Father Fran Hezel celebrates 50 years as priest

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Top left: Father Fran, front left, poses for a photograph with the Xavier High School band. He was named the moderator of the band in 1963, in which he said, “to my great surprise since I didn’t even know how to read music.”
Top Right: A cutout from the newspaper, “Buffalo Courier Express,” shows the five Hezel brothers, all of them Jesuits at the time, at the mission departure ceremony for Francis X. Hezel, SJ, at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. The date was June 1963, a month before Father Fran’s first departure for Micronesia to begin teaching at Xavier High School in Chuuk.
Below Left: Father Fran is seen in this photo celebrating Mass on Romanum Island in Chuuk “about 1975 or so” when he was working at Xavier High School as principal. “I became principal in 1974,” Father said.
Below Right: Father Fran sits and works on his old typewriter, as seen here, during the late 1970s when he was director of Xavier High School. (Photos courtesy of Father Fran X. Hezel, SJ)

By Zion Leon Guerrero and John Michael D. Pineda
Umatuna Si Yu’os

Celebrating 50 years ordained as a priest, called to be a prophet, baptized to be a king, and seeking to “enter through their door and to exit his door,” Reverend Father Fran Hezel, SJ, triumphs in his victory, his accomplishment in life.

Since before high school, Father Fran knew he wanted to be a diocesan priest. “I thought I would just enter the minor seminary in our local diocese,” Father Fran said, but his father and uncle discussed and decided to send him to Canisius High School, a Roman Catholic, Jesuit, private high school for young men, in Buffalo, New York.

“I went there and developed an appreciation for Jesuits for schooling and what they were,” Father Fran said, being grateful that his father and uncle swayed his decision.

About one month after graduating, in 1956, young Fran Hezel began his journey to priesthood with a long train ride to Poughkeepsie, New York to enter the Jesuit novitiate. There, he spent two years immersed in the livelihood of a Jesuit, with five years of college life and studies with an emphisis on philosophy and classical languages. He received his master’s degree in classical languages, Latin and Greek, and another degree in philosophy. By then, Fran Hezel was ready to teach (which was the custom of the Jesuits) after seven years of preparation.

In good spirit, Fran Hezel volunteered for mission work. At the time, the only open mission was to the Micronesian islands. He spent three years teaching at Xavier High School in Chuuk. This became his new home, his new lifestyle. However, he had to return to New York to continue his journey to the priesthood and take three years of theology.

Ordained on June 13, 1969, in Buffalo, New York, Father Fran struggled with an opportunity to return to his previous mission in Micronesia. It was a tough call to make, because it was an exciting time in America, and leaving to missions would mean he would literally remove himself from time changing events such as the first man on the moon, the youth revolution, the Kennedy Assassination, the Vietnam War, new presidency, and more.

This was the “Age of Aquarius,” Father Fran said, “an era of peace and understanding, harmony and trust abounding,” as the words of the song say. Age of Aquarius was a small singing group who sang at his first Mass, who became a symbol, a specific time in Father Fran’s ministry.

A second symbol that would mark a time in Father Fran’s ministry is “Man of La Mancha,” the musical. It inspired Father Fran’s representation of his ministry. Like in the musical, people feel that we are fighting this mythical beast, this dragon, but we aren’t. We are trying to establish this “age of understanding, harmony and trust abounding.” He received a statue of Don Quixote from the Man of La Mancha as a gift for his ordination.

When Father Fran was ordained, it was customary to put out little cards of a favorite bible verse, or words of encouragement. But that wasn’t the kind of world he was going into. He was about to enter into a world of change and revolution, of new understandings and insights. Father Fran thought it was important to speak the language of the world he was ordained for.

So he put out cards with a broken cross to represent a broken world, with a quote from whom he cannot remember, but he said, was “something of a new age prophet,” promising the same things Isaiah did: curing the sick, making the lame walk and the blind see again. That lifestyle, one that serves within the people was the lifestyle that Father Fran bought into, to speak the language of the world you are in.

What Father Fran knew is he was to go back to Micronesia, to speak the language of their world, despite feeling he was going to the edge of the world. He left behind pre-communication and pre-internet to help the people of Micronesia live lives of pious prayer, so he thought at the time according to him. However, he always kept to mind the Jesuit motto of “entering through their door and coming out by our door.”

He began to speak the terms they knew, the needs they have, the concerns of which they understood, and later he created little signs of hope, helping little kids from primary school to reach secondary education and graduate; to console someone in a time a despair. And this was now his new view on his ministry, instilling small signs of hope by speaking the language of the world he is in. He did this in Chuuk for 25 years, Pohnpei for 18, and the rest here on Guam. It didn’t matter where he was, or how old, or what language of culture he was immersed in, he retained the desire to give that hope through small signs.

With no regrets about his ministry, and with the strong conviction that he had been chosen for this ministry, Father Fran advises young men interested in the priesthood two things. The first, to “think big, not small,” said Father Fran, “In terms of a prophet.”

“Think of yourselves in terms of what the disciples and some of the Old Testament figures were doing. Think of this as opening the eyes of the blind,” said Father Fran, “releasing people from prison, and helping the lame to walk.”

“Always see it as big,” Father Fran affirmed.

The second, “Don’t give up on yourself,” he said.

“Remember that there are all sorts of crazy things happening,” Father Fran continued. “People have twists and turns to go through. Some people drink too much, some people fall in love, some people [do] all sorts of things and wandered in all kinds of different directions, but you can persevere…You can check the signs. Make sure you’re listening to the Spirit,” Father Fran said in contrast to listening to the flesh in coming to an understanding of how to discern.

On the satisfaction of his works, Father Fran says, “It’s been a great life. Here I thought I would go to the edges of the world… but it’s actually been more of a crossroads than anything else,” reflecting on his opportunity to meet people of different ethnicities and get to know various cultures.

“I have perhaps a better understanding of how the world would work in places, even like the Middle East, because the rules for life in a lot of these places, some are more island-style than they do with modern European-style.”

Father Fran quotes German Jesuit, Karl Rahner, SJ, as what he describes “reflects” his view of the priesthood:

“The priest is not an angel sent from heaven. He is a man, a member of the church, a Christian. Remaining a man and Christian, he begins to speak to you the Word of God. This Word is not his own. No, he comes to you because, God has told him to proclaim His Word. Perhaps he has not entirely understood it himself. Perhaps he adulterates it. Perhaps he falters and stammers. How else could he speak God’s Word, ordinary man that he is? But, must not some of us say something about God, about eternal life, about God’s majesty of grace in us, speak of sin, and the mercy of God?”

“That’s Rahner’s short explanation of what a priest is. It sounds right to me,” Father Fran says.

At 80 years old, celebrating his 50th anniversary as a priest, Father Fran speaks of his future plans, “Going back to the states probably isn’t too far off in the distance, but I want to do as much as I can.” He states that his provincial told him last year, “He’s not calling me back. He’s waiting until I get too unhealthy to continue working and I was much relieved, because that’s the way I want to go out.”