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Praying with Priests: Fr. Bob Welsh

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Hi, I’m Father Michael Denk from The Prodigal Father.org. I am here with Father Bob Welsh, who is a Jesuit. First of all, Fr. Welsh, can you tell us about some of the highlights of your curriculum vitae over the years?

Father Welsh:

What I’ve done over the years was to teach. I taught in high schools, both at the University of Detroit High School and St. Ignatius in Cleveland. Those were wonderful years. I especially enjoyed getting to know the kids, the boys, because we have only boy schools in my province. No, that’s not true because Walsh is ours and Walsh is a coed school. But anyway, some of the things that I’ve done- -well as I say, I taught and I enjoyed teaching. I enjoyed teaching Latin and history.  Teaching theology is more difficult. There’s a fairly common curriculum for teaching history.  It’s history and that’s all there is to it.  But in theology, I found theology more difficult to teach because every kid thinks he is a theologian.  And so he will come out with some unbelievable things and I have to control my laughter and then try to answer as well as I can.  But I enjoyed that very much and I would go back to it if I could in a wink.

I was pastor of a Jesuit parish in Toledo for three years.  I also gave the spiritual exercises many times since I was ordained in 1967.  I’ve given the exercises a number of times and have enjoyed that very much because you enter into a person’s life, which is very sensitive, and you have to be very respectful of that person, of who he or she is and how they’re responding to what you’re trying to get across to them.

I have found that to be a profoundly powerful experience because what you’re doing is you’re entering into the life of the Spirit who is entering into this person’s life. And so, you are somehow providing access to that life and celebrating that life. I’ve been very fortunate to be giving the exercises to many different people; men and women, older, younger. It’s been a great time for me.

Father Michael:

The first time I met Fr. Welsh, I was actually on an eight day retreat that he led me on. It was a wonderful  experience, the first time I really came to know Jesus and the Father personally. They became very real in my life and you helped me to see that. So, a lot of what I’m doing today is because of the first retreat that I made with you.

Father Welsh:

  Wonderful to hear that.

Father Michael:

So, I have talked about you in my book “Pray 40 Days.” (Listeners, if you haven’t read the book, I encourage  you to read it.) What I’d like to know about you, Father, is how your prayer . . . how this began in you. If you think about yourself from the time that you were a child,  what was your first memory of prayer?

Father Welsh:

I remember being a very young boy in my mother’s arms and praying at the same time. I remember being with my two sisters. I have three sisters, one who died before I was born. I was very close to my sisters. I have two brothers, I was less close to them but my brother, Jim, who is living now, I remain very close to. He’s a marvelous guy and I dearly love him.

So, I don’t know how to describe it other than praying with my family, we did that. We prayed the rosary. It was a big thing. My mother said three to five rosaries a day. She was an extraordinary woman, very close to God. She was the one who by her prayer, by her encouragement, taught me and because I wanted to be like her, I prayed like she did.

She had a personal relationship with the Sacred Heart. The Sacred Heart was absolutely everything to her. She felt very much at home with Him. One of the things I loved about that relationship was she treated Jesus as though He were a son or a brother to her. She would say things like, “Well now you better get busy on this” whatever it was. “I can only can only wait so long.” She would talk to Him like that.

Father Michael:

This is where you got it from then?

Father Welsh:

I did.

Father Michael:

 Today, by the way, is the Feast of the Sacred Heart.

Father Welsh:

It is fitting that we’re talking about a relationship to the Sacred Heart on this Feast Day. But I enjoyed praying . . . how would you put it? . . . I enjoyed praying in an ordinary way. Speaking to Jesus as though He is . . . not as though, that’s a terrible way to put it . . . as if He is a personal friend and you’re checking in with Him throughout the day to seek Him out and you spend time with Him and have fun with Him.

I will talk to Him about strange things that happen like, “Oh Lord, will you take a look at that woman and that hat.  She does not know how to dress, but I’m not going to inform her of that.”  We would carry on discussions like this because I feel very much at home with Him. I’m very grateful for that. And I got a good part of that from my mother and I got it also from the spiritual exercises because I’ve been making the exercises now for over 50 years. I had different people explain them to me as retreat directors.

So, I’ve been just very fortunate to feel so comfortable. That’s the way I speak of it. To be comfortable with Jesus is to be comfortable with a good friend. So therefore, I treat Him like a good friend. I mean, I will kid with Him. I will talk in a very direct way. I will clown around with Him, tell Him He doesn’t know what He’s doing.

Father Michael:

Does He talk back to you?

Father  Welsh:

  Oh, yes.

Father Michael:

Tell me about that.

Father Welsh:

Well, I will sometimes get this: “You think you know so much? Let me just show you, buster, what you don’t know.” He’s very, very able and very ready to put me in my place, and He does that, and I enjoy it. I enjoy it because I know we have this relationship of a very personal love and a relationship of friendship where I count on Him as a friend and someone I just like being with.

I tell Him that. “Lord, it’s great to be here with you. It’s great to spend time with you. I’m so grateful to you, that you would spend time with me.” And so, I’d wait a bit to consider that, you know. Maybe I would move on, maybe I would just stay where I am depending upon what seems right. What seems right is usually His movement because He’s the one who’s in charge of this conversation. I’m trying to get close to Him and tell Him that I love Him and I do tell Him that I love Him. And He lets me know of His love and His love for people, just people.

I love to . . . it’s one of the reasons why I watch the news . . . I get insights into people. Then I can ask the Lord to heal, to help, to understand, to spend time with those people. So that’s a very rich life I have on occasion. It’s not as though I have it all the time, I don’t. But on occasion, and usually it’s more often than not, because I just feel so constantly at home with Him and at ease with Him, I can kid Him.  I can tell Him . . . I’m always telling Him, “Where were you when St. Ed’s beat us in football? Where were you? This is not the Jesus Christ I know and love. Come on.” So, we kid with one another that way, we clown around.

I’ve taken to praying for people that I know by spending time in my mind with them and asking the Lord to give them the things that they need. What they need first of all is a relationship with Him. So, I ask the Lord, “Let Jack here know who he is.” Now Jack does know who he is, but I will ask the Lord to deepen this relationship so that he knows ever more clearly that the Lord loves him and celebrates him and is wild about him.

I love that phrase. “The Lord is “. . . well it’s not a phrase, it’s a sentence . . . “The Lord is wild about you, just wild. He’s lost His mind over you.” That’s sort of, oh I don’t know, I don’t know if it’s . . . it certainly is informal but I think it’s right. I feel comfortable with that kind of prayer. So, I do that. I enjoy it. I celebrate it and I have a good time praying for people. People that I know. People that I love. People in my family who are dear to me.

I’m very fortunate to have been introduced to this kind of prayer when I was a young man because my prayer life has been opened up. It’s wide as the world and so I try to take the world in when praying the way Jesus would like me to pray. So, I ask Him for that gift. The gift to pray, Lord, as you wish, as you wish me to pray and to be interested in you, Lord, not just know you but be interested in your ways. In how you would phrase something. In what you would do at a particular juncture. And I ask Him to help me fit in to His plan, whatever that plan may be.

I have found that to be a rich way of praying, a rich way of praying. Just spending time with Him and enjoying that and kind of telling people about it. I felt very much at home . . . I feel very much at home with people so that I can speak to them. I feel at home with you, Mike. I feel as though if there were anything that would separate us, it is taken away.

Father Michael:

Well, can I be so bold as to say that some of that familiarity is probably because you have come to know how accepted you are, as you are, by the Lord. I think He gets a kick out of you.

Father Welsh:

I think so too.

Father Michael:

I think as I’ve come to know and love you over the years I can only imagine what the Lord thinks about you.

Father Welsh:

I think that’s true.  I think He would say, “Well, God knows you’re a horse’s ass” and I’d say, “Yeah, that’s right. That’s nothing new.”

Father Michael:

Now, most people would never think to pray like that.

Father Welsh:

  Sorry?

Father Michael:

Most people wouldn’t pray like that.

Father Welsh:

That’s prayer because you’re in His presence. You’re speaking to Him about something that’s interesting, at least to you, which is your own prayer life. So, I find that really absolutely everything can speak of Christ or of Jesus, of the Spirit, of the Father if you so desire and I do desire that. Which is a great gift and I know it. I mean, I certainly have lived part of my life unaware of any of that. So, becoming aware of it has changed the depth of my life and I’m grateful.

Father Michael:

I think that myself and I think a lot of people have this experience. What effect did it have for you when you were praying with your mother? Was it something that you were bored by? Did you enjoy it? What was that like?

Father Welsh:

I enjoyed it because I was doing something she liked. She wanted me to pray, so did my dad. My dad was a holy man. I know that as a fact.

Father Michael:

Why do you say that?

Father Welsh:

He was a man of great justice. He loved people. He served them, he was a bailiff in court, and so he served people. He was funny and he would laugh at himself but also, he would laugh at different situations. We had this . . . I don’t know if you’d call it a regular thing but . . . my dad was great at telling stories. I’m terrible. I’m just terrible. He was great. He could imitate an Irish man. He could imitate a Jew. He could imitate someone from. . . in fact he was very good at it . . . someone from the Middle East or especially from (pause) Poland. He could take that way of speaking broken English and it would be hilarious.

So, we used to . . . what we would do . . . after supper, we would push everything to the center of the table. So, the dishes, meat or whatever it was we were having, push it in the center and dad would regale us with stories from the courthouse. I used to look forward to that so much. I think he did too because he loved an audience. He was always very happy to have an audience. He enjoyed it and we enjoyed it, so that it was a wonderful give and take in our home.

 When I was a young boy, I was the youngest of six by many years. In fact, I asked my mother once, “Ma, am I a mistake?” and she said, “Yes you are.” I said, “I was hoping not to get that answer.” She said, “You probably wanted the truth didn’t you?” and I said, “Well, maybe.” And she said, “Well, that’s what I gave you was the truth and yes, you were unexpected but I want you to know”  (she said that, she didn’t have to tell me, I knew) “how dear you are to me.” And, I knew that I was very dear to my mother and father.

We had a family that grew up, and I was the youngest, very close to each other. We loved one another although I had a problem with my brother. Of the six children, one of them died when she was quite young, about three or four years old. It was a great thing to be able to live, and I knew it. I knew it was a great family and a great opportunity to be with one another, to love one another and to enjoy this marvelous relationship that I had with my brothers and sisters, my mom and dad and with the Lord. It was like heaven. It was just wonderful. I wish I had been as wonderful as the relationship that was offered me but I wasn’t, you know, because I wanted to be liked. I wanted people to enjoy me and so I was careful about that, you know. I lived thoroughly, openly with my family and with our neighbors.

We had wonderful neighbors and I would spend time going over to their homes. The Bertoli family lived next to us, an Italian family. They were right next to us and in the summer the windows would be open and I’d say, “Ma,” shouting out the window to my mother who was right next door, “can I stay for supper with the Bertolis?” “Did you ask if you could stay?” “No, Mom, they just asked me.”  “Yes, you may.” I soon picked up on the fact that if I had done anything to prompt this invitation, she would say, “No, come home.” So, I had relationships with the neighbors. I had a great-Godmother who lived on our street, Gaylord Avenue. We were very close. I was thinking of her a week ago, how dear she was to me and how good she was to us. So, I had a lot of people who were very kind to me. Very loving and I’m grateful to this day, to this moment, for the goodness. Their goodness to me.

Father Michael:

One of the things I know you taught me was these people help us know who the Father is. We tend to imagine God by the human love that we have received. So, it seems that from the time that you were a child you had a wonderful experience of family being the primary church. Where you really experienced the sacredness in your own family, this life of the Trinity within your family.

Father Welsh:

That’s right, and we had various devotions in our family so we had a lot of flowers around. In May we always had an altar to Mary in her honor. We would change the flowers. I would change the flowers for my sisters because they might be dying and I wanted them to be very nice. So, those things, those relationships were very important to me. I didn’t know why they were, but they just seemed right. I used to say “I’m living a marvelous life and didn’t know why.” I would say to people, “Do you know my brother? Do you know my sister?”

My sister Elizabeth I remained very close to until her death. I had a sister, Mary, who died in childbirth and I had a sister, Alice, who died at about four years of age. So, I have these relationships or semi-relationships because I had a sister that died before I was born but I have taken to speaking to her, talking to her, asking her questions and I know with all my heart that these people . . . you know what it’s like? It’s like a whole group of people, you can see their faces and you know their stories about the relationship to yourself. For me, this is maybe a 100, 200 people that I was close to and I remain close to or some who have maybe moved away or I moved away, but what I got was the awareness of being loved. I knew I was loved. I was loved by my dad. I was loved by my mom. I was loved by my sisters and brothers and I was the last one. The next one was my brother Jim who was eight when I was born so I was really at the end of the line, but I was aware of the fact that I was loved by my family. And that I would say is more important in developing a child than anything else I can think of. That you and the Lord are going through this day together. That’s what it’s been for me.

Father Michael:

So, you have a wonderful foundation of love from your family and of your family. Prayer with your family, devotional prayer, the rosary being held and prayed with your mother. Did you have any time of personal prayer or private prayer when you were growing up?

Father Welsh:

Oh sure.

Father Michael:

What did you do or what was that like?

Father Welsh:

I would talk to Our Lady because I had a devotion to her. I would talk to her as a friend and then ask her to take care of me or ask her to help the Wildcats win in football this weekend. I mean it was crazy in a way, but it was real. It was where I was and where the Lord was with me and then it grew and grew in a different way. So, it wasn’t just about childish things but more about the world. The horror of what’s going on in the world. I would beg the Lord not to let me be aware of some things. I was aware that He would take my prayer in another direction and I could just be open and enjoy Him. I knew I had to be careful in that area and would ask the Lord, as I still do, “Lord keep this from me.” I’m frightened of some things. Rats are one thing I’m just frightened by, and I beg the Lord not to let me see a rat in my room or anywhere.

Father Michael:

I think that it is wonderful to be honest about anything with the Lord, even if it is your fears or insecurities or whatever.

Father Welsh:

If you’re not real with Him, what’s the use? That’s what He asks. He doesn’t want you to be pretending with Him. He wants the real you.

Father Michael:

So, as you were going from childhood to high school, when did your prayer mature? Or when did you start to hear the call to the priesthood? How did that all evolve?

Father Welsh:

Priests and nuns in my family were very important. We had no one in my family who was . . . well I had cousins who were nuns. But it developed . . . I don’t know exactly how, except that it was normal. Prayer was normal for me so talking to the Lord was ordinary and usual. So, I would ask Him, please don’t let me think of rats, because I’m frightened of them. Or anything else that is usually . . . See, if I’m watching television I may turn a channel off because it has snakes and say, “I don’t need to watch this.” I may be goofy, but it’s my goofiness and it’s the Lord who takes me as I am and so I’m confident in that.

Father Michael:

When did you first hear the call to priesthood?

Father Welsh:

I had an uncle, he was my mother’s uncle, my great-uncle. He was a holy man, both he and his wife. He took care of his wife for thirty years and she needed help just living through the day.  He was very dedicated. He knew I had expressed an interest in the priesthood when I was a little boy.  He took that and ran with it.  So that I got . . . and I still remember this . . . a small altar that was lighted from within and there were candles that light came up through them and I would have that and I would pray before it.  I would ask the Lord or I would take a statue or Our Lady or the Sacred Heart and place it on the altar and I would pray.  That was from a very young age, maybe six or seven.  We had great priests at our parish.  Holy Name Parish in Cleveland.  Just wonderful priests. I got to know a few of them and felt at home with them and a relationship just grew.  So, that idea of being a priest was something I can’t even remember when it started.  It was just always there.

Father Michael:

 When did you go into the seminary?

Father Welsh:

After high school.  I joined the Society of Jesus.

Father Michael:

Why?

Father Welsh:

I had been going to school at St. Ignatius.  I got to really enjoy the priests, scholastics and seminarians who would come out and teach for three years or so. Two or three years, and I got to know them at Ignatius.  I was in many extracurricular activities which were usually run by the scholastics and I got to know them and I had a lot of fun.  The thing that I saw was they had fun with one another and I loved that.  So I said I want to have that fun too.  I could kid around with people in my class and there were three . . . four people who entered the Society from my class and I’m the only one left.

Father Michael:

Were there any marked moments of growth either in high school with the Jesuits or when you entered the seminary where your prayer took a different level?

Father Welsh:

I don’t think so.  I’m not aware of it.  It usually is part of my dullness.  Usually I become aware of things after they happen and then I say, “Oh, I guess that’s what that means” and then enjoy it.

Father Michael:

You talked about the experience of directing people in the exercises.  What was it like for you to actually go through that yourself?

Father Welsh:

A priest taught me the exercises when I was a novice.  Now all of us were going through this, there were about 60 of us who were making the exercises.  There were parts of it that were very hard and then parts that were just delightful and I loved them.  It’s not as though there was a particular thing that happened which then brought me to this new awareness.  I wasn’t aware of that.  Perhaps it was happening and I just didn’t know it.  Which, once you get to know me, you’d say, “Yeah that’s par for the course.  He’d be the last one it would dawn on.”

Father Michael:

Well, how about the transition then into Ordination or becoming a priest?  What was your prayer life like as you began to celebrate Mass?

Father Welsh:

It was simply spectacular.  I mean, I was so happy, so happy preparing for priesthood and then to be ordained.  That was a big thing in my family.  It was very important to everyone in my family that I was going to be ordained.  I had a number of Jesuit friends.  Some of them elderly and some of them younger than me. We got together and would speak of it and I would simply say, “I don’t know, but God is doing something. I don’t know.  I don’t know what it is.”  But it was happening. Because I felt very close to God and I certainly couldn’t direct that and say “Well, now it’s God’s time so I’ll give Him some time.” It was all God and I just had to listen to Him.  Learn to listen, learn to pray.  I guess what happens, Mike, is that over time, I began to no longer worry about myself, whether I was pleasing God or not pleasing God.  Leading a good life or not.  Those things were just . . . as He moved in, I moved out.  And so, that was why I’ve had such a happy life.  I’m very grateful for the life I’ve had because I spent so much of it with the Lord.  I clown with Him, I kid Him, I tell Him off sometimes . . . He tells me off too sometimes.

Father Michael:

Well, I think one of the things that you’re known for, obviously, is St. Ignatius. And you were the president of St. Ignatius for how many years?

Father Welsh:

Twenty-one.

Father Michael:

Twenty-one years and you certainly, with the Lord, have left your mark on there.  As you look back on that time, what do you believe God did with you in terms of imparting this spirituality on that institution, on those people, on the students?

Father Welsh:

I think what He did was let me come to know Him more, to feel to comfortable in that knowledge of being loved. I opened up and I became fearless in the sense of . . . am I pleasing God, am I not pleasing God, or for heavens sake, of course I’m pleasing God.  What’s wrong with you?  Just to live life as it comes and to recognize that He’s with you.  I had this desire.  When I was teaching, I did not have a desire to do anything else and I wanted to continue to teach because I enjoy being with the boys and teaching them, clowing around with them, etc. etc. etc.

But, I was called to do this particular job, which was to raise money for the high school.  And I said, “I don’t want to raise money for anything.  I don’t want to do this.”  And, the superior said, “Well, we need you to do it because there isn’t anyone else.”  I said, “Well that certainly sounds good. So we need you.  Thanks a lot.”  But I said, “OK.”  Then they wanted me to be the president of the high school.  I didn’t want that because I thought that would draw me away from the kids.  But, as God would have it, that was an important part of my ministry, recognizing St. Ignatius High School is an instrument in God’s hands.  Therefore, I should get this instrument in tip-top shape and I worked at it from that point of view.  But that was the only reason I would go out and raise money, which is something initially I didn’t want to do.  Then I found that I was pretty good at it and kind of liked it.  I probably shouldn’t say something like that, but I liked raising money for the school.  I’m grateful to God that what I did was I turned everything over to Him.  When I was giving a retreat for example, or working with kids on retreat,  I would constantly keep them in mind, giving them over to the Lord . . . handing them over to the Lord.  I used to do that.  I used to go into our chapel . . . in the residence, we have a beautiful chapel there . . . I would hand over these kids, I would have their names and I’d say, “Now Lord, take care of so and so.  Come alive to him.  Let him see you and come to love you.”  That was a very important part of my ministry and that’s the only reason why I could do it – because I was so confident of the fact that Ignatius was an instrument as anything else is an instrument, or not, is an instrument in God’s hands.  If you let it be that and that is what I tried to do.

Father Michael:

That’s beautiful. I think that would be good for anyone to know, that whatever they’re involved in, whatever their work be, that could be an instrument for God.

Father Welsh:

Absolutely.  And people will be surprised what an instrument can do.  When they say, “Oh gee, I was raising money.”  Well, that’s not like teaching theology or something like that.  No, but it’s as important as teaching theology, if it’s what God wants you to do.  And generally, I thought God was asking me to do those things.

Father Michael:

So now, as you transition into retirement, or have transitioned into retirement, what is it like to be retired as a priest?  Do you still pray or have you given up prayer as a retired priest?

Father Welsh:

Sure.  I try to spend time with Him in the morning and in the afternoon and in the evening.  It may be fairly short because I may be watching television or something of the kind.  That must sound terrible when you’ve talking about Christ and God and getting to know etc. etc.  Now you’re talking about the real world, huh?  Your real world, not all that spiritual.  But actually, I found it to be that anything that you’re doing, if you’re doing it with Him and for Him, is all you have to be worried about.

Father Michael:

Yeah, your whole life becomes prayer.  To pray always.

Father Welsh:

Yes, that’s what it is.

Father Michael:

As we come to the end of this, I’d like to ask you . . . there are many people that don’t have what you had. First of all, a wonderful childhood, wonderful parents.  You think about kids that are raised up in broken families today.  Maybe they didn’t have any kind of formation in the spiritual life.  Didn’t have the opportunity to go to the seminary.  Doesn’t feel comfortable with God.  Doesn’t feel at home with God.  What would you say to that person that is listening and this is totally foreign to them?

Father Welsh:

I would say, one of the things that will help you an awful lot is patience.  Patience with yourself. Patience with God.  If you have particular kinds of prayers that you like, practice them.  That’s fine.  I would hope that people could find it in their hearts simply to open themselves to the Lord and call upon Him and then let happen what happens because the Lord is interested in you praying.  The Lord is interested in you coming to know Him.  So, be confident of that.

Father Michael:

And patience might be that the key because some people will say to me or a priest, “I talk to God all the time, but I don’t ever hear from Him.” Or, “I ask Him but He doesn’t give me answer.” Does God speak to that person, or how do they hear His voice?

Father Welsh:

Very good question.  I think sometimes you hear when it’s the right time for you to hear. I say, well, why not go back to Him again? What I would urge you to do is to put it to Him . . . “Here I am, I’m waiting on you and I’m asking you to fill my life.  That’s what I’m asking.  I’m not asking for a million dollars.  I’m not asking for this degree or anything else.  I’m asking to know You and to love You and to serve You.  That’s what I’m asking and I want you to let me know that that’s happening.”

Father Michael:

I like that.  That’s a good way to end it.  So, if you’ve been struggling in your prayer life, don’t be afraid to go back to it.  Put it to Him, put it back to God and once more, entrust yourself to Him.

Father Welsh:

That’s right.

Father Michael:

It’s been wonderful being with you, Fr. Welsh.  I would love it if you would give me and our listeners a final blessing.

Father Welsh:

Sure, I would be happy to do that.

Lord, Jesus, come to these good people.  Give yourself to them so that they know how dear they are to you, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Father Michael:

 Amen.

About the Author Fr. Michael Denk

Fr. Michael was ordained into priesthood in the Diocese of Cleveland on May 12, 2007. He is dedicated to helping others encounter Christ through the celebration of the Eucharist, preaching, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, spiritual direction, and prayer.

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I'm Father Michael J. Denk, a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland. I am a contributor of content to The Prodigal Father Productions, Inc., a non-profit corporation functioning in accord with the traditions and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The corporation and I are separate, it doesn't speak for me, the parish, or on behalf of the Diocese of Cleveland, and I do not speak for it.