It was early in the afternoon on a Thursday, and Father Andrew Messina was cranking up his computer speakers. He had navigated to a YouTube video featuring his favorite Russian-Ukrainian cover band Leonid & Friends, which take well-known songs from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band Chicago and transform them into something totally fresh.
“Just listen to that,” he said. “Are they incredible or what?”
Catholic priests are becoming scarcer in Rhode Island, and across the country for that matter, but even among their diminishing numbers, Father Andrew Messina is a rare breed.
Fr. Messina, who has been St. Timothy’s pastor since 2013 and will assume pastoral duties at St. Rita in Oakland Beach starting July 1, has a story as unique as the Eastern European band that had completely enamored him.
Originally born in New Jersey, Fr. Messina said during a recent interview at St. Timothy – with his loyal companion, a friendly Boston Terrier named Max, comfortably sat atop his lap – that priesthood was not a calling he received in his life until much later than usual for people of the church.
“Priesthood was not on the radar scope at all,” he said.
A guitar player since the age of nine, Fr. Messina’s original career path intentions led him to being either a musician or an engineer. He became the latter, earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a master’s in software engineering. His technological prowess led him to eventually become employed by CBS in New York City, working “way behind the scenes,” as he put it.
While working for CBS, Fr. Messina attended a mass near the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts and upon seeing one of the priests, he said something inside of him clicked, and he couldn’t get the thought of becoming a priest out of his mind.
After much internal deliberating and prayer, Fr. Messina landed in Rhode Island at St. Peter Church, where he had a conversation with the church’s pastor, Father Roger Gagne. He decided to put the future of his career up to fate – or into the hands of God, as he put it.
“I applied to be a seminarian, and I asked God, ‘If you want me to go through with this, then let me be accepted,’” he said.
And accepted he was. Fr. Messina would then go back to school and earned his second master’s degree, this time in divinity. He is now celebrating 10 years of priesthood, and has fully embraced his true calling.
“For people who have specific questions or problems, I will do my best to help them because that is my job,” he said. “That is my calling.”
Upon hearing that St. Rita in Oakland Beach would be losing its pastor, Father Peter D’Ambrosia, rumors began to circulate about the fate of the historic church. Would it be closing its doors for good? What did that mean for the parishioners and the activities the church had long facilitated?
Rather than folding, St. Rita is the latest church in Rhode Island to undergo a process known as “yoking,” where two Catholic churches share one pastor between them. It isn’t the same as a merger, Fr. Messina explained, because the two churches continue to operate independently, however the congregations of the two churches become one “family.”
The result, according to Fr. Messina, is a greater opportunity for the two separate groups of parishioners to share in each other’s company and enjoy programming between the two churches.
“We'll have a larger family,” he said. “There's great potential for symbiosis going forward, and good opportunity for more people to get involved.”
Getting younger people involved through social functions between the two congregations was an area Fr. Messina said he was excited to help foster but he also said that, on the whole, he’s not trying to come into St. Rita and make any drastic changes to the way things have been done.
“My approach is not to come in and make wholesale changes,” he said. “Let's just get to know each other. I'm very much into collaboration and listening to people.”
At the time of the interview, the St. Timothy parking lot was an active construction zone with asphalt being torn up and new pavement being prepared to be lain. The capital improvements made to the church since Fr. Messina became its pastor have been extensive – from a new roof, to replacing the phone lines and the HVAC system with modern electrical controls.
“This is the last phase,” Fr. Messina said of the new driveway and parking lot surface that should be totally completed within the month. All improvements have been made through the contributions of parishioners.
It’s a commonly overlooked portion of a priest’s responsibilities, Fr. Messina said. Not only is he responsible for the spiritual guidance of the churchgoers at St. Timothy (and soon to be St. Rita), not to mention his responsibilities as the Dean of Deanery 4, which covers Warwick, West Warwick and Coventry, Fr. Messina is also a building administrator, office manager and is in charge of all day-to-day operations of the church.
“Although you don't want to think of a church as a business, because it's not, there are certain business aspects to running a church,” he explained.
In this role, Fr. Messina’s past history as an engineer and his studious nature in general has served him well. He stressed that time management is one of the most crucial necessities in performing his duties.
Equally important, he mentioned, is being able to turn off and decompress in moments where he is not on the clock. To accomplish this, Fr. Messina often takes to reading, enjoying books based in spirituality or those that chronicle important religious figures. But Fr. Messina also unwinds in a most unconventional way – by cranking up a karaoke version of some of his favorite rock and roll or jazz tracks and jamming along with his guitar.
Fr. Messina’s background in engineering and working for the country’s largest broadcasting company, along with his infectious enthusiasm for a well-done cover of a Chicago hit, has created an interesting dynamic that is readily evident in his style of preaching the Gospel. He focuses largely on the positive teachings of Jesus, and stresses that anyone is welcome inside his church. He doesn’t think preaching hardline stances on complex topics is the right way to reach people.
“Life isn't always black and white. There are always shades of gray,” he said. “You can't come down hard on people. I certainly wouldn't want that done to me.”
In many ways, Fr. Messina subverts stereotypes of Catholic priests. He rocks out to music that at one time in our history may have been considered the product of Satan, he has a keen appreciation for new technology (“when it works,” he clarified) and he said that he strives to go against the traditional “stiff and starchy” approach taken by some who don the collar.
“My thinking of priesthood is to be as normal of a human as you can possibly be. I'm no better than anybody else,” he said. “My calling is to be a normal guy.”