Priest hits the street fishing for souls

Walk the streets of St. Joseph, Missouri, and you may have a memorable encounter with a tall young priest wearing a black cassock and Saturno clergy hat, a rosary in one hand and large crucifix in the other. The priest is Father Lawrence Carney, ordained for the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, who for the past three years has devoted much of his time to street evangelism: strolling down inner city streets, praying the Rosary and sharing the Gospel with those who approach him.

“I call it fishing,” he said. “It’s what Our Lord did. Many people see me and are moved to come up to me and talk.”

The idea came to Father Carney while walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain. He opted to wear the cassock rather than a black clerical suit, and he estimates that in his 32 days walking the Camino, he spoke to 1,000 people.

“There’s something mysterious about the cassock; it acts like a magnet, drawing people to you,” he said. “It is a sacramental that has a special blessing that the suit does not have.”

Forming friendships

Father Carney wondered if it would work in America, so he again donned the cassock and began strolling the city streets, and he found the results to be “phenomenal.” A friend from New Orleans, Irene DiPietro, who has walked with him, described what she saw: “It was beautiful and amazing. Young and old, rich and poor, and men and women would come up to him and immediately start talking to him about their problems. Teenage girls and young women were crying to him about things going on in their lives. It was like they thought he was God walking the earth.”

His Rosary walks have led to many friendships, such as one with a man who drove up in a white Lincoln one day to ask what he was doing. Father Carney told him, “I’m fishing,” and then, placing the rosary around his neck, continued, “you’ve just been caught.” The two shared a laugh and have kept in touch over the past few years. The story is ongoing; Father Carney hopes the man will convert to Catholicism. He relates the story in a book about his experiences he is planning to release this year through Caritas Press.

Another new friend is Michael McGee, a speech pathologist from Lee’s Summit, Missouri. He was driving by one day when he saw Father Carney. “It was a striking thing to see, this man in cassock and wide-brimmed hat carrying this giant crucifix,” he said. “I said, ‘This is someone I have to meet.’”

The self-described reform Christian added, “I’d never before seen a Roman Catholic evangelize, particularly a priest.”

The pair ended up talking for hours; Father Carney visits his home when he is in the Kansas City area. They pray together and “talk theology,” including their differences of opinion on such issues as the papacy, devotion to Mary and sola scriptura.

“But it’s always a conversation,” McGee said. “We never argue. No one is trying to win a debate. He challenges me, and I challenge him.”

One of Father Carney’s most memorable experiences is an encounter with a man who revealed after a few meetings that he was a Greek Orthodox priest who had left active ministry because he had been married and divorced. He showed Father Carney his cassock, chasuble and Greek missal with which he once used to celebrate liturgy. Father Carney responded, “We need to get you back to saying Mass, so that God may come to Earth through the hands of one more priest.”

A few people mock Father Carney for his unique ministry, but he sees it as an opportunity to pray the Miraculous Medal prayer on their behalf (“O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you …”).

Growing up

Father Carney grew up in a devout Catholic family in Wichita. He attended a Catholic grammar school and remembers as a kindergartner a visit by a Redemptorist priest. Father Carney recalled that he gave out holy cards of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and said, “If you ever need help you can ask Our Lady. That’s why we call her Our Lady of Perpetual Help.”

Twenty years later, when Father Carney was discerning a vocation to the priesthood, he returned to the same room where the Redemptorist had given him the holy card, which had since been converted to a perpetual adoration chapel.

“I remember vividly where the Redemptorist stood when he told us about Our Lady,” he said. “His face was in the very spot where the Blessed Sacrament was.”

Father Carney took it as a powerful message that he should become a priest, and he was ordained in 2007. He served as a parish priest and is presently “on loan” to the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, where he serves as chaplain to a traditional order of nuns, the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. He visits the community daily to celebrate Mass according to the extraordinary form, hears confessions and offers spiritual guidance.

An icon of the Church

When his duties are complete, he takes a Rosary walk through the inner-city streets of St. Joseph, either alone or with a companion, so he can be a visible presence of Christ and his Church.

Some of his fellow clerics were initially hesitant to support him, he said, but after seeing the good he’s done, many have changed their minds. One priest-supporter is Father Evan Harkins, pastor of St. James Parish in St. Joseph, Missouri, where Father Carney is in residence. Father Harkins called Father Carney “thoroughly priestly and missionary,” adding that his work “is awesome, and it is a blessing to our community.”

'Walking the Road to God'
Author: Father Lawrence Carney

Father Harkins noted that most parish priests are kept busy with the needs of the parish and school. But Father Carney, through his Rosary walks, “slows down, and so he sees, talks to and prays with those that the average parish priest doesn’t have a chance to encounter.”

Father Carney’s work is “very effective,” Father Harkins said, and “his presence on the streets is a visible image or icon of the Church, and the Church in St. Joseph in particular.” Father Carney is kind and friendly to all, he continued, “even when he faces anger or insult, he offers patience and charity in response.”

Going forward

Father Carney encourages any of his brother priests who feel inclined to explore Rosary walks as a means of evangelism in their own parishes.

“Praying the Rosary in the streets is not something of which we priests should be afraid,” he said. “It will have great spiritual benefits in our own lives and in our parishes. It’s also another way we can imitate Our Lord, who never rode a horse but walked.”

He admits that when he first took to the streets it was difficult, “as it is unusual to wear the cassock in our times.” But his prayer life has given him fortitude, he said, and should anyone mock him, “It bounces right off me.”

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Father Carney hopes one day to establish the Canons Regular of St. Martin of Tours, a religious community based on his way of life. The community would be semi-contemplative, based on the Rule of St. Augustine, and would be “a mix of being a monk and an apostle.” In addition to a life of prayer and celebrating Mass, the afternoons would see monks going out into the community in pairs to bring people into the Church. Laymen of different stations in life would be invited to come dine with the monks, Father Carney said, “so you could have the mayor eating alongside a homeless man.”

But, as he seeks approval from Church authorities, he plans to continue working with the nuns and walking the streets in search of souls whom, one by one, he can lead to Christ. He asks his fellow Catholics to pray a Rosary for his success. “He’s a man after God’s own heart,” McGee said. “Father Carney really wants to see a revival in the Church, and he’s not afraid to go out and try to find people. It’s wonderful.”

“His mission is to pray and evangelize in the streets,” DiPietro said, “which is desperately needed.”

Jim Graves writes from California.