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‘Walking priest’ pursues street evangelization hoping listeners seek God

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IMAGE: CNS photo/Jerry Mennenga

By Joanne Fox

WEST BEND, Iowa (CNS) — With apologies to Fats Domino, Father Lawrence Carney is “walkin’ and talkin’ about you and me,” and hoping that listeners will come back to — not “me” — but God.

Known as the “walking priest,” Father Carney brought his message of street evangelization to Sts. Peter and Paul Church in the north central Iowa town of West Bend in early July.

The event was sponsored by the Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption in collaboration with the Office of Discipleship and Evangelization for the Diocese of Sioux City.

Ordained for the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, Father Carney is on loan to the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, where he serves as chaplain to the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, in Gower. He visits the nuns daily to celebrate the Tridentine Mass, offers the sacrament of reconciliation and provides spiritual direction.

Once his duties are complete, Father Carney, 42, takes to the streets of St. Joseph. Armed with a rosary in one hand and a large crucifix in the other, the tall priest in a black cassock and wide-brimmed clerical hat known as a “saturno” shares the Gospel with anyone who approaches.

The oldest of three boys in his family, Father Carney recalled his first inkling of a vocation surfaced in kindergarten.

“A Redemptorist priest visited and held up a card of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and it seemed like the eyes of Our Lady would follow me,” he said.

“I thought, ‘If a priest can do that with a holy card, then I want to be a priest,'” he said, smiling.

Father Carney confessed he “fought” the idea of the priesthood in high school.

“I was convinced I was to marry a beautiful young woman and have 12 children,” he said. “God ultimately won that battle.”

Following his 2007 ordination, Father Carney served as a parish priest in the Wichita Diocese. His life changed when he chose to walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain — opting to wear a cassock — talking to about 1,000 people during his 32 days on the trail.

The experience led to his decision to walk the streets.

Father Carney’s ministry led him to pen “Walking the Road to God,” published in 2017 by Caritas Press. The book is subtitled, “Why I left everything behind and took to the streets to save souls.”

“I’m a horrible author,” the priest said. “Isn’t is something how God chooses the worst people to do his will?”

But save souls, he has, in his travels in Missouri and elsewhere.

“Three years ago, I was approached by a non-Catholic family who insisted their home was possessed by demons; the children were saying they saw red eyes in the house,” he said. “They asked me to pray for them and I did.”

When he later saw the family, Father Carney asked about the house.

“‘Oh, Father, after you prayed and left, the devils left,’ the mother reported,” he said. “After one year of instruction, they were received into the church and one of the sons is discerning a vocation to the priesthood.”

The story was one of several the priest shared with the 125 people who attended his talk.

In his book, Father Carney expressed his dream of a new order of priests, clerics and brothers, who walk and pray in cities around the U.S. to reach out to lukewarm and fallen-away Catholics and non-Catholics.

The Vatican approved his request for the new order Dec. 8 — to accept men into the Canons Regular of St. Martin of Tours. The new community will be based in St. Joseph. About a dozen men have indicated an interest in joining, Father Carney said.

“I am in the process of discernment myself for this new community,” he said. “God willing, I will profess my first vows on Nov. 11, 2019.”

Meanwhile, Father Carney “walks the walk and talks the talk” to about 10 people a day, about 2,000 to 5,000 folks in the last four years.

“The best part of the walking is I get to contemplate God,” he said. “I pray the rosary, get some exercise, look at nature and someone might talk to me and then, I share my contemplation with them.”

After his presentation, Father Carney took questions, with one person asking if he walked the 245 miles from St. Joseph to West Bend.

With a grin, Father Carney shook his head in response. However, he did admit to being somewhat of an expert on shoes.

“I have discovered ‘shandals’ work well,” he said, referring to a part-shoe, part-sandal, which he had on his feet.

Father Carney reported the Canons Regular are looking into creating the hybrid and marketing them.

“We will be calling them, Father Martens,” he said, chuckling repeatedly at the reference to the popular Doc Martens footwear.

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Fox is managing editor of The Catholic Globe, newspaper of the Diocese of Sioux City.

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