by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism
Dr. Knight: Would you please share with us your early Catholic formation. Please tell us the significance of your high school years in formation.
Father: My first formation was, of course, in my family. My mother came from a very devout Catholic family and my father was baptized before marrying her, so entering into this deeply religious family. Daily prayers, Sunday Mass, season devotions, and a love of the Sacred Heart permeated the home. Though we did not have many resources, that also meant that I with my four siblings attended Catholic grade school. That allowed me to join a choir at an early age and become an altar server. I remember a major strike at the steel mills in Gary, where we lived and where many family members and neighbors were out of work. During that summer my brother and I had the daily adventure of walking the 2 miles to St. Mary of the Lake church to serve Mass offered for the end of the strike. It was my first recognition that practicing one’s faith had an impact on others.
In a Catholic grade school in the 1950’s the boys came into contact with vocational directors from many high school or “minor” seminaries. In 7th grade I was convinced this was for me. As the process unfolded I was assigned by the bishop of Gary, Andrew Grutka (d. 1993), to St. Lawrence Seminary in Mt. Calvary, Wisconsin run by the Capuchins. I had never met a Capuchin before, but my four years living at Mt.Calvary convinced me that they were the real deal. So many of them were charismatic figures for me. They not only taught and disciplined me, they cared for me deeply and demonstrated what it was like to share in ecclesial ministry in a highly collaborative and fraternal manner. When I graduated from St. Lawrence at the age of 17, with my family’s blessing, I joined the Capuchin novitiate.
Dr. Knight: You went to college and joined the seminary. How did you make that decision What is the mission of the Capuchin order?
Father: As noted above, I met the Capuchins as a freshman in high school, lived under their influence for my high school career and joined them out of high school in 1966. That was a long time ago, and the reasons that I was first attracted to the Capuchins and first joined them have evolved over my now 56 years in the Order.
While I did not have the language for it back then, I was struck by the fraternal nature of this community of men. There were obvious hierarchies in place when I joined the Order, and although it was after Vatican II the formation program was a throw back to a previous era in which lay friars and ordained brothers were definitely not equal. On the other hand, the fraternal camaraderie that was nourished in us too deep roots and saw early results. Already in 1966 my province elected the first lay brother to leadership since the 16th century. On top of that he was an African American by the name of Booker Ashe. Fraternity continued to emerge as the defining characteristic of the community, whether or not one was a lay or ordained friar.
The late 1960’s and early 1970’s were times when great waves of social awareness and justice concerns washed over the province. Our internal reckoning with the equality of the ordained and lay friars had ministry resonance with our concern for justice issues, attending to the needs of the marginalized, and challenging social injustices. Already in the 1930’s some of our friars – including the now Blessed Solanus Casey – established a soup kitchen to meet the physical as well as spiritual needs of folk during the great depression. That spirit blossomed though out my initial formation and into my years as a seminarian in Milwaukee.
Dr. Knight: You were called by God to be a priest. What is the significance of your call to be a follower of Christ?
In my discernment, I felt I was first called by God and God’s people to be a Capuchin. The Capuchin charism of fraternity and the appropriately critical stance against the oppressiveness of clericalism in my own province shaped me differently than my diocesan classmates at the seminary in Milwaukee. I had no ambitions to be a pastor or leader of a diocese or person of influence. I wanted to engage with folk on the ground, as I saw my Capuchin mentors doing.
The more I have grown in appreciating the Christ of the gospels the more that vocation has come into focus. Jesus was an on-the-ground servant. He did not project himself to be better than those he served; rather, he is revealed as one who had a clearer vision of God’s reign and his role in it.
Thus, for me being a “follower of Christ” means being a companion of those Christ loved, whether of my or any other faith. Through Jesus God wed divinity to humanity. Thus, through this incarnational gift my vocation as an ordained friar is similarly to wed my flawed self to humanity. Whether it is with students over the decades for whom I have cajoled into first loving the folk they serve, or my preaching and presiding in which I attempt to model a deep respect for the missionary disciples who populate the pews before me. I want to companion them … journey with them. I am not their leader but their brother.
Dr. Knight: What drew you to the Capuchin order? Does the drawing to the order change over time?
Father: I have previously spoken to what initial drew me to the Capuchins. While some of those initial attractions remain, my instincts about Capuchin life have also dramatically evolved over the years. One of the growing edges has been a recognition that Capuchin is first of all a way of being Franciscan. I was not nurtured in a Franciscan charism as a novice or through my initial formation. It was only years later that I began to appreciate a broader Franciscan charism and spirituality. A dramatic shift for me was leaping beyond the three Franciscan first orders (OFM, OFM Conv, OFM Cap) and beginning to recognize the vision of Francis and Clare [we never read their works] for a community of women and man, lay and ordained, single and married. This expansive vision of Franciscanism was revolutionary for me. It was also fed by the fraternal instincts and even anti-clerical forces within my own province. We don’t just belong to a diminishing group of celibate men; we belong to a huge, expansive and incredible Franciscan family that exists for the sake of the Church, not for our own survival. That is a conversion that continues to challenge me.
Dr. Knight: You spent formation finding out your abilities and gifts through discernment. How was your discernment helpful to you personally?
Father: I was not a terribly talented student, and even in high school was relegated to the “slower learning group” of my class. High education was a door opener for me. My own community allowed me to study music in college. While studying theology I was simultaneously allowed to pursue an advanced degree in music at a secular university. It was often the secular mentors, rather than my seminary professors, who launched my learning. One in particular was an agnostic musicologist who opened my eyes to interdisciplinary beauty and made me fearless when launching into fields and languages that I knew nothing about. I was a vocal and keyboard person who knew some Latin and Greek; her first assignment for me was woodwind instruments as documented by Slavic dictionaries. I still honor her memory.
All of my “discernment” was, in a phrase, practical. It was in the doing, in the experimenting, in the failures that I discovered paths useful for my service. I never expected to be teaching graduate theology, or even pursuing a PH.D. in theology, but mentors invited, courses were tested and pursued, and ways opened. I never imagined the the way ministry that has unfolded for me over the past 5 decades. Mentors and encouragement, determination, a gift for recovering from failure, and a wonderfully supportive group of brothers has allowed this grace to unfold.
Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that your life is somewhat a mosaic of your different gifts? Especially your gift of preaching?
Father: For me preaching is both a focusing ministerial activity as well as an opportunity to synthesis my learnings and my questions. Preaching takes a lot of work, around 10-12 hours to craft a 12 minute Sunday homily. At least half of that time is spent in researching different ideas, whether that be from philosophy, history, or the sciences. It is not so much that preaching brings any of my gifts together as much as preaching allows me to explore the questions that confront me and other folk trying to make a faithful response in this sometimes chaotic world. The homiletic craft requires discipline but also imagination. How do I approach these readings or this feast without simply repeating what I or others have said before? Looking for some new connection between ancient wisdom and the challenging questions of the current age is what drives preaching for me. It is both exhilarating and exhausting in wondering whether my time in the pulpit has helped anyone besides myself.
Dr. Knight: What are some of the challenges of the future Church?
Father: Pope Francis has charted out so many of these challenges that are with us now. Some of those challenges are internal, as the Roman Catholic Church is polarized in many ways and around multiple issues. Francis’ strategy for joyful and respectful action rather than doctrinally chiding each other seems the way forward here. We have a long way to go in demonstrating that the Church deeply respects women’s leadership gifts. The Synod on the youth taught us that many young people do not believe that they are being heard. That is one of the reasons so many of them are abandoning the Church, though often not a “catholic” spirituality. As the influence of religious institutions wanes in many parts of the world, the Roman Catholic Church needs to demonstrate its own deep integrity around issues of justice, equality and dignity so that our message to others about such issues rings true. Finally, the explosion of learning in the sciences calls the church to a new repproachement with them. The sciences open us to the stunning extravagance of God’s creation. We need to be training clergy to respect and engage these learnings, a distinctive way of doing what Pope John XXIII called Vatican II to do: attending and responding to the “signs of the times.”
Thank you so much for offering us this interview and letting us see all the good works that the Capuch.
Father Foley is a prolific author, Here is a link to his books Edward Foley books (edwardfoleycapuchin.org)