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'They all wanted a piece' of ebullient Ernie Serino.

The meeting of Boston priests had grown duller than a glass of warm milk. The clergy listened to the discussion, feeling more and more like spotted owls. Suddenly, Ernie Serino jumped to his feet and yelled: "Hey! I'm great! I'm great! And so are all of you!"

The mood of the meeting changed instantly. Like St. Januarius' blood, the priests could feel the oils of their ordination flowing again. One could almost see their foreheads glisten.

Little wonder, then, that Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, a half-dozen bishops, 500 priests and 1,500 religious and laity crammend into Boston's cathedral for Serino's funeral Mass.

Father Serino died in mid-September after triple-bypass surgery intended to recap a worn heart. He was only 64. His heart was about the only muscle he used in his life. He hated sports, especially the kinds he had to endure at St. John's Seminary, a pre-Vatican II clerical gulag where athletics was a sacrament.

His brother priests came to his funeral because there was something in Ernie each of them wished they'd had.

"They all wanted a piece of him," his close friend Francis Xavier McCarthy said, still fighting tears two months after the funeral. Ernie Serino was one of those memorial cards that people used to put in their missals and could never throw away.

When Ernie entered the seminary in 1948 after two years in the U.S. Navy, the Boston Irish had a lock on the clerical system. In the Irish culture, Ernie was called a "loudmouthed Guinea" by some, and the label stuck.

It hurt him. Ernie was Italian. He loved to be loved. "The guys loved him," McCarthy said. "But the harp profs hated" him. "He was just too outspoken," he added.

Perhaps the ethnic slights sharpened his social conscience. Whatever the case, Ernie was speaking out for racial equality while Catholics were being taught that the Blessed Mother cried when girls chewed gum.

"We taunted Ernie on social issues until he exploded," McCarthy recalled. Ernie could not ignore an injustice. After traveling across the country to visit a man in prison, he nearly started a punch-up in the prison waiting room when he saw a visiting mother beating her child. "You saw that," he yelled at the guards. "You saw that. Do something!" They did. They tried to throw Ernie out.

It was the same way with gays. His brother Sam, a psychiatric counselor, was gay. Sam died of AIDS just a few weeks before Ernie died. Ernie dragged himself to the funeral, not to bury Sam in blather about compassion and forgiveness, but to challenge all who had isolated Sam by judging him.

Ernie's enormous family was often the subject of his homelies. There were eight brothers and sisters, 34 nieces and nephews and 30 grandnieces and grandnephews. He told stories about them and himself, portraying them warts and all, but he told them with unconditional love.

Ernie could make a homily out of less meat than one would find on a sparrow's leg. He'd return from an afternoon helping his mother buy a dress and turn that small event into an epiphany.

Serino had the dirtiest ears in New England. At parish missions, he counseled people until near midnight. There were no standards one had to live by to be his friend.

He drove mothers to prison to visit their sons. Once, when a homeless man came to his rectory door for a handout, Ernie had only a $50 bill. So he gave him the 50 bucks with the advice: "Here, get something good!" Then he used the incident in a homily. Afterward, a parishioner stuffed $50 in Ernie's pocket. "See, it always comes back," Ernie said.

Ernie Serino marched in Selma and Milwaukee -- and in his own Boston, where the school integration issued caused the church to wobble like the Philistine temple that Samson wrecked.

He was involved in missions, retreats, teen encounter groups, the Cursillo Movement, pre-Cana and Cana. He was pastor of two parishes and an associate in three others. He became so well-known that his name went out on the rumor vine as a possible auxiliary bishop.

An Italian auxiliary had died, and Ernie seemed a natural to fill the spot. He was delighted. "Jeez, just think what that would mean to my family!" he told anyone who asked. "I'd love it."

While the clerical wires buzzed, Cardinal Humberto Medeiros called Ernie to his office with a pregnant line about "a very important question for you" and whispers about "a very great burden." Then he told Ernie he was appointing him to the priests' personnel board. Ernie's response is on the Index.

Throughout 36 years as a priest, Serino remained a "loudmouthed Guinea." He remaind unvarnished and unfiltered until his heart stopped.

It was the one-on-one work that measured Ernie's priesthood. There was the hitchhiker he met in New York: When he learned the young man had nowhere to go, Ernie put him up in the rectory attic -- not just overnight, but until the youth finished college and law school. Now a Boston lawyer, the man and his wife stood with the family at Ernie's wake.

There was the priest accused of sexual abuse to whom Ernie sent defense money, and the one he accompanied to a place where priests can dry out.

After their ordination in 1956, his seminary friend Frank McCarthy was loaned to the diocese of Paterson. N.J. More than 20 years ago, McCarthy made a painful decision to resign from active ministry. When he informed his ordinary, the bishop but $700 in his hand and said: "Here, go see your Italian friend in Boston. Take a trip together; talk it over."

Ernie loved to travel. On the plane to St. Thomas, Frank told him of his plans. Ernie went ballistic: "How could you? This life is terrific!"

For several days, he never let up on Frank. "You're a pain in the ass, Ernie," McCarthy eventually said. "For God's sake, shut up!" But Ernie kept pleading. When they returned to New York, Frank ditched Ernie at LaGuardia.

Eight months later, Frank ran into Ernie on the street. "You broke my heart," Ernie screamed as he embraced his friend. There were tears and then laughter.

"You know, you Irish have a lot of laughs," he told McCarthy during a trip to Ireland, "but underneath you're always serious. I'm Italian. There's nothing underneath. It's all out on the table." It's no wonder priests flocked to him, just to be in his company.

"Tell everyone to stay away," Ernie said when he entered St. Elizabeth's Hospital. "I don't want anyone to see me with all those tubes and wires in me." But the family came, along with the cardinal who genuinely loved Ernie. Bernard Law, a hard-nosed conservative, broke down several times at the hospital, displaying a sensitivity that moved everyone.(You don't know him," Ernie used to say to priests who complained about Law's rigid ways. "You just don't know him.")

And about 1,800 people attended his wake in his hometown of Lynn, Mass. Frank McCarthy's wife, an Italian, brought enough food to open a shelter. ("Flowers?" Ernie's mother used to scoff. "Flowers? You can't eat flowers! Don't go to a wake with your finger up your behind. Bring some food!")

Ernie loved to eat and to party. When he was planning his silver anniversary, he wanted to invite all 1,700 people on his Christmas-card list.

Ernie was cautioned that a big party would break him, but he answered: "Naw, the people will give me money, and I'll spend it on the party. I'd rather have the party. I'll worry about my old-age money later." So more than 1,000 came to Caruoso's Diplomat Restaurant and got tarred and feathered on food.

Ernie's spiritual life was just the opposite of his social life. He began his day simply by sitting on the edge of his bed for 30 minutes. "I just think about things," he used to say. "That's my prayer life."

I needed to write about Ernie because priests are getting a bad press these days and Ernie is more like most of them than the few who are getting the headlines. Besides. priests need to stop fretting about image and status and the approval of their flocks, and just be Ernie.
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Title Annotation:parish priest
Author:Unsworth, Tim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Obituary
Date:Dec 11, 1992
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