Janna Reynolds, The Catholic Virginian

Father Brian Rafferty, who celebrated 25 years of priesthood on Tuesday, May 21, was working for the federal government when he decided to become a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Arlington. 

Although he attended elementary and high school in Catholic schools in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, priesthood was the last thing on his mind in those years.

“I never thought of it. Everyone thought my brother was going to become the priest! He was married, taught high school biology and chemistry, and had two children that now have families of their own,” he said with a laugh.

During the last few years of his 18-year career with the Food and Drug Administration, Father Rafferty was accepted into Arlington’s diaconate program. There was some reluctance on the diocese’s part because he was single and few permanent deacons are unmarried. 

In 1982, he earned a master of public administration degree from George Mason University. During his last year there, he had the opportunity to go on to law school. 

“So it was a toss-up between that, and I felt more of an attraction to the Church. I felt something was missing from my life, a hole that wasn’t filled,” he said. “I found I needed to have a closer relationship with God. I prayed about it and found the one way to have that need filled was going into religious life.”

Studying for religious life

Although he entered formation as a deacon, Father Rafferty had intended to go into the priesthood with a religious order.

“My parents were living with me at the time. When they passed on, I would enter the priesthood. Even my own thought process and those I spoke to was that they would live a lot longer than they did,” he said, adding that they died about midway during his diaconate formation.

Through the diaconate program, Father Rafferty earned a master’s degree in religious studies from the Notre Dame Pontifical Catechetical Institute. 

After he completed his degree, Father Rafferty spent two years serving as a deacon at St. John Neumann Church, Reston, and continued to work for the FDA.

The pastor at St. John Neumann, Father John Heenan, was supportive of Father Rafferty pursuing priesthood. 

“His thing was ‘You will do everything that you are entitled to do as a deacon.’ He was insistent that I do these things and saw it being very crucial. He was opening all these doors to me,” Father Rafferty said.

He applied to and was accepted into the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity. 

From 1988-1989, he did his postulancy with the Trinitarians at St. Agnes-Our Lady of Fatima in Cleveland, and spent the majority of his time at Mount Sinai Hospital as a chaplain. 

He then went with the Trinitarians to Silver Spring, Md., where he did his novitiate year at St. Luke Hospital.

He took temporary vows with the Trinitarian order and spent a year in seminary at Washington Theological Union. 

“Things just weren’t working. It wasn’t clicking in a way. With those temporary vows, you’re trying them out, they’re trying you out. It’s a discernment period. And I felt I should become a priest,” explained Father Rafferty.

Richmond responds

Because he was a deacon, Father Rafferty had to serve under a bishop. He applied to the Dioceses of Pittsburgh, Raleigh-Durham and Richmond. 

“Richmond responded in a week. The other two took six months and a year. I knew no one down here, but I had applied based on the advice of my novice master from the Trinitarians,” said the priest.

Father Clif Marquis, vocations director for the Trinitarians, helped “push the ball” for Father Rafferty’s decision to become a diocesan priest.

“He pointed out to me that you can’t sit on the fence forever. We had a very strongly worded conversation about it, and I went home ticked off,” Father Rafferty recalled. “I thought about it for a couple of days and realized he was right.”

Following his ordination by Bishop Walter F. Sullivan, he was appointed pastor at St. Edward Mission, Pulaski, and St. Mary the Mother of God, Wytheville. In 1997, he was appointed pastor of Christ the King, Norfolk. 

Father Rafferty considers himself fortunate for the direction his vocation took.

In addition to serving as pastor, he has been chaplain for the police in northern Virginia and for the Boy Scouts in the diocese and the Tidewater Chapter. 

“There’s been a variety of things, a lot of different opportunities,” Father Rafferty said. 

Doing what God wants 

When he was appointed pastor at St. Stephen, Martyr, Chesapeake, in 2010, he didn’t want to go. 

On the Sunday he was allowed to announce his new assignment to the parish, the Gospel was about how when you’re little you go where you want, but when you’re older you’re often taken where you don’t want to go.

“I read that and burst out laughing. I came off the pulpit and told them. And still I didn’t want to go. I had to realize that it was not my parish. It was theirs,” said Father Rafferty.

At the school Mass on the following Monday, the reading was about St. Stephen being martyred. 

“I was like, ‘OK, God, I give up. I’m going to do what you want. I get the message. I’ll stop whining,’” recalled the priest, who said he has no regrets because he has always “had God’s blessings,” even through the tough times.

Father Rafferty said that being able to be there for people in their times of need and talking and explaining things in confession is a wonderful part of ministry because there is a degree of vulnerability that has to be appreciated. 

“I think that’s one of the reasons, even though I wasn’t fully aware of it, that was pulling me toward priesthood. I wanted to serve in a parish,” he said.

Because he was 47 when he was ordained, Father Rafferty never thought he would be able to celebrate a 25th anniversary and has been “shook” at the realizations he’s had as his jubilee approached. 

When his parish celebrated first Communions this year, Father Rafferty called the children up to talk about the Eucharist. He thought back to his own first Communion 63 years ago. 

“It goes so fast. The 25 years went so fast. They’ve been filled when you look over it. There were rough times, but all in all, you look back and you see God’s hand in it,” he said.