Diamond jubilarian sees priesthood as a privilege

At 86, Msgr. Shreve ‘energized’ by those he serves


Ask Msgr. Thomas Shreve when he retired, and he laughs. “I’m not really sure officially when it happened,” he said.

That’s understandable.

His last official assignment was at Church of the Epiphany, Richmond, where he served as pastor from 1987 to 2004. For the next six years, he remained as a “priest in residence.” Then, for 15 months spanning 2011-2012, he was the parish’s temporary administrator.

What his assignment history sheet doesn’t show is that nine years after he “retired,” Msgr. Shreve, 86, having celebrated the 60th anniversary of his ordination on May 1, continues to minister.

“I think of priesthood as a privilege given to me — to be able to be a part of people’s lives in good times and in bad,” he said. “Priesthood doesn’t really make sense without people. It’s not about programs and buildings and financial statements and all that sort of stuff. When we get into that, we go off track.”

He exercises that privilege by visiting St. Francis Hospital in Midlothian and St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond three times a week.

“The only people who can do this kind of ministry is a priest,” he explained. “I can do it, and there are people out there who need it and they’re not getting it. Why don’t I do it? Why don’t I be a part of it?”

Noting that he is “energized” by the people to whom he ministers, Msgr. Shreve added that each type of ministry “is a variation on a theme.”

“It’s people, it’s somebody who needs knowledge, teaching, a shoulder to cry on,” he said. “It’s somebody who needs to be kind to them, to say hello.”

In addition to his visits to the hospitals, Msgr. Shreve, along with Msgr. Thomas Miller and Father Bob Brownell, is a help-out priest at St. Gabriel, Chesterfield. Among the three are more than 162 years of priestly service.

Exciting time

The excitement about priesthood Msgr. Shreve expresses had roots in his seminary formation.

“It was very, very exciting when I was in the seminary. You really had priest professors who were really intelligent people and really capable,” he said. “Some of them certainly recognized that things are changing in the Churchand things are changing the Church. They talked a lot about that.”

He said they didn’t know that the Second Vatican Council was coming — “Pope John XXIII took everyone by surprise,” Msgr. Shreve said — but they were aware that theology was developing and growing.

“The professors would kind of keep you abreast of all that was being talked about in some of the theological circles,” he said.

When Pope John XXIII called for the Second Vatican Council on Jan. 25, 1959, and opened it on Oct. 11, 1962, Msgr. Shreve was not surprised.

“We kept hearing stuff from seminarians who came from the Raleigh Diocese, and (Bishop Vincent S. Waters) was the one trying a lot of this out with them during the summertime,” the priest recalled. “You heard it. And it all got wrapped into the newness of being a priest. It didn’t come as a shock.”

Learning by example

Following ordination, Msgr. Shreve was assigned as the associate pastor at Sacred Heart, Winchester, for nine months before being assigned the same position at St. Peter Pro-Cathedral, Richmond, where he served from 1962 until 1965.

His pastor was Father George Gormley who he described as “a fantastic fellow,” and the associate was Father John Connelly, “a real gentleman.”

“They were just great with people — welcoming, hospitable and thoughtful,” Msgr. Shreve said. “I learned a lot by their example. I was very, very fortunate. It was a great household.”

In June 1965, six months before the close of Vatican II, Bishop John J. Russell appointed him to be his secretary. He recalled that everyone was still trying to figure out how to implement the changes brought about by the council.

“Everybody was in the same boat because we had never done it this way before,” Msgr. Shreve recalled, adding that before Bishop Russell left to attend the first session, he told a gathering of priests, “‘Whatever the Holy Father says, whatever the council says, we will do in our diocese,’ and he said that when he came back as well.”

Returning from that first session, Bishop Russell was true to his word, according to Msgr. Shreve.

“He was on board. We got into the whole thing about priest personnel boards and finance councils, parish councils,” the priest said. “His whole thing was, ‘If the council says we should do it, then that’s what we will do.’”

Not everyone was as receptive to the council’s work as Bishop Russell.

“Some were, some weren’t. The unfortunate thing, in retrospect, with the liturgical changes, is that the parishes were not really prepared sufficiently,” Msgr. Shreve said. “Parishioners came to church one weekend and the altar was turned around without input from parishioners. It wasn’t the best methodology.”

Nonetheless, he sensed enthusiasm among the lay faithful.

“A lot of people in the pews were really excited,” he said. “Something was happening. Something was moving.”

Collaborative pastor

In 1968, Bishop Russell named Msgr. Shreve rector of St. John Vianney Seminary, Richmond, where he served for six years. At the same time, he was appointed a judge in the diocesan tribunal where he would serve until 2012.

Msgr. Shreve received the first of his four pastorates, St. Bridget, Richmond, in 1974.

“I always felt good about being a pastor. I never had the problem of ‘I’m the only one who can do this’ or ‘I have the best answer,’” he said. “I never thought going to meetings was a waste of time. It was a ministry of presence. That’s what we’re here for.”

Msgr. Shreve said he liked the idea of talking to people at the parish, dealing with the councils.

“We have to come to a decision about things, but it can’t be just my decision; you’re the ones who are going to live with it; you’re the ones who are paying for it,” he said of the collaboration he practiced. “I never felt I was better than anybody else.”

Between his next two pastorates — 16 months at St. Bede, Williamsburg, 1980-1981, and two and a half years at Our Lady of Nazareth, Roanoke, 1983-1985 — Msgr. Shreve spent two years in Rome studying Canon Law. Bishop Walter F. Sullivan appointed him vicar general of the diocese in 1985 — a position he held for nearly 25 years.

During that time, he continued to work in the tribunal, chaired the diocesan Building and Renovation Committee and served two years as chancellor, but he did it with the mindset of a pastor.

“When I was here (Pastoral Center) as vicar general, I used to walk around the building a couple of days a week just to say hello to people,” Msgr. Shreve recalled. “You’re the ones who make this place work, not me.”

Grateful for good fortune

Reflecting on all that he’s experienced and witnessed — enjoyable and challenging — during his priesthood, he expressed gratitude.

“I think about how fortunate I have been,” he said. “I’ve been blessed health wise.”

As for his priestly journey, he noted how faith and hope in God have been “wrapped together.” He said that when he thinks about priesthood, he thinks about John 13:1-17.

“I think a lot about that — Jesus at the Last Supper instructing the apostles to wash one another’s feet,” Msgr. Shreve said. He also finds solace in the Prayer of St. Theresa of Avila:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

“That’s how I treated a lot of difficulties,” he said.

Concerns, perspectives

Having seen the Church from different angles, i.e., as pastor and in diocesan administration, he has concerns about the institution.

“My greatest concern is the divisiveness in the Church, in particular the divisiveness that happens now among the clergy,” Msgr. Shreve said. “You really do have a pretty wide swath of people who are clergy who are in it for the control. It’s power and money. Those destroy anybody who goes after them, whether it’s in Church or not.”

He echoed Pope Francis’ admonitions about clericalism.

“This whole business that ‘I’m better than you are because I’m a priest and don’t you ever forget that’ and ‘Whatever I say, you do’ is so anti-Christ and anti-Church,” Msgr. Shreve said. “That’s turning a lot of people off.”

He had advice for seminarians.

“Keep in mind why you are here. You are here to prepare for a life of service to people in a parish. You’re here to learn how to celebrate the sacraments in a sensible fashion — to realize these sacraments are for the good of people; they’re not just for you to perform,” Msgr. Shreve said. “They’re life-giving for people. You have to do the best you can to involve them in it so it means something to them.”

He is concerned about how well the laity are integrating faith into their lives.

“I’m concerned about the sense they have Msgr. Thomas Shreve of what Church is all about, what faith is all about, that they see the Church as important, as something vital,” Msgr. Shreve said.

One of the dangers from COVID, according to the priest, was reliance on viewing Mass electronically.

“It’s very easy to say, ‘I can turn it on like another TV show. I can turn it off just as easy, too,’” he said. “They’re losing sense of where living our faith comes in, the notion that their faith is one of the things that keeps them alive — a living thing that gives direction to their life, whatever their career or profession might be.”

Preferencing his Baltimore Catechism reference as possibly being “a simplistic thing,” Msgr. Shreve asks the catechism’s sixth question: “Why did God make me?” and answers, “To know, love and serve him in this world and to be happy with him in the next.”

He continued, “I’m not sure, in some places, we’re doing such a hot job on the first part, much less to be with him in the next.”

When it comes to their faith, there is at least one thing to which Msgr. Shreve wants people to hold fast.

“That when God says that he loves us, he means it. God is not there waiting to slap us on the knuckles or head for doing something wrong, but he understands the wrong stuff we do and is willing to forgive the wrong,” he said. “Everybody does things that are wrong at times, but you don’t have to stay stuck there.”

Scroll to Top