By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published September 26, 2013
SMYRNA—Father Brian Sheridan’s office is filled with books, greeting cards and a large world map takes up most of a wall.
Pointing a finger at some small dot on the colorful map is how this Connecticut-born priest connects with believers from Latin America to Africa as they show him their native cities.
“We have to be global,” said the pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Church. “We have to be part of the world.”
Father Sheridan is a member of the Missionaries of La Salette, a religious order of priests and brothers that grew from an 1846 apparition in the French Alps: a young girl and boy saw what they called the “Beautiful Lady” near the small village of La Salette as they herded cows. Their vision was of a weeping Virgin Mary who cried over the sins of men and women. Its feast day is Sept. 19.
The Atlanta Archdiocese is celebrating the Year of Faith, and in addition in the archdiocese there is a special emphasis on Mary in the life of the church with its theme of “Faith personified.”
The La Salette community is one of the religious orders serving here with a Marian devotion. There are 10 members of the missionary community here.
Father Sheridan comes from a large Catholic family, growing up in a housing project in East Hartford with a church “a stone’s throw from our home.”
His early seminary days almost ended the first week on campus. “By midmorning I felt horrified. I felt I made a mistake,” but a call to his mother reminded him the sacrifices his family made to get him there. He spent his high school years at the seminary.
“There was something powerful keeping me there,” he said.
It’s a theme that repeats itself. At Washington Union Theological Union, he took a two-year leave of absence before ordination. He worked at a psychiatric institute as he weighed his vocation to the priesthood. And at the start of his ministry in a rural community of Argentina as a missionary, he hated the assignment.
But the community, the hospitality, the warm spirit of the people where he served won him over. “I was alive. I finally crossed the frontier. I thought I was going to be there forever,” he said. However, he returned to the United States after illness, shedding 30 pounds, and a severe infection from surgery.
He returned to the Atlanta Archdiocese in January where he had served as a parochial vicar at St. Ann Church, in Marietta, after his 1983 ordination.
His Smyrna parish is predominately Mexican and growing fast. The parish office waiting area has a corner with a photo of Our Lady of La Salette in addition to art of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of the Americas. The place is bursting through its seams. More than 40 families participated in a recent baptism. Some 500 teens came for an event that focused on the sacraments of reconciliation, Eucharist and confirmation. There are some 300 faith communities that meet during the week at people’s homes led by women and men.
The apparition of Our Lady of La Salette continues to move him.
“It always took hold of my heart” to see a mother crying, he said. “Anytime you see somebody crying, it usually causes some sort of compassion,” he said.
And that’s what he sees as the mission of the La Salettes to serve with compassion and listen.
At this multicultural parish, it means being fair, to treat everyone the same way, Father Sheridan said. It also means being honest and looking out for “structures of bias” so decisions or outcomes are not based on prejudice.
How does a 19th century apparition in France relate to 21st century America?
It reminds him of “the horrors” of women and men trying to go their own way. He pointed to the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard as an example. The message is “forgiveness is better than resentment, that peace is better than war, that less is better than more” as shown by Jesus, he said. “Things get better if we change. Change is never too late.”
Father Nico Aye lives out his La Salette ministry “listening to people who need to see a priest.” He visits hospitals and nursing homes and is chaplain to the St. Ann Church religious education program and teens. He looks to bring about reconciliation, which “always has been the core of my faith and ministry.”
Born in 1974 to rice farmers in Myanmar, Father Aye is one of six children. He credits his grandfather for introducing him to the faith in a country where Catholics make up just 1 percent. One of his tasks as a youngster when visiting his grandfather was to call people to prayer.
“I think that was the first seed of my vocation in calling people for prayer with a gong because there was no church bell. Later, when I joined the La Salettes, I was drawn by the message of Our Lady who said, ‘Come near my children, do not be afraid.’ That was the first connection. I could see myself falling in love with the charism of the order,” he said.
At one time, he considered becoming a Buddhist monk with his fascination with martial arts. “I was crazy for that in my younger days because I was a martial arts fanatic for so many years,” he said in an email. But as a teenager, his vocation to be a priest blossomed and after high school, he pursued it. Encouraged by his bishop, Father Aye left home to study in the Philippines as a revolution swept his country. He was ordained in 2004. He served in various roles in Burma and the Philippines. He later baptized his mother as a Catholic before coming to the United States in 2011.
Away from St. Ann Church, Marietta, where he is a parochial vicar, Father Aye visits with the Burmese community near Stone Mountain to support them with visits.
People in today’s world are “bombarded with so many fears, worries, concerns.” But at La Salette, Mary said, “Come near,” which is “a reminder and an invitation to all” to come to “our God of mercy, peace and reconciliation,” he said.