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May 20, 2020

The Called: Msgr. James Lyons

Msgr. James Lyons Msgr. James Lyons
Hometown: McKees Rocks, Pa.
Education: Sto High School, Penn State University and Pope Saint John XXIII Seminary, Weston, Mass.
Current Assignment: Pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Hanover

Tell me a little bit about your childhood, where you grew up and how important your family and faith were to you.

I am from a small town called McKees Rocks, which is four miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, so when asked, I usually just say Pittsburgh is where I grew up. I grew up with an older brother and younger sister, and I was the middle child. My father worked in a factory mill in Pittsburgh; we went to Holy Mass every Sunday and went to church as a family on holy days. We were probably about a mile to two miles from the hometown church. The public school was right across the street from our house, so my parents did not want us walking to a school two miles from home. So we ended up going to public school our entire lives, but we went to what was then called Sunday School and learned our lessons about our faith. My parents made sure we got to Mass and learned about our faith.

Where did you go to high school there in McKees Rocks?

It was called Sto Township, and I was the last graduating class of Sto High School and that was in 1966. And then it merged into Sto-Rox High School, the following year.

 So after high school, tell us about the path you followed and how you ended up here as a priest in the Diocese of Harrisburg.

After high school, I did not know what I wanted to do. These days, they would call it a gap year, and so I started working in a paper factory which was very good for me because I found out that I did not want to work in a factory the rest of my life, although the men and women who worked there were fine people, and I enjoyed working with them.

In 1967, an Army recruiter called me up and said, “You know in six months, you are going to be drafted, so why not talk to me now and take some tests.” And so that is what I did in May of 1967. I entered the Unites States Army right in the middle of the Vietnam War and I served three years in the Army. I served a year in Vietnam, and compared to many other tours, it is a good tour of duty for me. I knew while serving in the Army that I wanted to go to college. That I figured out while serving right near here at Fort Meade, Maryland.

I made rearrangements to begin in the fall at Penn State Behrend Campus which is in Erie, since I had a cousin there and he knew the school and area. I studied there and that is where I got to know a couple of priests and started to think about a vocation. It was there that I began to listen, but I did not pay much attention to it then. I then transferred to University Park and finished up there with a degree in philosophy and stayed to do my master’s degree in educational counseling.

After Penn State, I came back to Pittsburgh and worked at a place called Kingsley House, which was an inner city social house where I was the program director. From there I worked for the State of Pennsylvania and I was offered a transfer to Harrisburg, and that is how I ended up here.

And here you began thinking about a vocation even more?

Yes, but while in college I had thought about maybe becoming a monk or something in a religious order, not ever really about being a diocesan priest because I had visited an Augustinian Recollects’ house. I thought maybe about being a monk. In Harrisburg, maybe the air was a little clearer, and here my relationship with God, Jesus, really took off.

Tell us about the process of pursuing your vocation now that you were living and working here.

When I moved here, I had a good job and I bought a house and I could have done that in my life. But for years I had had a sense that there was something else. It just did not dawn on me that it would be in religion, in faith and in the Church. I began to pray about it a lot more. So on August 15, a holy day (the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary), a coworker and I were walking downtown since that is where we worked, and we were walking by the Cathedral and my friend asked me if I was going to church. I said, “I hadn’t thought of it.” I ended up going to church that day, and then I soon started going every day.

I would go to early morning Mass at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament or the noon Mass at the Cathedral. And that helped me quite a bit; moved me in the direction of a vocation because I was sort of lost. I was looking for what was my identity in God, and the more I got involved with the parish as a lector, a CCD instructor, Extraordinary Minister, I started to find it. I finally said a prayer, “Lord take my life, it’s yours, do as you wish.” Now, I could not say that prayer right away because it was too scary, but I was eventually able to say that prayer. It was a search for identity and meaning.

One day, a religious sister, Sister Eileen Toole, asked me if I ever thought about being a priest. I said, “You had to ask me that question didn’t you.” Okay let’s talk about this. She told me to look in the parish bulletin and I would see Msgr. Bill Richardson’s number who, at that time, was the Diocesan Vocations Director. Well, I did not call him right away, but the listing was in three weeks in a row. After seeing it three times, I called. And that was it. I went to three retreats at Trinity High School. And it was a rush and I just loved it. I felt that I was going in the right direction and who I was as a person was then expressed in what I do. So this came together as a long discernment process.

I entered Pope John XXIII Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts, in 1984. On May 14, I was ordained by Bishop William Keeler at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I learned many lessons along the way, but I really learned that God’s grace does not give up easily. It was like being pulled by a magnet. I always had the freedom to say yes to that call, or no. It was like if I said no, the sense in me was that saying no to this call, I would be missing my life. That was the key point.

What were your first assignments as priest here in the Diocese?

My first assignment was with Msgr. McGovern at Sacred Heart of Jesus in Lancaster. Three years there, where I met some wonderful people. I then moved on to serve under Msgr. Taylor at St. Theresa in New Cumberland, where I loved New Cumberland. Then after three years there I was asked to come into the Diocesan Office in 1994 and began serving as Vicar General under Bishop Dattilo and I was pastor of a church just on the edge of Steelton that was going to be merged with Cathedral Parish. So I was only a pastor there for a short time. I was in the position as Vicar General until Bishop Dattilo’s passing in March 2004. I served under Bishop Rhoades as Vicar General for a couple of years before becoming pastor at Prince of Peace in Steelton, where I was for five years. It was like going back to McKees Rocks – good people, solid people. Then I was assigned to be here at St. Joseph’s Church in Hanover, which is one of the bigger parishes in the Diocese. Again, very good people here, and I have had great parochial vicars to serve with here, and it has been a great experience down here.

Do you have a favorite part of your ministry you enjoy most?

Certainly, it has to be for any priest, the focus on the Holy Eucharist. I remember my First Holy Communion vividly. It had an effect on me profoundly at six years old. I still have a picture of that day. Providing the Lord to people is an incredible privilege, an honor. I enjoy reading quite a bit, so homiletic preparation is enjoyable for me. Giving a homily is a joy, but I very much appreciate the preparation which begins for me each week ideally on Monday, and I like to let it live in me through the week. By Friday, it is press time and I enjoy the whole preparation thought process.

During an ad limina visit as Diocesan Administrator in 2004, Msgr. James Lyons shows Pope John Paul II the edition of The Catholic Witness dedicated to the late Bishop Nicholas Dattilo, who died in March of that year. L’OSSERVATORE ROMANO/WITNESS ARCHIVES

During an ad limina visit as Diocesan Administrator in 2004, Msgr. James Lyons shows Pope John Paul II the edition of The Catholic Witness dedicated to the late Bishop Nicholas Dattilo, who died in March of that year.
L’OSSERVATORE ROMANO/WITNESS ARCHIVES

Would you please talk about meeting the Holy Father, St. Pope Paul II when you were Diocesan Administrator? One of our favorite photos in The Witness’ office is a photo of you and the Holy Father looking at The Witness – the commemorative edition when Bishop Dattilo passed.

After Bishop Dattilo died we had sede vacante, and I was elected Diocesan Administrator. In that period of time there was a scheduled Ad Limina meeting in Rome, and I was told that I was going with the Pennsylvania/New Jersey delegation, which was a surprise to me – a joyful one because I was going to get the opportunity to visit with the Holy Father in person.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I took a bag of Hershey Kisses, and our packet of prepared materials for him. I took the copy of The Witness that had bishop’s picture on the cover, but what I was showing the pope was Bishop Dattilo’s photo inside the paper of him meeting with the pope in a prior Ad Limina meeting a few years back. And he was curious to see that photo and appreciated it. It was a great honor to be there with him. Pure gift.

What are some of your hobbies? I know you love to read, but what else also do you like to do?

I love to read spiritual reading. I like to read anything that then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote before he became Pope Benedict. I think I have everything he has written over the years. And I enjoy reading a novel as a break sometimes.

I have always loved exercising. Ever since college, I liked to run, and when I came to Harrisburg, a friend and I would do road races, marathons, half marathons in Philly or Harrisburg and all over. We did a lot of 10Ks, and I loved it. My old legs and arthritic back do not allow me to do that now, but I still get on the treadmill here at the rectory and I have an old Nordic wooden track that I use and I enjoy that. It keeps me moving and in shape. I probably exercise five or six or seven days a week. I don’t take many days off exercising.

Speak to the current pandemic and how it has affected you as a priest and your parish?

It is very strange in all sorts of ways. Celebrated the Easter Vigil and then Easter Mass to an empty church. Normally, it is packed with the faithful. And so to be preaching to a camera and an empty church was very strange. Glad we could at least do that, but not seeing or being with the people is difficult. Not having the contact with people is missed. We are as a parish doing good things. Three days a week, we cook, we get food together, some of it donated, some of it we buy, and we make over 300 meals a week. We have people who deliver or people can pick up the meals, so I hate to say something good has come out of this, but God had done some good in the midst of all of this terrible separation.

I hope people are turning more and more to the Lord, spending time in Scripture because there is now time. But I hope we are out of this soon, because being at home and being by themselves is not good either. People have been very kind, very generous with giving money to help feed people, very generous, and I am grateful to all in the parish.

Is there anything you would to add that I have not asked you?

Being called to the priesthood is just amazing. It is not something a man does on his own. It really is a sense of being pulled. It is glorious, just wonderful. To a young person, maybe 19 or 20 like I was, if they have some faith, which I hope they do, I would ask them to pray to God from the heart and ask the Lord to show them the way. Just ask, “Show me the way. What am I to do? Give me a sense of direction, Lord.” Pray that way, and don’t be afraid to ask. I would suggest talking to other people. Ask a priest, how did you become a priest? It is a good question to ask.

(Interview conducted by Chris Heisey)

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