In the years since his ordination, Father Matthew DeForest has developed into an engaging and dynamic priest with a gift for delivering inspirational homilies. DeForest’s words vary from week to week, but the essence of his message remains consistent. “People of hope,” he tells the congregation, “must live differently.”
One way in which Father Matthew lives differently is in the work he undertakes to nurture his own unique “pots of gold.” In the fall of 2011, DeForest took interest in a gentleman named Sean Wawrzaszek, a 45-year-old resident in a private condominium known as Merica House. As with other residents of Merica House, Wawrzaszek was afflicted with cerebral palsy. Wawrzaszek’s disability prevented him from manipulating his fingers or articulating words; he depended on a touch-sensitive computer linked to a speech synthesizer to convey his thoughts. With Wawrzaszek’s lack of manual dexterity, forming sentences on the computer was a formidable task. Wawrzaszek had to repeatedly cursor through characters and words projected on his monitor to transform his thoughts into meaningful expressions. The process did not lend itself to quick conversations. A routine exchange could take several minutes.
On one occasion, Wawrzaszek, a practicing Catholic, was particularly distressed. He believed there was an effort underway to discourage him from attending Mass at his favorite church. Upon learning of the situation, DeForest paid a visit to Merica House. Talking through his computer, Wawrzaszek asked if it would be okay for him to change religions. It was a question that Wawrzaszek did not pose lightly; his family was steadfastly Catholic. Family tradition notwithstanding, Wawrzaszek wanted a church that would welcome him on Sundays, whether Catholic or not.
DeForest spoke to Wawrzaszek at length, with words designed to soothe the anger. After assessing the situation, DeForest proposed a simple solution. “You know,” he told Wawrzaszek, “we could do a Mass each month right here at Merica House.” With that simple gesture of caring, a glorious smile came over Wawrzaszek’s face, a smile that spoke volumes. In the months after DeForest’s conversation with Wawrzaszek, Father Matthew’s monthly Masses became a staple at Merica House.
The “congregation” included Wawrzaszek as well as fellow Merica House residents Cathy Parr and two sisters, Deirdre Shields and Maureen Shields.
Sean Wawrzaszek passed away, unexpectedly, in August 2013. Nonetheless, DeForest continues his practice of celebrat-ing Mass once a month at Merica House. On each occasion, DeForest delivers a stirring homily for the Merica House residents, sometimes focusing on the joy that came from the magnificent smile of their friend Sean Wawrzaszek or the grace with which Wawr-zaszek accepted his physical limitations.
DeForest likes to tell people that “homily material is all over the place.” On any given Sunday, his homily material may come from Thomas Aquinas or Mother Teresa, but it is equally likely to come from Sean Wawrzaszek or former pro football player Curtis Martin. In his homilies, DeForest encourages parishioners who are in search for inspiration “to look to the Cross.” Echoing the advice once given to him by the rector at his seminary, DeForest reminds parishioners, “When you are out and about, remember to smile.”
On a Sunday evening late in 2013, DeForest opened a homily at St. Anthony of Padua Church by playing a recording of Bill Withers’ 1972 hit song, Lean on Me. DeForest used the song to launch into a reflection on the special ways in which Christians can provide solace and strength to others.
DeForest finds more good in the world than bad. He adheres to the belief that if people only dare to dream big, it is possible to change the world “one word, one footstep, one burden at a time.” For inspiration, DeForest invokes a prayer attributed to Sir Francis Drake, “Disturb us, O Lord, when our dreams come true because we dream too little, when we have arrived in safety because we have sailed too close to shore.”