Standing before recently-ordained priest Donald R. Watkins Jr. at the front of the communion line at All Saints Parish last Sunday — after a longer-than-usual wait, due to the massive congregation he attracted at his first official mass as a priest — all I could do was look at him with tears in my eyes.
“The Body of Christ,” said my 58-year-old North Park and Lockport High School classmate, giving me communion with a giant smile, after an emotionally uplifting entrance that included an All-Star line-up of Hall of Fame clergy and an impressive Knights of Columbus escort, beautiful, harmonious, joyous music, a heartfelt eulogy and long, sustained periods of loud, spontaneous applause that burst through the solemn Roman Catholic mass.
Joining Fr. Don at his First Mass of Praise and Thanksgiving were All Saints pastor Rev. Walter Szczesny, Fr. Joe Dumphrey and my favorite high school official — Fr. Gerald Bartko, a long-time Western New York football referee and sports fanatic.
I was planning on a giant, “Amen, Father Don!” or maybe a jab or shout out about the Buffalo Bills or Sabres, which always peaked his interest as a former long-time Leading Off columnist in the Union-Sun & Journal.
But all I could muster in the brief moment was a choked up, “Am—,” and then I lost it. I don't know how I found my pew with the waterfall spewing down my cheeks.
LHS “Class of 1979” schoolmates Ralph Camarre and Mary Kay Brady (they told me that Lori Barrancotta Crowell was also there) were among those in attendance. They remarked at what a great day it was for Fr. Don, our graduating class, the All-Saints parish, the Roman Catholic Church as a whole, this community and the world, frankly. I couldn't agree more.
Fr. Don's always been a man of integrity. We could see it when we went to school with him. Local subscribers could see it in his writing when he was still “Deacon Don” as he penned some outstanding — and almost always spot on — commentary on our beloved Bills and sports in general.
His debating attitude — like mine — has always been, “Let's agree to disagree respectfully.”
Despite his politeness and respectfulness towards others, Fr. Don was never afraid to call out any team or individual player, but his heart was always in the right place when he made any statement. His goal, like all true sports fans, was always (and still is) finding a better way.
His message on Sunday revolved right around that theme. He charged every one of us, including those of us in the media, to help change today's divisive daily narrative on all the news networks simply through integrity in our reporting and especially, through honesty and truthfulness.
Instead of standing beside him, or arguing about the Bills with him or playing chess with him as a young kid, here's my effort for the first time, to do what we all can do — follow him.
There's a new legacy getting started in the Roman Catholic Church in recent days and it's one that's refreshing and long overdue.
Fr. Don, the son of the late Donald and Theresa Watkins, and a 2019 graduate of Christ The King Seminary in East Aurora, will serve as parochial vicar at St. Joseph Cathedral in Buffalo.
Please join me in welcoming him to the priesthood by urging him to write more “Leading Off” columns so we can all hear from him where ever God takes him.
Follow veteran US&J sports reporter and editor John D'Onofrio at @JohnD'Onofrio7.