Metro

THOMAS FARRAGHER

As a child, he tended sheep in the Congo. Now, he’ll tend souls in Boston

Lambert Nieme grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and as a boy, helped his father on the family’s sheep farm near the capital city of Kinshasa.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Lambert Nieme grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and as a boy, helped his father on the family’s sheep farm near the capital city of Kinshasa.

WESTON — A bright midday sun streams through the stained glass windows at the chapel inside Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary, and the place is aglow in the warm kaleidoscopic light.

As the entrance hymn fills the sanctuary, Lambert Nieme is sitting next me, his hymnal open and resting evenly on two steady hands. And the man is smiling.

“The King of love my shepherd is,’’ the congregants sing in full-throated unison. “Whose goodness fails me never; I nothing lack if I am his. And he is mine forever.’’

Advertisement

There is something so apt — poetic even — about those words, and Nieme knows it as he sings with his eyes closed.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

He grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and as a boy, helped his father on the family’s sheep farm near the capital city of Kinshasa. The ninth of 12 children, he was, at least broadly speaking, a shepherd.

It’s an ancient avocation, and its liturgical symbolism is not lost on Nieme, a 45-year-old seminarian about to become a pastoral shepherd after his ordination later this month and his assignment to a parish in the archdiocese of Boston.

“My father had a sheep farm and I was taking care of those sheep,’’ he told me as we sat in a small seminary conference room after Mass. “Now, I will serve the church. I believe that Jesus gives us this gift of life. Jesus needs disciples to continue to teach his people. And, for me, becoming a priest is responding to that call of Jesus, who needs disciples to continue his mission.’’

Lambert Nieme.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Lambert Nieme.

Since its founding in 1964, this place has been doing just that. It’s a place for so-called delayed vocations, a place for men who’ve had other careers — lawyers, pediatricians, veterinarians, chemists — to build a second life. In their new one, they wear a Roman collar, baptize babies, marry young couples, and anoint the sick and the dying.

Advertisement

And it’s not for everybody.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Lambert Nieme studied in his dorm room at Pope St. John XXIII Seminary.

“When I look at men here, my judgment is: Is this guy going to be a bridge to Christ? Or is he going to be a barrier to Christ?’’ said the Very Rev. Brian R. Kiely, the seminary’s rector and president.

“Is the guy balanced? Is he normal? Is he running away from something? What are his unresolved issues? All those things that would surface in a psychological test. Is he neurotic? Is he compulsive? Is he obsessive? If you are those things, then you’re not suitable for ministry.’’

But Lambert Nieme and the six other men who will be ordained have passed all of those tests.

The outcome of his psychological screening seems a mere formality when examined against the backdrop of his long academic and life experience.

Advertisement

“He’ll be a good priest,’’ said the Rev. Frank Daly, who was first ordained in 1967 before he fell in love and left the priesthood for a woman who became his wife and the mother of his two children. He re-entered the priesthood after her death in 2015.

‘’

“He’s passionate about his faith,’’ Father Daly said of his seminary friend. “He’s very thoughtful. He relates to people very well.’’

Nieme also holds two doctoral degrees, one in theology and another in philosophy. He’s been an editor, a researcher, a lecturer, and a man who credits the Catholic Church for his early education that became his life’s North Star.

Lambert Nieme walked into the library at Pope St. John XXIII Seminary.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Lambert Nieme walked into the library at Pope St. John XXIII Seminary.

“For me, becoming a priest is a kind of thanksgiving to God for all that he gave me from the church,’’ he said. “Now I will serve the church and my faith. Jesus needs disciples to continue to teach his people. And, for me, becoming a priest is responding to that call of Jesus who needs disciples to continue his mission. He wants me to continue to do his mission in this world.’’

The seminary here sits on 25 acres of what used to be Walter H. Thompson’s farm before Cardinal Richard Cushing acquired it in 1961 and saw it as a fertile field for something else.

It has become the spiritual proving grounds for the nearly 800 men who have studied here since it became the only seminary in the US administered by diocesan priests for older vocations — those age 30 to 60.

Father Kiely, who began his priestly life at Holy Family Parish in Duxbury, said Nieme, who speaks in heavily accented English, will need to work on his communication skills. And that’s precisely what he’s doing, learning where to place the emphasis in the sentences of his sermon.

“I can now preach without notes in English,’’ he said. “For me, that’s a big deal.’’

For Father Kiely, pulpit oratory is a modest concern. The major stuff? Nieme has that down, the rector said.

What the rector is looking for in a priest, he has found in this man from the Congo.

And what exactly is that?

“A guy who evidences a real desire to love Christ in a way that is going to be evidenced in the way that he serves other people,’’ Father Kiely said. “That’s what I’m looking for. That he’s a man of prayer. That he’s humble. That he’s somebody who’s going to be putting people before himself. That it’s not all about him. That’s one of the biggest problems, I think, in anything, is that we can make it about us. In the priesthood, it’s not about me. It’s about Christ. People don’t care what you think. They need to think that you care.’’

Right now, Nieme is focused on a paper he needs to finish on the sacrament of reconciliation — confession, we used to call it — and the anointing of the sick. He’s also wondering whether some of his siblings will be able to obtain visas to attend his ordination.

And he’s waiting to learn about his first assignment, news that will be delivered on the eve of his May 19 ordination at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Boston, popularly known as the Mission Church.

“I will pray for people,” he said. “I will minister to them. But I will not do that as a lone ranger. Jesus sent us to be the shepherd of the people of God.’’

If anyone knows about being a shepherd, it’s Lambert Nieme.

He has already allowed himself to imagine the moment he formally joins the priesthood.

During the ceremony, there will be the five promises made by Nieme and his classmates, to, among other things, implore God’s mercy upon those entrusted to their care.

He will lay prostrate as the Litany of Saints is sung.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley will lay his hands on Nieme’s head, as will every priest present, in keeping with ancient church tradition.

And then Frank Daly will be ready for the investiture, bestowing upon this man from the Congo his proper priestly vestments.

“I will be joyful and happy,’’ Father Daly said.

And when Lambert Nieme finally joins him in the priesthood, Father Daly said he will hug his old friend the new priest and whisper this in his ear: “Mon pere Lambert.’’

It’ll be his way of saying this: Welcome to our priesthood, Father Nieme.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.