On a Monday evening, in the dimly lit backroom of a Germantown bar, Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre faced nearly 50 of the archdiocese’s young adults and spent more than an hour telling them about his life.
The Louisville Young Catholics — a group intended for those aged 21-40 which meets several times a month to “provide Catholic intellectual and spiritual nourishment to young adults in community with one another” — hosted Louisville’s new archbishop during its monthly Distilled Doctrine pub night meeting Sept. 12 at 21st in Germantown.
The archbishop introduced his listeners to the members of his family, explaining that of his six siblings, there’s “really just two of us left now.” Three of his brothers have passed away and his eldest sibling, his only sister, has dementia.
He spoke about his parents, how his mother was “a powerhouse of prayer” and his father was “a very good dad.”
The Fabre family knows pain and tragedy, the archbishop said, but they always found comfort in the church.
That comfort is what propelled him to attend seminary — twice.
As he “toyed with the idea of priesthood,” Archbishop Fabre decided to attend seminary in ninth grade.
“I stayed three days and I left,” he said with a laugh. “It was like living in a mausoleum.”
He returned to seminary for a second time after graduating from high school. His brother had passed away during Archbishop Fabre’s senior year, and he was searching for answers about what God was doing, he said.
Although he initially hated seminary and wanted to leave, the Benedictine monk who served as the seminary rector talked the archbishop into staying.
He eventually attended the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium for four years, where he received a “wonderful education.”
“The Benedictines taught me how to pray,” he said. “The American College taught me how to think.”
Following his time in Belgium, Archbishop Fabre returned to Louisiana, to the Diocese of Baton Rouge, where he anticipated spending the rest of his life as a parish priest, he told the young adults.
When he was named an auxiliary bishop of New Orleans in 2006, he thought that’s where he would spend the rest of his life, he said. And then when he was ordained bishop of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux in 2013, he thought that’s where he would spend the rest of his life, he continued.
Then, on Jan. 31 of this year, while sitting in his chapel, having just finished morning prayer, the archbishop’s phone rang with a Washington, D.C., number.
“I thought, ‘Now who is this?’ ” the archbishop said. “So I answered the phone. And I hear ‘Bishop Fabre!’ And I said, ‘Oh my God, it’s the nuncio.’ ”
The nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, told him, “ ‘I’m calling with news for you. The Holy Father has named you the Archbishop of Louisville!’ And I said, ‘Kentucky?!’ ”
Having spent the past nearly six months at the helm of the Archdiocese of Louisville, Archbishop Fabre said he is settling in.
During the Sept. 12 program, he left plenty of time for questions and fielded quite a few — How did he choose “Comfort My People” to be his motto; what is the church’s stance on people with disabilities becoming priests or nuns; what did he learn during his time as a prison chaplain; does he speak languages other than English?
They also asked him about which saints have made the biggest impact on his life, the future of church attendance and discernment.
On the topic of languages, Archbishop Fabre is able to celebrate Mass in Spanish, he said, and “can make my way in Spanish if they speak slowly.”
Despite going to school in Belgium, the school used English so he never had to learn Dutch, Flemish or French. Although he did pick up some “restaurant Flemish,” Archbishop Fabre said.
He’s also not qualified to celebrate Mass in Latin, he noted.
“The traditional Latin Mass is not my spirituality,” he said. “I can’t even say it, OK, because I don’t know Latin. Believe it or not, I took one class in Latin and my Latin professor said, ‘Mr. Fabre, if you don’t know the third declension of king or whatever by next class, you’re not going to know your anus from a hole in the ground.’ And I said, ‘Thank you, Father,’ and I went and dropped the class. And at that time, Latin was not required so I took Spanish.”
In response to an inquiry from his listeners, he said the saint who has had the most impact on him is St. Joseph.
“I am convinced that St. Joseph, like me, was a very strong introvert, very strong introvert,” he said. “Joseph never speaks in sacred Scripture. Never says a word. Just does what God asks him to do. And then what happens to Joseph? We don’t know. He just fades away. He’s gone. He does what God wants him to do, and then he’s out of there.”
It helps that Joseph is the archbishop’s middle name, too.
As for discernment — whether discerning a religious vocation or other questions in life — the archbishop had some advice:
“Strive after fulfillment, not happiness,” he said. “Remember, happiness comes and goes.”
He also told a story of a woman in Baton Rouge who came into his office and said, “Father, I’m not happy.”
“And I looked at her and I said, ‘You know what? I’m not happy either.’ ”
To her confusion he explained, “I’m not happy today, but happiness comes and goes. I am fulfilled in my life. Happiness is an emotion, but fulfillment is something deeper.”
Archbishop Fabre, who encourages people to call him Archbishop Shelton, said church attendance for most organized Christian faiths is dropping and that “COVID has advanced secularism and propelled it 10 years into the future.”
But he finds hope in the future of the church.
“I think young people — and you’re young, so tell me if I’m wrong — are more and more interested in community again and I think many of them find that community in the church or religious life,” he said. “Religious communities that have a singular purpose and an outward manifestation are bursting at the seams because young people find meaning in that.”
To end the evening, he thanked his listeners for their attention and their faith. He also asked for their prayers.
“I believe the prayers of young people are powerful. Please offer a prayer for me if you have an extra prayer to pray. I’d appreciate that. I’m certainly praying for all of you.”