‘A Great Priest’: Readers Remember Priests Who Inspired Them—A Symposium

A Priest—A Man—to Imitate

By William Simon

You can almost see the sun shine through the gleam in his eyes. His hand brings the touch of warmth and kindness. And his words are medicine of healing and hope.

He is Father Maurice Chase of Los Angeles, and to spend five minutes in his presence is to be in the presence of a saint. He is a priest who is beloved, not only by the rich and famous of Beverly Hills and Hollywood, but also by the down-and-out derelicts on L.A.’s skid row.

And skid row is where you’ll find him, every Sunday, for over ten years now, as he ministers to the forlorn and forgotten of Los Angeles, passing out crisp, new, one dollar bills to each of these unfortunate human beings. The money is contributed by many people in Los Angeles and other anonymous donors all over the country as a symbol that someone cares, and that they believe in and support his ministry of love.

“Bless me, Father,” many ask him. And with each blessing, he gives that person more than a piece of paper money. He gives them a moment of dignity.

The moment of dignity shows them that he is there for them and that Jesus Christ truly loves them.

Indeed, the real currency Father Chase coins is compassion and concern.

Deep within the urban dens of misery, pain, and sin, he brings a light of hope, offering his friendship, time, appreciation, and respect.

“My real gift,” says Father Chase, “what touches them the most, is my presence and willingness to listen.”

At a moment in our history when hate and violence stalk so many city streets, Father Chase, by his very presence, stands as a brave, and too often, solitary witness to the overpowering strength of God’s love.

I first met Father Chase while attending a pilgrimage in Lourdes, France, with the Knights of Malta.

The trip was a spiritual journey that kindled a reaffirmation of faith and life, unlike any I have experienced before or since.

Indeed, it affected me so profoundly that I have continued to return and expect to make this pilgrimage every year in the future.

So many people and events will be forever engraved on my mind and heart. And Father Maury is at the top of the list. He joined our group for dinner one evening at my invitation. And, I was, quite frankly, in awe and disarmed, by his genuine search for the good in all people.

There is a goodness in his spirituality that literally envelops everyone he meets.

We spent a great deal of time together at Lourdes the year he came as a guest, and the following year as my guest.

And last winter, I was in Los Angeles quite often and was fortunate to be with Father Maury on many occasions.

I came to believe he is the most caring and exceptionally selfless human being I’ve ever known.

His whole life is an ongoing sacrifice to Christ’s call to serve. And for rich and poor alike, he has paved a road to God for many who felt forsaken by Him, or had never truly known Him.

He does it by encouragement rather than recrimination. He does it by reaching out a hand of friendship rather than judgment. And he does it by seeing good in every man and woman, even when they have lost sight of the good in themselves.

That, to me, is the essence of a true man of spirit. He loves God with the faith of a child, and he can bring out that joy and wonder, even in the most cynical people.

Father Maury never intended to become a priest. He wasn’t raised in a strict Catholic environment—one of his parents was non-Catholic—and he went to law school with every expectation of practicing law, marrying, and raising a family.

But at one Sunday Mass, he heard a voice calling him to the priesthood. “Get out of my mind,” he remembers thinking, and tried to dismiss it. But the very next Sunday, it came again, the same call. This time, he decided to follow that call and has loved his life as a priest more every year.

Father Chase is now retired from active service, after having just celebrated the fortieth anniversary of his ordination.

However, he is anything but inactive.

I accompanied him one Sunday this year on his weekly mission. And I was struck not only by the hundreds of names he knew of the over a thousand people who gathered to meet him, but also by the love they felt and visibly expressed toward him—a quiet, affectionate, but deeply reverent respect toward this warm and gentle man.

And I was personally exhausted watching him greet and minister to the countless needy, and I found myself wondering, “How does he do it?”

He is 75 years old, and looks 25 years younger.

Fittingly, his birthday falls on Saint Patrick’s Day. That saint of long ago had an extraordinary capacity to touch hearts and to change them.

It is not for us to fathom God’s mysterious ways, to know why some among us are taken at a ripe and tender age, while others live long into the winter of their lives.

I can only pray that, just as Father Maury has used his time to bless so many people, so will God continue to bless him with health and happiness, as an abiding expression of His love for this wise and gentle soul, who is truly one of God’s noblemen here on earth.

William E. Simon, former Secretary of the Treasury, is president of the John M. Olin Foundation, New York City.

Simply Doing Their Job

By Donald P. Costello

It usually happens on football weekends. It will be just after Notre Dame won the game, and the phone will ring, and the former student on the other end whom I have just about forgotten will ask if he can come over for a visit. Soon after he arrives he tells me how important I was to him, what I said in class or in my office or in the hallway that affected his entire life. I used to wait for the quotation, although not remembering that I had ever said anything particularly important, yet hoping for a gem. But it always turns out flat, something like “try harder.” No student has ever quoted the gem I hoped for. The reason I was important to these students is simple, clear, obvious. I was there. And so were they.

As I look back on it, that’s what priests always were for me: There. All during my childhood and youth I knew priests. None of them ever, I’m quite sure, dropped a gem in front of me. But I grew up faithful. The diocesan priests at Little Flower Parish on the South Side of Chicago, the Vincentians at DePaul, the military chaplains at Great Lakes, Norfolk, and Washington must have done something right. Now I know what it was. They were dutiful. I remember very few of them. And I don’t remember anything bad.

I remember authority. The strongest figure of my childhood, stronger than my parents surely, was Father Stephen McMahon, Irish Chieftain Pastor of Little Flower, striding along the sidewalks of his realm with his two huge Saint Bernard dogs. Father McMahon would nod to the children, bow to the women, smile at the men—all of whom greeted him and stepped out of his way as he passed. When I became an intellectual I scorned Father McMahon’s aloofness. I thought a priest should be a pal or a mentor. Now I know that somewhere inside of me I was comforted by Father McMahon’s presence. He secured the boundaries. Everything inside his territory was stable, safe, dependable. That’s not a bad way to grow up.

I remember service. Father Murphy was a stumble-bum. He wrapped his sentences around his ideas until he strangled thought. I used to rewrite his sermons in my mind, but when I did I heard the Christian message. It was Father Murphy who interceded with the pastor when we kids wanted to start a youth club. He it was who came literally running when my mother told me to get a priest because my grandmother was dying. I also remember holiness. Father Darling at DePaul consented to be my personal spiritual advisor, urged me beyond myself, and radiated simple goodness. And I remember wisdom beyond common sense. The Air Force Chaplain at Norfolk—whose name I don’t even remember—said of course I should marry Christine even though of course I was too young, too poor, not yet educated, and in the middle of a war.

Before I sat down to write this I would have said that author-priests were the ones who molded my life: I can trace what I owe to Thomas Merton, Pie-Raymond Regamey, Gerald Vann, Ronald Knox, Pius Parsch. The fictional priests of Georges Bernanos and Graham Greene I can emotionally connect with, be inspired by, pity, and praise, as often as I return to them. Since I joined the faculty at Notre Dame I have been enriched by friendships and inspirations beyond price from John Dunne and Henri Nouwen and Jack Egan and others. But now I realize that sometimes priests, like professors, do their best and most influential work on the young and the ready, in those dull moments when they aren’t even trying, when they are simply doing their job.

Donald P. Costello is associate chair of the English Department in the University of Notre Dame.

The Apostle of Life

By Arthur J. Brew

Pope John Paul II called him “The Apostle of Life” doing “the most important work on earth.” He is Father Paul Marx, OSB, founder and president of Human Life International (HLI), headquartered in Gaithersburg, Maryland, with branches in 31 countries. He founded HLI in 1981 with almost no funds and very little support and has turned it into the world’s largest pro-life organization.

Now in his early seventies, Father Marx has traveled to more than 80 countries on six continents lecturing, distributing books, pamphlets, tapes, and videos, and training thousands in the most challenging apostolate assumed by any priest in our lifetime. He has conducted seminars in the Americas, Africa, and Europe which have drawn thousands to hear some of the most brilliant minds anywhere in the fields of theology, medicine, social science, human sexuality, and education.

A long-time admirer and friend, Auxiliary Bishop Austin Vaughan of New York, says of Father Marx, “He is the best-informed person I know on the horror of abortion around the world, a gold mine of information for the rest of us. Father Marx runs the greatest conventions I have ever been to. Almost all the people there are doers. Unlike a lot of audiences I speak to, the people who come are looking for things they can do in their states or neighborhoods. They are not there just to learn something new on an intellectual level, nor are they there to be entertained.”

Father Marx’s courage and energy are legendary. He has confronted and challenged the abortion industry at every turn, earning the high distinction of being called “public enemy number one” by International Planned Parenthood. He has been jailed for his beliefs, castigated for his honesty, and ridiculed for his mission to save the unborn.

He was one of the first persons to see and speak out about the deadly connection between contraception and abortion.

There is no priest in the world who is better informed on the condition of the Catholic Church today in every corner of the universe due to his widespread travels and contacts among the clergy and laity. Father Marx recently conducted a seminar in Poland, and has plans for meetings soon in Russia and the

Philippines. Jaime L. Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila, said recently, “Human Life International, through the years, has been at the forefront of the Church’s mission of upholding and protecting the value and dignity of life. Among the few people deserving our commendation and esteem for this great work is Father Paul Marx.”

Joe Scheidler, president of the Pro-Life Action League, credits Father Marx for his own involvement in the right-to-life movement: “Father Marx has been my inspiration to fight for the lives of unborn children and their mothers since I first met him in 1973. He helped me decide to dedicate my life to the pro-life cause 21 years ago, and I have never regretted a minute of it. Ad multos annos, Father Marx!”

Australian writer and pro-life leader Babette Francis, said recently, “In the southern hemisphere we see different constellations in our skies, but one star that shines as brightly here as in the north is Father Paul Marx with his vibrant enthusiasm for human life in every corner of the world.”

It is highly ironic that, years after a man named Marx spawned a deadly ideology that killed millions and destroyed nations, God should raise up a simple Benedictine monk also named Marx who is saving countless lives and perhaps a few nations, long after communism has been discredited and discarded by most of its followers.

Next April, at the start of the 13th Human Life International conference on love, life, and the family in Irvine, California, one day will be set aside to honor this extraordinary priest. Tributes will pour in from every corner of the world, including taped messages from the Holy Father, Mother Teresa, and former President Reagan.

It will be a tribute long overdue.

Arthur J. Brew writes from Mountain View, California.

Counselors, Confessors, Friends

By Edwin J. Feulner, Jr.

My early recollection of priests is not centered on the autocratic Monsignor William Plunkett of my Catholic parish, but rather on the three men of God who were my mother’s only three brothers. One baptized me; another served as my godfather; and all three concelebrated our wedding Mass twenty-five years ago. And all three have had very real personal influences on me over the last five decades.

Family discussions and decisions, parties, and dinners always included at least one of my priest-uncles, and usually several of their friends as well. Of course, I served their Masses from early days, I read the lessons at weddings for cousins and siblings, and participated in the Mass of Christian Burial for two of the Fathers Franzen.

But they were more than men of the Church. They were friends and advisors. The oldest, Father Ray Franzen, had a most unusual habit of surprising us by showing up unannounced and staying for a few days. These visits are some of the most cherished memories that my wife, Linda, and I share. The second uncle, my godfather, Father Peter, introduced me to G.K. Chesterton, and argued with me about politics all of my adult life. It was Father Peter who served as an Army Chaplain in occupied Japan after World War II. He returned to Chicago and told me his firsthand stories of life in Japan and Korea and whetted my appetite for that part of the world. The youngest of the three, Father Bob Franzen, who still serves in downstate Illinois, is the intellectual of the trio. Father Bob brightens every family occasion, and his ordination forty years ago is as vivid to me as last Sunday’s Mass.

Priests have been part of the Feulner family, and they have also been friends and advisors along the way. My high school teachers and the Jesuits at Regis when I was an undergraduate: Father Harry Stansell, Professor of History; Father Barnie Karst, the Dean of Students, who knew by instinct when we had broken one of the dormitory rules; Father Robert Boyle, one of the world’s foremost experts on Gerard Manley Hopkins; and Father Ed Maginnis, who guided eighteen undergraduates on our first trip to Europe more than thirty years ago, and who remains a good friend today. Younger Jesuit friends include my classmates, Jim Guyer, who is still at Regis, and John Foley, whose liturgical music brightens so many Masses around the world.

Today, priests remain an active, integral part of my personal life and of our family life. Our pastor, Father Stan Krempa, his predecessor, Monsignor Frank Hendrick, under whom I served on the Parish Council, and Father Mike Sheeran, S.J., and Father David Clarke, S.J., respectively the current and past presidents of Regis University, Father Robert Price of the Brompton Oratory, Arlington Diocese’s Father William Saunders, and Father Gerald Weymes who helped us through some challenging times raising the children—all men of God and men of inspiration whose support and encouragement have touched so many in my family and in so many other families in many ways they never will know.

Intellectual and philosophical advisors like Father Robert Sirico, Father Richard John Neuhaus, and Monsignor Eugene Clark are counselors, confessors, and friends, always ready with words of inspiration and wisdom imparted not only by their training but by the grace of the Almighty.

As I reflect on the positive role that priests have played in the life of our family in so many ways, I am grateful for the experience that my enriched Catholic formation has given me.

Edwin J. Feulner, JR., Ph.D., K.M., is president of The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C.

He Set the Standard

By Peter T. King

When I was a kid growing up in Our Lady Queen of Angels parish in Sunnyside, Queens, Father Joseph Denning to me personified what a priest should be. Forty years later I still think often of the neighborhood and of Father Denning and of how meaningful those days were in shaping my beliefs and ideals.

First some background. Sunnyside is a solid, working-class neighborhood on the Queens side of the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge, just across the river from upscale Manhattan. When I was a kid in the ’40s and ’50s, the main landmarks were Sunnyside Gardens, a ramshackle, weather-beaten fight club which stood stolidly on Queens Boulevard in the shadows of three massive concrete els, and the Manufacturers Trust Bank, less than three blocks away, where Willie Sutton pulled his last stick-up. Other local institutions of note were the Celtic Café and Lynch’s Funeral Home. The neighborhood was Irish-Catholic and blue-collar. Kids played stick ball, touch football, and roller hockey using sidewalk curbs and sewer manholes as boundaries.

When Father Denning came to Sunnyside in 1954, he encountered a certain unease among Sunnyside’s Catholics. After being a part of Saint Teresa’s parish in Woodside for many years, Sunnyside was now being designated as a separate parish—Our Lady Queen of Angels. That new parish, however, had no money and a small old building known as “the chapel” which had been renovated into a church years before. Next to the chapel was a small, beat-up private home which would serve as Father Denning’s rectory. As kids we could hear the adults grumbling that “after getting our money for building drives, the Diocese is casting us adrift.”

Father Denning turned this mood around almost as soon as he arrived. White-haired with a warm smile and easy-going manner, he endeared himself to everyone. Long before it was fashionable, he would be seen out in the street after Mass talking to his parishioners. The sign which he hung outside the chapel said it best: “Ah, come on in!” This was a marked difference from the austere pastor from Saint Teresa’s we were used to. Father Denning became a particular presence among the youth, actively recruiting altar boys with unorthodox methods. It was still the time of the Latin Mass and learning the Latin recitations and knowing what to do when could be pretty intimidating to ten and eleven-year-old kids. Father Denning’s innovation was a 1950s form of on-the-job training. He put you on the altar right away before you knew anything. At each service there would be two or three regular altar boys along with another two or three who were trying to learn what was going on. Considering that the chapel had such a small altar, it was not unusual to see kids bumping into one another or going the wrong way. With it all, Father Denning had a bemused smile and never showed even a hint of irritation. And somehow, before too many months had gone by and before any real sacrilege occurred, we learned our jobs. During and after a Mass or benediction, Father Denning would always have a kind word for us and ask about our families. And when young assistant priests came to the parish, the relaxed but involved mood continued as they played ball with us in the streets and in the local playground. Father Denning demonstrated the same concern and attention to adults as he did to the kids, and within just several years Queen of Angels was a vibrant parish with a new church and a school. Father Denning was literally the heart and soul of the parish, and his extraordinary achievements were acknowledged when he was elevated to Bishop just five years after coming to Queen of Angels.

The lessons I learned from Father Denning remain with me today: His overriding commitment to principle. His unfailing good humor in the face of adversity. His ability to take his job seriously while never taking himself seriously. His drive to reach out and help people who wanted to help themselves. His curious blend of fatalism and optimism which caused him to do his best and never look back.

Yes, I learned these lessons and remember them well. Unlike Father Denning, however, I all too often fail to live them. But I will always be grateful that he set a standard to which I can aspire if not attain.

Congressman Peter T. King (R) represents New York’s Third District.

A Priest of Many Flags

By Kevin Ryan

Who is Andrew Greeley? The common knowledge among educated Catholics says Andrew Greeley is a former Jesuit who writes erotic novels. Others say he is the millionaire priest who must have abandoned his vow of chastity or “how else would he be able to write about all that sexy stuff?” Still others know that the former scholar-priest is hidden away in splendid opulence feeding the prurient appetites of his twenty million readers.

While such information is widely circulated, it is wildly wrong. He does, indeed, have twenty million readers. In actual fact, for each of his novels (he has written twenty), Father Greeley has given us five books of non-fiction. Some of these are important contributions to sociological scholarship; others are richly nourishing works on prayer and spirituality. Contrary to the received view on Father Greeley, he has not only kept the faith, but for thirty-five years has worked continually to spread and deepen our understanding of the faith. While arguably the most influential American priest today, he is certainly the most under-appreciated.

I had heard of Andrew Greeley before I ever met him. I was a young professor at the University of Chicago, and Father Greeley was a notorious priest-sociologist who didn’t fit the academic mold. He had come to the university straight from a South Side parish and quickly transformed himself into an outstanding graduate student, doing groundbreaking work on Catholic education. He was, however, something of a bothersome gadfly. For instance, he had this annoying habit in his off-hours of writing books on spirituality, the modern Church, the history of the Irish and dozens of other topics.

In the trendy 1960s, when so many of his priestly cohorts were abandoning the priesthood, Greeley didn’t even have the good grace to walk the halls of the University in mufti. There he was, a rising young sociologist, publishing in the best journals, receiving large grants from the best foundations, and being invited to speak at universities around the world. Yet, there he was walking the halls in black suit and Roman collar. When, over the course of those years, several faculties proposed him for tenure-track professorial positions, the inner-circle powers at the university found imaginative ways to resist him. Nine times, Father Greeley was presented for a faculty slot. Nine times this internationally recognized social scientist was turned down. I guess they couldn’t bring themselves to offer a position in the social sciences to a man who bends over wafers of bread and “pretends” he has changed them into the Body and Blood of a long-dead Galilean Pretender. Only recently, more than 25 years after receiving his doctorate, was he invited to join the University of Chicago faculty.

I first heard Andrew Greeley preach at a memorial service for Robert Kennedy, a few days after Kennedy’s assassination in June 1968. The church was filled with angry, broken-hearted political activists who had lost yet another hero. In a moving sermon, he reminded the group that the world’s tragedies are not the Christian’s tragedies and that anger and despair should have no place in our hearts. He ended by telling the assembled, many of us swept up in the political passions of the day, that the true political mission of the Christian is to be a “militant moderate.” I took his meaning to be, “Stay passionately involved in the world, but never lose the Christian focus.”

That day I joined Father Greeley’s parish, a loose confederation of people from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to neighborhood kids. Denied a parish by the then-reigning Chicago prelate, a parish created itself around him. For five years, until we moved from Chicago, my wife, Marilyn, and our two daughters and I were close-in members of this free-floating parish. Father Greeley also wove me into one of his many research projects.

Working in an office nearby was like observing a controlled tornado at work. With a huge cup of tea in his fist, he moved with grace and good humor from one research project to the next, monitoring the work of assistants, helping them work through problems, punctuating his day with extended telephone conversations with social scientists and churchmen around the world, restlessly asking questions, ceaselessly sorting out the complexities of public attitudes and behavior. He was a sight to behold: mad for the latest computer program, high-tech gadget, the most recent political issue, the newest films and books.

Andrew Greeley is clearly in love with the world and up to his hairline in it. But strangely, he is not of the world. Even in his pre-novelist days, he was affluent, but he never took his wealth seriously. It was something to use to do his work better, to give away or to entertain his parishioners. Since his success as a novelist, he has funded a chair at the University of Chicago and established a foundation to aid the Chicago parochial schools serving black youth. But at the center of all the notoriety and the wealth, there has always been a very disciplined man, a man of enormous energy and gifts. While he has done much to extend the world’s meaning of a modern clergyman, Andrew Greeley always was and always will be a Chicago parish priest.

Kevin Ryan is director of Boston University’s Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character

Gentleman, Scholar, Southerner, Priest

By Jeffrey and Hilary Tucker

What is the Catholic’s first fear when moving to a new town? Surely, it is the imperialism of progressivist ideology: Has it reached this place and replaced rooted faith?

Conservative Catholics spend much of our time in our home towns finding parishes that believe in and teach the faith, or at least don’t offend us on a weekly basis. The struggle, search, and eventual settling down convince us we are part of a remnant of believers standing athwart our increasingly secular culture in conscious opposition.

So when we move, we fear the loss of our supportive priests and parishioners. Compounding that usual fear, we recently moved to the Deep South. For all its past glories, and current preservation of manners and morals, it is not a hotbed of popular Catholicism.

Sure enough, the architecture of our home parish could tempt a person to become Methodist. Their church is in a dignified antebellum style. Ours is out of place in this quaint Southern college town. It’s a Church in the Round, with jagged edges and a pointy green steel top. The “spirit of Vatican II” possessed its architects.

The lesson we learned is this: don’t judge a parish by the architecture of the church. Inside, as if he were waiting for us, was an orthodox, charismatic, and hard-working young man: James Dean from Montgomery, Alabama. There would be no reason—none whatsoever—for pessimism for the future of the American Church if there were two or three more like him in other regions.

The first sermon we heard was on the Immaculate Conception. Father Dean explained why we believe this doctrine, when it was defined, how long it has been depicted in art, the conventional objections to the doctrine, the answers to the objections, why it is essential to the Catholic Faith, and how it helps us in our spiritual lives. All of this was conveyed in his patient and youthful voice, and followed by a reverent Consecration of the Host.

One night we picked up Father Dean, who always wears his collar, to take him to a local hamburger dive. His Montgomery manner of speech is usually deliberate and unrushed. But this night Father Dean’s sentences flew by like New York seconds. A host of young people at the university were inquiring about the Catholic faith. He wanted to talk, to tell us of the questions they were asking and the look in their eyes when he explained Marian theology, the Sacrament of Penance, and Christ and His Apostles. His young converts were coming from other faiths or back to their own, and finding personal fulfillment and intellectual satisfaction. He was preaching the Gospel.

The key to understanding Father Dean is this: he is a Catholic priest. He is not a political activist, a social worker, a psychiatrist, a promoter of New Age silliness, or a hipster. His life is his faith and his faith is his work. If Father Dean had become an entrepreneur instead of a priest, he would be Sam Walton. This man has an extraordinary passion for the faith.

Two examples. When he arrived at this parish fresh from seminary, he was assigned to campus ministry. In the old days, before campus Mass the students would lounge around on sofas and snack on puffy bread, yacking about this or that in place of the homily. The Holy Sacrifice of Mass had become Teen Talk, almost suitable for cable TV.

He processed in. He asked people to stand instead of lounge. He insisted on a homily instead of a discussion. And of course he administered only unleavened bread. No older than 32 years, and being informal and easygoing himself, he managed to enact these changes without offending anyone.

Not that he would have minded. In one of the first Masses he held, a student raised his voice to say: “Somebody recently asked me why I’m Catholic. I told them it doesn’t matter what religion you are, so long as you believe in something.”

Father Dean’s answer: “Actually, that’s wrong. The true Church subsists within the Catholic Church. Other faiths may contain part of the Truth, but not the whole truth of Christ as revealed in Scripture and Tradition. That is why we are Catholics.” Offensive? This man did not think so. On the contrary, he was grateful for the correction, for his comment only reflected conventional wisdom.

We like to say that Father Dean is the priest who can’t say “I can’t.” When a parishioner asked, Father, someday can we have a liturgy to adore the Blessed Sacrament? He said: Let’s do it every Tuesday night. About 30 people attend every week, and it’s growing. When a few students said, Can we pray together tonight at 10:00 p.m.? He said, Let’s pray every night. About 20 people show up nightly, and this group is growing as well.

Once we asked Father Dean what he does for relaxation. He said the most relaxing time of the week is adoring the Blessed Sacrament on Tuesday evenings, as if we would agree. Were we humbled? That service is our time to be with God and forget other concerns, but though it should not be, it is also our great sacrifice for the week. For Father Dean, this is a respite from the daily schedule of saying Mass, visiting the sick, counseling students, dealing with administrative matters, teaching doctrine classes, and preaching the Word of God to whomever will listen. He does it all with joy.

When you meet Father Dean, it is easier to understand how Saint Ignatius or Saint Athanasius could have conquered the trends of their times, made history, and preserved our Faith. They needed only the passion, dedication, and optimism we see in Father James Dean: Gentleman, Scholar, Southerner, Catholic. He’s a good man to meet when you’re tempted to think that the gates of Hell might prevail.

Jeffery and Hilary Tucker write from Auburn, Alabama.

John Tracy Ellis: Priest-Scholar

By Philip Gleason

For a whole generation of American Catholics, Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, who died in 1992 at the age of 87, was the quintessential priest-scholar and commentator on Catholic affairs. His attraction to the priesthood and to historical scholarship dated alike from his college days and the two vocations remained tightly interwoven throughout his long life.

Although he had many friends among the laity whose fortunes he followed with affection and concern, Ellis himself was immersed in a clerical world nearly all of his adult life. He lived among priests; most of his teachers, his students, his table companions, and his closest friends were priests; and the historical personalities about whom he wrote were priests or bishops. No one knew better than he the clerical culture of the pre-conciliar Church, and no one better personified the positive elements of that culture.

Ellis’s twin vocations to the priesthood and historical scholarship were awakened in his undergraduate years at Saint Viator College in Bourbonnais, Illinois, some fifty miles from his birth place in the little town of Seneca, where his father, who was not a Catholic, operated a hardware store. At first Ellis thought of joining the Viatorians. That intention faded during his years of graduate study at the Catholic University of America; and so also, it seems, did his sense of having a genuine vocation to the priesthood. But he continued to grapple with the issue while teaching as a young lay professor at Saint Viator’s and the College of Saint Teresa. In 1934, four years after having left the Catholic University as a freshly-minted Ph.D., he returned to Washington to study for the priesthood at the Sulpician seminary which later became the University’s Theological College. He did some teaching at the University while still a seminarian, and in 1938 the new Father Ellis joined its history department on a regular basis.

Though never what one would call robust, Ellis had superabundant energy and worked hard at whatever he undertook. He expected the same of his students, his fellow priests, and his colleagues in history. Indeed, he said in his most influential work—the famous critique of Catholic intellectual life published in 1955—that “indolence” was one of the chief reasons Catholics made such a miserable showing in that area. And he took preaching just as seriously as scholarship. As a former college debater, he had high expectations both as to preparation and delivery. He prepared conscientiously for his own frequent preaching assignments, and accepted invitations for Lenten series and the like that cut deeply into his time.

Ellis’s scholarship was meticulous. He taught by example as well as precept, and the former could not help but impress in other matters such as his wide reading, his promptness as a correspondent, his helpfulness as an adviser, and in the forbearance he tried to practice when dealing with those whose views he did not share. All this must have impressed itself especially upon his priest-students, for whom he felt a special kinship and in whom he took particular pride.

Ellis’s most productive period coincided with the climactic phase of the preconciliar American Catholicism, roughly 1945 to 1960. He presided over the most important center of Catholic historical scholarship in the country, and his own major works appeared then—most notably his monumental biography of Cardinal Gibbons, his short history of American Catholicism, and his epoch-making article of the intellectual life. As the latter suggests, Ellis could be sharply critical of Catholic weaknesses, and by the early 60s was becoming more outspoken on the subject of clerical authoritarianism.

He was, however, too moderate by temperament, and too deeply attached to the Church as he had always known it, not to be deeply unsettled by the changes that followed in the wake of Vatican II. As a historian, he knew that ecumenical councils had sparked schisms in the past. In fact, he confided to friends before this one ended that the Church might well be facing a grave crisis. Events soon validated his fears. Despite having steeled himself to expect a falling off of vocations and even an “exodus from the priesthood,” Ellis was dismayed by what seemed to him a pervasive breakdown of clerical discipline, a collapse of priestly self-respect, and instances of excess that put one in mind of the age of Boccaccio.

His concern no doubt played a role in his undertaking the last major volume to appear under his name, The Catholic Priest in the United States: Historical Investigations (1971), which he edited and to which he contributed a long and characteristically critical essay on seminary education. Thus, though personally shaken by events, Ellis remained faithful to his interlinked callings as priest and as historian. A model to whom he frequently referred was Cardinal Newman, whose old age was tested by many a trial. For like Newman and G.K. Chesterton, whose colorful phrase he sometimes used, he never lost confidence that the Church would survive its crisis and continue through history “reeling but erect.”

Philip Gleason teaches history at the University of Notre Dame.


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