessed Sacrament Church on July 4, 1976, the Bicentennial Day. (My seminary classmates noted that my white alb had blue stripes on the sleeves, and my chasuble at the ordination Mass was red for Saint Thomas, so I really looked the part of a “Bicentennial Priest.”) It was a beautiful weekend, although hot as blazes, and included another spectacular fireworks display, which I loved, although I realized that it wasn’t just for me.


I recall being unexpectedly moved by my patriotic feelings. Because I had been out of the country for four years, studying for the priesthood in Rome, I realized, from the perspective of a native son now returned home, how much I had benefited from the freedoms and opportunities afforded me by the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave” and I was very grateful.
This year, my feelings are somewhat bitter-sweet as I observe the 43rd anniversary of my ordination and the 243rd anniversary of the Independence of the United States.


As I wrote to Bishop Hartmayer on April 10 (the 44th anniversary of my ordination as a deacon in 1975), over the last year, my annus horribilis, I had experienced a root canal on an abscessed tooth, a total knee replacement, and an alarming spike in my blood pressure. While my knee has healed nicely, I now have to take five prescription pills a day to control my high blood pressure. They’ve done the trick, but have also sapped my stamina. I feel the continuing effect of the anesthesia on my short-term memory, which affects my ability to multi-task. And so, as my upcoming 70th birthday on Sept. 21 loomed ever larger in my sights, I requested the bishop to allow me to retire as pastor of Saint Matthew Parish, Statesboro, effective July 31, 2019. He has graciously granted my request.


But while I will soon retire as pastor, I will remain in residence at Saint Matthew Church and continue my priestly ministry here, among the good people whom I have had the privilege of shepherding for the past six years. I hope to continue to write for the Southern Cross, for which I began writing in 1972 and which I edited from 1997-2010. So, this is not good-bye, just adieu.


Father Douglas K. Clark is pastor of Saint Matthew Church, Statesboro and state chaplain of the Knights of Columbus.

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