Fr. Michael Curtin—Fr. Mike to anyone who dealt with him for more than about three minutes—knew for some years before his death at 63 on February 4 that he was living on borrowed time. Males in his family, he would point out in his irreducibly good-natured way, had a habit of expiring well before their due date in the longevity tables, and he saw no reason why he should prove an exception. When a friend gently chastised him for flirting with fatalism, he replied, “But all of us live on borrowed time. The real question is not how long we get to use it, but how we pay it back.”
Mike Curtin’s original payment plan led him to Harvard, an A.B. in applied physics in 1957, and no doubt a brilliant career in science. But fate intervened in the form of Opus Dei, which had established a tiny missionary village among the natives at the world’s most prestigious university. Before long, physicist Curtin abandoned the study of atomic particles to take up the more arduous task of tracing the molecular motions of the human soul, his own included. After graduating from Harvard, he began his studies for the priesthood in Rome. He was ordained in 1961 and a year later received his doctorate in theology from the Lateran University. His talents were such that he served for a number of years as secretary/translator to Blessed Josémaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1992.
Fr. Mike returned to the States and to duties as a spiritual counselor at student residences established by Opus Dei, first in Chicago, then in Milwaukee and Florida, and finally in Washington, D.C. While serving as chaplain at The Heights School, a superb all boys academy in suburban Maryland, he came to the attention of James Cardinal Hickey of Washington, who installed Fr. Curtin as director of the Catholic Information Center. It was a masterstroke of inspiration on the Cardinal’s part. The somewhat awkwardly named Center is in fact a downtown chapel, bookstore, and spiritual watering hole, a midday magnet for a ragtag collection of souls—everyone from the briefcase brigade to janitors on lunch break, from amiable widows and widowers to passers-by who wander in from the street. On any given day, some 80 or 90 of them (twice that number during Lent) will stop by for Mass, confession, and a lesson or two in spiritual rearmament.
It was here that for the past seven years that they came to experience firsthand the remarkable pastoral virtues that for the preceding three decades had been displayed by Fr. Mike in smaller and less public venues. It cannot be an easy thing to create some semblance of a spiritual community out of an assemblage of downtown folk whose familial and professional obligations necessarily draw them away for much of the day and week. But Fr. Mike, who knew the rhythms of their souls from long hours in the confessional, and who had long ago mastered the art of the eight-minute homily, drew them together by the compelling charm of his own example.
One came away from a talk by Fr. Mike inspired less by his theological brilliance or his eloquence—though he was certainly capable of both those things—than by his skill in bringing the drama of salvation to the stage of one’s own life. His rhetorical moods were synchronous with the liturgical year: warm and welcoming during Advent, increasingly stern during Lent (when he’d let loose an occasional jeremiad), joyously, almost giddily triumphant at Eastertide. But always there was the indefatigable constancy of his devotion to the Eucharist—and to the task of bringing the transforming grace of the great sacrament to the life of his congregates. Though he could hold his own when it came to grand theological controversies, he was far more interested in what you planned to do during the next 24 hours to improve the condition of your soul. He brought that same art to the instruction of his fellow priests, among whom he was particularly beloved.
Life held no terrors for Fr. Mike. Neither did the prospect of his own death. The transition from this world to the next was for him as seamless as a finely woven bolt of cloth. That understanding became ever more apparent during the past year as his health failed. No doctor, no friend, no colleague could tie him down, and after a while they stopped trying. He wasn’t about to let mere death stand in the way of his work. As to his present whereabouts, none of us of course can say for sure, but a physicist I know puts the heavenly probability about us as close to one as you can get.