Bringing the Sacraments to remote missions and families, managing finances, helping to run schools or teach religion classes – all in a day’s work for a priest of the Diocese of Gallup. When Fr. Peter Short transferred here after 31 years of service in Argentina, he encountered many of these challenges, and more.
Fr. Short was raised in the United States and ordained a priest of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, where he served for 20 years before discerning that he was better suited to work as a diocesan priest. Because of his connections through his sister, Cathy McCarthy, who works as the diocesan grants coordinator and archivist, when he ultimately decided to return to the United States, it was to the Diocese of Gallup.
He currently serves as both a Vicar General for the diocese and as pastor in Winslow, AZ, a town with long and painful ties to the abuse crisis. Here, Fr. Short has labored to repair the relationship between the town and the Church, to minister to the needs of the diocese as a whole, and recently, to build a Hispanic Ministry program.
In January of 2018 he sat down for an interview with The Voice of the Southwest and reflected on the hardships and joys of his priestly vocation.
Please tell us a little of your background, and how you ended up in the Diocese of Gallup.
“I went into the [Oblates of the Virgin Mary] largely because of my brother [already an Oblate], and because I wanted a good order and good formation.”
Eventually Fr. Short discerned that he was better suited for life as a diocesan priest.
“When I entered the Archdiocese of Cordova [in Argentina] I did so with the understanding with the Archbishop that eventually I would probably ask to come back [to the United States] because my parents were still here and getting older and I wanted to be a bit closer to them.
“Although I was accepted in my own diocese in Bridgeport, Connecticut, I thought it would be better to go into a diocese which was poorer, more in need of priests, more missionaries, and so I thought of this diocese since my sister was here.”
Now that you’ve been here a few years, what are your impressions of the Diocese of Gallup?
“It’s been an adjustment for me – a big adjustment. The priesthood and parish life in the United States is a bit different than I had found in Argentina, which I expected.”
Fr. Short notes that priests in his diocese in Argentina had no formal salaries or insurance coverage.
“I lived with what the people gave me, with what I could muster.”
Undertaking the rigorous safe environment training in the United States, especially the procedures in response to the abuse crisis, was also a new experience.
Was there an equivalent crisis in Argentina?
“Not as big as we have here – at least not yet and I hope they don’t.
“In Chile there was, but my understanding is that in Argentina it’s not as many cases and that many situations that have come up.”
A recent report on abuse in Argentina found 63 cases of abuse reported over the past two decades. Authorities in Chile are currently investigating at least 166 cases.
“I remember coming into the [Gallup] Diocese, the bishop asked me was that because people were afraid of denouncing or it just wasn’t as big? I can’t say for sure, but I’m hoping it wasn’t as big. I think overall the society’s a little more healthy there, more down to earth, very family oriented. They’re very warm – people express themselves in a very healthy manner.”
Do they have Indigenous peoples in Argentina?
“They do. They don’t have specifically reservations in Argentina, they do have areas where Indigenous peoples live. Unfortunately, they live in extreme poverty, generally speaking. I did work in one area where there were Indigenous people for two years, up in the Andes mountains. It was impressive, the way that they lived – they lived like 200 years ago. There were absolutely no modern conveniences or anything – no roads, no light, no gas, so people just lived off the land. Aboriginal living. Very pious and fervent Catholics, but frightening poverty.
“Up in the north, for example, there’s some of the Guaraní. But they seem to treat the aboriginal people different than here. I’m not certain it’s better or worse. But most of my work was with Hispanics.”
What are some things you enjoy about being back in the United States?
“The freedom of speaking and preaching and teaching in my own culture. I was fairly good with the language down there but it’s always a bit of a struggle because you have a lot of things that you receive from your childhood and your youth that are difficult to translate.”
What’s been most rewarding for you as a priest, as someone who’s given your life to serving in these various communities?
“Well I’m just very, very thankful that I can serve that way. Knowing how unworthy I am of the priesthood, the fact that the Lord asked me and has guided me, and even though it has been at times very difficult. For example the decision to come from Argentina to here was clearly the most difficult decision I ever made in my life. But yet, when I got here there were signs that this is where God wanted me.
“These little things – these little blessings that the Lord gives you along the way, that confirm your pilgrimage, as it were – your vocation. I think those are things that make me very grateful.”
In Winslow, there is still a lot of healing to be done. How did you adjust to that, on top of all the other demands of your job?
“I was a little bit fearful coming to Winslow because [the history of the abuse crisis there] was one of the first things the bishop told me. I wasn’t reluctant to accept the assignment, but I was fearful of what I might find here. But surprisingly, I found a warmth and a welcome here, and a Catholic spirit here, that I have not found in the other Catholic parishes I’ve been working in in the diocese. I think there’s many reasons for that. I think one of them may very well be the Madonna house, that’s been here for 60 years.”
Madonna Houses are buildings or places of retreat and spiritual rest, staffed by dedicated lay men and women. In Winslow, members of the organization have lived and worked with the community for decades, serving at parishes, teaching children, assisting the poor, and praying with anyone who requests a sympathetic ear.
Is there anything specific you’ve done to help the community heal?
“I don’t think I’ve had to. I’ve tried to be there for them as much as I can, with the Mass, with the Sacraments, with the work with the kids and adults, and I’m hoping that, with time, they will heal. If they don’t see a crisis, if they don’t see a scandal, if they do see good things going on, hopefully that will be healing for them.
“We’ve had some good turnouts in the healing services here, and I noticed that many of the people who came were not specifically touched by the crisis but came to pray for those that were. There were others that were, and they were able to speak with the bishop, and I think that was very good for them.
“But I’ve been very amazed. There’s a lot of reason for there to be certain resentment in the town. And not only that, there are other historical things in the town that would give one reason to believe there could be a lot of resentment here, and I have not found that. The people are very joyful, very generous, despite the difficulties they face. I don’t know of one family that isn’t facing some sort of difficulty, whether it be economic or social or different problems that they have.”
Can you describe for us what you do in your role as the Vicar General?
“Basically what it is, is to be an assessor of the bishop who doesn’t make decisions simply on his own. Bishop Wall wanted a small sounding board to bounce off his ideas, and also ask for our ideas and be aware of the difficulties that the Diocese is facing, to try to work on them as best we can. That’s on the one hand. On the other it’s an aide to the Bishop, to the administrator of the diocese, not only [weighing in] by council but also [when] some decisions are made. And basically being an extension – a right hand – of the Bishop where you are.”
Could you tell us a little about yourself personally? Do you have a hobby you enjoy?
“I like to paint – generally, acrylic. Sometimes oil. [Here Fr. Short indicates an icon hanging near his desk that he has completed]. I like working with my hands. One of my colleagues in the seminary was a professional artist, and he helped me with some techniques. Christmastime, I’m always the one involved with the manger scenes.
“I like hiking, and lately, kayaking.
“When I travel I try to bring the best camera I have access to, to take the best pictures I can.
“In the seminary we used to go up in the summertime into the Alps. When I went to Argentina I was always close to mountains, but in the city, Cordoba is in the central plain of Argentina. It has a mountain range – not a very high mountain range – beside it.”
You came here just after Pope Francis was elected. Was that a huge deal in Argentina?
“It was. It was the last months I was there – I was still teaching in my high school and at lunchtime I had gone to visit a family, they had two twins who were altar servers of mine, about 15 at the time. They didn’t have much knowledge about what was going on in Rome, but they did know that Cardinal Bergoglio was one of the ones that was there, and of course they were rooting – the Argentinians love to root for their own country.
“So I happened to be there in their house when they heard the news that Cardinal Bergoglio was elected, and they literally jumped high off the ground like this [he holds his hand about four feet off the floor]. I mean it was like winning the World Cup, and that’s saying an awful lot. They were celebrating in the streets.”
A few years ago you helped an Argentinian – a very good friend – with a translation of a biography of Pope Francis, and then got accompany his family to Rome to meet the Pope. What was that like?
“It was interesting because he didn’t remember me – and I didn’t think he would – but I had seen him, and the reason was when I was choosing to come here, eventually [to the United States]. My superior had sent me for a year of sabbatical, and the reason for the sabbatical was to talk to [Francis, when he was still Cardinal Bergoglio], to go over my discernment, because he was well-known for his ability of discernment. The problem was he was Archbishop-Cardinal of Buenos Aires at the time, so he didn’t have that much time. But [Cardinal Bergoglio] spent about 40 minutes with me, talking with me, at the end of which he sent me to one of his proteges, another Jesuit that was there in Buenos Aires, a Father Flares, who continued with my discernment later. [Bergoglio] said ‘this man has the gift of discernment, you’ll do well with him’. So I went with him and continued and came to the conclusion I was making a good discernment. After becoming Pope he called Flares to Rome, so he’s now working with him at the Vatican.
“That was helpful in confirming my decision to go into the Diocese.
“So to see [the Pope] years later at the Vatican was surprising for a couple of reasons – one, because of the fact we got in so easily. He was so accessible. Nobody checked us at security. To be there with this family was nice to begin with, and we brought in mate, the drink [a kind of tea popular in Argentina]. Nobody tested anything. [The Pope] came in alone – he just walked into the room. It was a huge room but we were alone in there, and he walked in by himself! He sat down and we talked for longer than an hour. He asked me where I was from and didn’t remember me.
“But he did remember my brother – that’s why his expression with my brother [he points to a picture of his brother meeting Pope Francis] is much different! *laughs* My brother was in Argentina six years altogether, three years before I was, and he was the rector of a seminary. So when Cardinal Bergoglio was still a superior of the Jesuits he had a retreat house, and my brother would bring the seminarians there for retreats with [Bergoglio]. So they got to know each other there very well, and he remembered him, 40 years later, when the Oblates were having their general chapter.
“But it was very beautiful to think ‘here is this man, who had something to do with my being here in the states’, and he’s becoming very friendly with one of my oldest altar servers, that I watched grow up.”
This interview is part of our series of profiles of priests serving in the Diocese of Gallup. For more information on Fr. Short’s work with Hispanic Ministry in the diocese, click here.