Compassionate and Honest

Green Pastures/Megan Duncanson
Green Pastures/Megan Dun­can­son

I’ve remem­bered more from my first appoint­ment with Father Michael. I know some sub­jects car­ried over to the sec­ond and sub­se­quent appoint­ments. I sup­pose it real­ly doesn’t mat­ter- except from my per­spec­tive. That first appoint­ment was an intro­duc­tion to a stranger- a very holy man — who was full of sur­pris­es. One of the amus­ing things that hap­pened was that Father Michael kept try­ing to find out my age.Several times he men­tioned the year he grad­u­at­ed from high school and oth­er sig­nif­i­cant events of the ‘70s and asked me where I was when they occurred .  I final­ly real­ized that he want­ed to know my age, so I just told him. I don’t know why it was so impor­tant to him, but he seemed calmer once he knew.

Anoth­er dis­cus­sion was about my fam­i­ly, my eth­nic­i­ty, my sib­lings, my par­ents. I men­tioned that my dad had died in 1986. Father asked what my dad had died of and his age. I replied “He died of leukemia at six­ty-one”. Well, as soon as I said that Father said loud­ly and incred­u­lous­ly. “Six­ty-one? six­ty-one? Why, I’m fifty-nine myself!!!”  And as he spoke, he react­ed- he put both hands to his face, hold­ing them there for a sec­ond , then ran them up over his head a cou­ple of times. And he paced as he did this. He seemed tru­ly dis­tressed. And I was touched again by his vis­i­ble emo­tion. Then Father asked how long my dad had lived with the dis­ease. “Two months,” I replied, ” he died in remis­sion.” Again Father repeat­ed my words “Two months?????” and again he got very upset .

Now you know Father had mem­o­ry trou­bles; I’ve men­tioned that before. The scene above about my dad’s death was repeat­ed no less than four times in the two years I knew Father Michael. Each time, Father react­ed exact­ly the same way. It was like he took it per­son­al­ly, as though it were a mes­sage for him. It was this expe­ri­ence and sev­er­al oth­ers that bol­stered my belief that Father was intu­itive and ‘knew things’.

Before he was even diag­nosed with can­cer, Father would talk about things hav­ing to do with his death. Once I vis­it­ed him in the sac­risty and the first thing out of his mouth was that he had decid­ed that when he died, he was going to have Instant Lot­tery tick­ets spread all over the inside of his cas­ket. And then he said “but of course, I wouldn’t have them buried with me and waste them. I’d have them dis­trib­uted to all the mourn­ers before they closed the cas­ket”. I was amused, but said , “Father M, why on earth are you even think­ing about stuff like that??!!”  That time he answered that he’d been to quite a few wakes recent­ly where this had been done–and he liked the idea. He brought this up a sec­ond time also, freak­ing me out a lit­tle.

Back to the appointment.….Father talked about his fam­i­ly, his old­er broth­er, in par­tic­u­lar. Father was very proud of all his sib­lings. But there seemed to be a spe­cial bond between him and his old­er broth­er. I believe his old­er broth­er pro­tect­ed Father Michael as a child; he’d often spo­ken of being picked on. Father told of his brother’s edu­ca­tion, accom­plish­ments and wealth (yes, a lit­tle brag­ging). Then said “he is a won­der­ful, devout, pro­gres­sive Catholic”. Then a moment lat­er “and I am a pro­gres­sive priest”.

I kind of expect­ed that as I sur­mised it was part of the rea­son for Father Michael’s pop­u­lar­i­ty. But I am not pro­gres­sive, and I’d rather not label any­body or be labeled. When Father said this, he sound­ed so con­fid­ing and secre­tive, I imme­di­ate­ly want­ed to let him know that I thought dif­fer­ent­ly. So I asked to tell him a story.It was about the parish I’d belonged to before St Vin­cent. It was a pret­ty wild place. My two old­er kids went to CCD there. Two sis­ters and a dea­con pre­pared them for Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and First Com­mu­nion. I attend­ed the par­ent edu­ca­tion meet­ings and in the ones for First Com­mu­nion, I was tak­en aback by the lack of under­stand­ing of the sacra­ment. Peo­ple talked about, bread, wine, sym­bols; no one seemed to have any kind of grasp of the Real Pres­ence. The two sis­ters said noth­ing to enlight­en or cor­rect any­one. Noth­ing. I was shak­en.

The sis­ter in charge of the Com­mu­nion cat­e­ch­esis began to preach at Mass on Sun­day. It was near­ly every Sun­day. She was quite gifted,an excel­lent preach­er, no deny­ing that. The parish was inte­grat­ed with many African-Amer­i­cans com­ing to Mass because their kids attend­ed the school. Sis­ter, also African-Amer­i­can, real­ly spoke to them and their lives. And her per­spec­tive was cer­tain­ly enrich­ing to the rest of us.But I real­ized she should not have been preach­ing and it both­ered me.This con­tin­ued for a year and then the sis­ter began to wear priest­ly vest­ments for Mass. I tried to ratio­nal­ize that one out; I couldn’t. My gut feel­ing was that sis­ter was try­ing to enhance her author­i­ty by wear­ing the vest­ments. And though there were peo­ple like me who would think “who are you kid­ding?”, there were oth­ers who would not be aware of the false­ness. I just thought it was wrong.

I con­tact­ed the Office of Divine Wor­ship to talk to some­one about it. (Father Michael near­ly had a con­nip­tion when I told him this. He sat there lis­ten­ing, but steam­ing.) I had to doc­u­ment my obser­vances by let­ter, so I did. I had to describe the vest­ments she wore. The priest in that office made sure I knew that a pas­tor could give per­mis­sion for some­one else to do the homi­ly. He didn’t know what to say when I said ” But Father, it’s near­ly every week!” Well, noth­ing hap­pened. I left the parish and found St Vincent’s-a calm place. About ten years lat­er, a con­ser­v­a­tive bish­op had the sis­ter reas­signed. She became head of her order-no sur­prise there!

I made the point to Father Michael that the sis­ter who was so dri­ven to preach was the same one who didn’t both­er to edu­cate at all in the First Com­mu­nion class­es. He got that, but was irri­tat­ed with me for my con­tact­ing the Arch­dio­cese. He yelled at me, so angry that I would ques­tion a Dominican’s preach­ing charism. I yelled back “No, she was NOT a Domini­can, Father Michael!”  He was also cha­grinned that I would not auto­mat­i­cal­ly and unques­tion­ing­ly sup­port anoth­er woman. Father M must have been exposed to a lot of real­ly testy fem­i­nists- that’s all I can fig­ure. He act­ed like he was com­plete­ly in their cor­ner, but I feel he was try­ing to show sen­si­tiv­i­ty.

Any­way, Father Michael under­stood me bet­ter after that. Part of me didn’t want to ever hear that he might be at odds with church teach­ing. But now I often won­der what inter­est­ing sce­nar­ios he might have been part of, being pro­gres­sive “and proud of it” and also open to “trump­ing the law”. Our appoint­ment end­ed pleas­ant­ly and we con­tin­ued to meet a few times more, before the can­cer.

Once, on the phone, with Father Louie near­by, Father Michael stat­ed that Louie was one of a select group who’d ever seen him get angry. I refreshed his mem­o­ry about the expe­ri­ence I’ve just relayed. He was sur­prised and then remem­bered.

After All, We Are An Easter People

549443_873708899357112_6993983978990308286_nIt’s just after mid­night on East­er Sun­day. I attend­ed the East­er vig­il at St Vincent’s. It was excit­ing to wel­come the new­ly bap­tized and con­firmed mem­bers of our church. That was a true high­light of the litur­gy. I’m glad I attend­ed for that rea­son.

But gosh, the homi­ly was such a down­er. Just my insignif­i­cant opin­ion.  Our priest chose to empha­size the neg­a­tive (dead- as he put it) atti­tudes in our lives.….on East­er!! No encour­age­ment, no empa­thy, no attempt to understand.….so depress­ing.  It left me feel­ing sad, for I know every one  of the con­gre­ga­tion has expe­ri­enced these feel­ings.

To counter this I’m going to share some won­der­ful words of Father Michael from his emails to me. I need­ed to be lift­ed up after that homi­ly; read­ing them has  helped immense­ly. Hope you all will enjoy the POSITIVE:

After our first ‘in-per­son’ meet­ing-

I was thrilled to see you this morn­ing “in the sac­risty”!!!!! You are so joy­ful and faith­filled and your fam­i­ly is lucky hav­ing you pray­ing for them.Come often just to laugh or say hi !

         If you want to chat about any­thing, call any­time.

         Bless­ings,

Father Michael


Know you are wel­come any­time to share any­thing. You can decide when it is good or the spir­it guides you. I’m thrilled with your sto­ry. God is so pow­er­ful and yet we still need to hear these kinds of sto­ries.

        Hope the rest of the day is great.. Keep COOL as best as you can.

Bless­ings
Fr. Michael op


    I don’t mind at all receiv­ing your emails. I am sor­ry to read your son’s view of faith. Some­times I   won­der how our chil­dren turn so far from faith after being formed in it. But with God all things are pos­si­ble and that anger/hurt may turn to a new zeal. Maybe now that he is look­ing for a job, he will be more open to God’s grace and gifts.

        Bless­ings on all your wor­ries but grate­ful­ness for your faith.

Father Michael


        Thanks for that fun­ny sto­ry about your Aunt. Every­one should have an aunt like that.

       I am so touched by your gen­er­ous offer. Hon­est­ly, that is hard­ly nec­es­sary. I have loved my priest­hood these 25 years although there have been painful times. But God has always stuck with me. Hard­ly a day goes by where I don’t pray in grat­i­tude for his fideli­ty. I am awed by it.

It is true that the most dev­as­tat­ing moment in my aca­d­e­m­ic life led me to the Domini­cans. I have often thought of that. Today, it was com­fort­ing to know some­one of the sta­tus of St. Alphon­sus Liguori had a ter­ri­ble pro­fes­sion­al expe­ri­ence that led to great things.

I’m off to Cana­da on Fri­day. Say a prayer that all will be well with the fam­i­ly. I just want pleas­ant weath­er and to swim.

Bless­ings
Fr. Michael


After an unpleas­ant, touchy ‘dis­cus­sion’ of com­mon stereo­types:

I once did a talk with a Domini­can sis­ter and it was on stereo­types. We would men­tion a cul­ture and the audi­ence had to do a spon­ta­neous response. It was astound­ing. For almost every cul­ture the first response was neg­a­tive. For exam­ple Irish equals drunk, Ger­man equals rigid etc. Tru­ly, I have heard the Pol­ish jokes but I have always been dis­mayed because of the bril­liance of our Pol­ish broth­ers and the faith that saved a nation when so much of East­ern Europe lost it. The human con­di­tion seems to move quick­ly to neg­a­tive respons­es which I see as the result of orig­i­nal sin.

One bless­ing I have always thanked God for is that I usu­al­ly can see pos­i­tive things even in the ter­ri­ble real­i­ties of life. Some say I have rose col­ored glass­es, oth­ers just say I am naive. But I do believe God wants me to love and to live by pos­i­tive rein­force­ment. There is a school of psy­chol­o­gy that is direct­ed at heal­ing by affir­ma­tions that help the patient.

Any­way, I’m glad you are blessed with find­ing the good in peo­ple.

Also well done at the casi­no. I just know you have good kar­ma!!!!!

Bless­ings
Fr. Michael


It is a won­der­ment to me that even in talk­ing about  neg­a­tive, unpleas­ant things, Father Michael was able to see the good, the hope­ful, the pos­i­tive. It is so good to see his words and remem­ber.

I feel much better—–Happy East­er to all!

 

The Prior and ‘The Boys’

Father MichaeSome of 'the boys' at AI, a few years ago with their nurse, Fr Wisdom & Fr Michaell became Pri­or at St Pius V Pri­o­ry in 2011. Since St Pius is a res­i­dence for many of the Domini­can senior fathers and brothers,it was a new expe­ri­ence for Father Michael . He had been a pri­or pre­vi­ous­ly , but the St Pius assign­ment offered him many chal­lenges. Father M stayed ‘half­time’ as parochial vic­ar of St Vin­cent Fer­rer , con­tin­u­ing with Mass­es, wed­dings  and funer­als there,commuting back and forth. But he was now  also in charge of the old­er priests, includ­ing some liv­ing in nurs­ing facil­i­ties. He vis­it­ed all his charges often. He was very ded­i­cat­ed to the seniors, though he heard a lot of com­plaints and demands from them. He tried to keep it all in per­spec­tive  and in good humor. In May 2012 Father Michael wrote me this email:“Thanks for the prayers. I find this peri­od of my life dif­fi­cult as I have to trav­el so much and look­ing after old­er Fathers has many chal­lenges.” An under­state­ment!

Some­times sto­ries of “the boys” would creep into the Sun­day hom­i­lies. I remem­ber once when Father Michael told us of the bro­ken St Pius ele­va­tor and the great project it was to get every­one up and down the stairs safe­ly. It sound­ed like such a cat­a­stro­phe ! I think Father Michael was most upset with the com­plaints about some­thing that obvi­ous­ly could not be imme­di­ate­ly fixed. So he vent­ed to us and we all kind of chuck­led. But I remem­ber Father M end­ing the homi­ly with a descrip­tion of his ‘boys’, rapt in evening prayer,their col­lec­tive lives and pres­ence a gift of grace. He said “And when they are pray­ing all togeth­er, what pow­er for the Lord they show!” He loved them and held them in rev­er­ence. Father Michael wrote me an email the next day :

Even when I am close to the ‘edge’, I still keep laugh­ing with ‘the boys’. Praise God the ele­va­tor is fixed and we are back to our routine.Funny how lit­tle things real­ly upset the applecart.But it all keeps me quite hum­ble and thank God I have humor.”

Father Michael had humor, yes, but he also was very human. He had his moments of pure irri­ta­tion with the boys. Once he called me to vent about some inci­dent, ask­ing me if he should start writ­ing a blog about all the stuff that hap­pened at St Pius. I said I thought it could be inter­est­ing and enter­tain­ing, if  he kept his humor fore­front. I don’t think he ever wrote it.….too bad. There was anoth­er time when Father Michael was so exas­per­at­ed by some of the boys, he told me that he and Father Louie were mak­ing a list of all the indi­vid­ual broth­ers’ most admirable traits and accom­plish­ments. Father Michael said he felt he need­ed to remind him­self to look beyond the sur­face.

Here are some typ­i­cal quotes from Father Michael’s emails about his pri­or duties:

I’m off to see my broth­ers in the nurs­ing home. Today at mass I real­ized how many of them had ill­ness­es that are tru­ly slow­ing them down. But they are troupers.”

Now I will go to the emer­gency room to bring one of the broth­ers who fell and cracked his head. He doesn’t want to go , but we have to have him checked. I hope it is not a 7 hour stay!!!!!”

I am off to see one of the broth­ers in rehab. Anoth­er has to go in the nurs­ing home and there are no beds at the moment.A third will soon be told he has to stay here per­ma­nent­ly. I am run­ning for shel­ter!!!!!”

Writ­ten when he was in can­cer treatment:“I’m just back from more blood work and off to the hos­pi­tal with one of the Fathers.”

When Father Michael returned to St Pius from Albu­querque, diag­nosed with can­cer, he broke down when he entered the build­ing . The com­mu­ni­ty had gath­ered to wel­come him.He described his reac­tion as pro­found and told me how incred­i­bly moved he was when one of the senior Fathers asked him sweet­ly and ten­ta­tive­ly “Will you still be our Pri­or?” Father Michael con­tin­ued as pri­or as long as he could, quite far into his ill­ness. Then Father M resigned, but remained deeply involved with” the boys”.

In the fall of 2013, I began to vis­it a very weak Father Michael at St Pius. Father Michael loved pie, so I’d bring him a pie. And then I added cof­fee cake for shar­ing and lat­er a loaf of Czech hous­ka bread–and then an extra one for the boys. I felt so good because it was so sim­ple to do and pleased Father Michael. Here is a typ­i­cal response from Father M:

The food was deli­cious. I even put my favorite bread in the bread box think­ing there would be some for the morn­ing. Was I wrong! They got a taste of that and they were off to the races! It is a joy to see that small things make them so joy­ful. Thanks for bring­ing that joy to our house.”

In that amus­ing vein, I recall Father Michael warn­ing me not to just drop off the cakes and bread with the recep­tion­ist. He said “No,no,no — give me a call to meet you there.….otherwise ” the boys” are like vul­tures “. So fun­ny.

Around the same time last year, I start­ed to send Father Michael beau­ti­ful lilies every month. He enjoyed them so much, but was more excit­ed that “the boys are delight­ed”. Lat­er he told me that the scent was over­pow­er­ing at times for some of the fathers, includ­ing him! I  made a men­tal note about that.

I have no one to vis­it at St Pius any­more, so no more bak­ery deliv­er­ies from me! But I still send the broth­ers lilies on spe­cial days– Asi­at­ic lilies with no annoy­ing scent. I know it must please “the boys” to receive love­ly flowers…a lit­tle joy. I hope it reminds them of their days with Father Michael. I know they are grate­ful.