By Gordon Nary
Gordon: To introduce you to our readers, here is a link to a great article about you by Dolores Madlener.
When you received your vocation with whom did you did you first discuss it and what was their advice?
Father Joe: I am not sure when I actually received my vocation, since I spent so many years fighting it off. Through high school and college I had a whole list of reasons why I thought I was unfit for the job. The breakthrough came outside of Walgreens one day. I finally realized that discerning a vocation didn’t mean convincing myself that I was talented in all the areas that a priest or religious might need to be good at in the course of a lifetime. The essence of a vocation was trust. What if I allowed God to work through me? What if I allowed God to supply what I didn’t think I had?
Once I looked at it that way, I knew I had to talk to someone. By this point I was working and living away from home. On my next visit to Memphis I had a conversation with a priest who had been the Associate Pastor in my parish when I was in eighth grade. One thing he told me was, “St. Paul said that he had become all things to all people; but I think that’s impossible. You will never be able to meet some peoples’ expectations.” I remembered that because it helped me with my own struggle to say “yes” to God. The irony is that some of the things I thought I could never do are the very things I find most fulfilling today. It’s humbling.
Gordon: Where did you attend seminary and what was your favorite course and why?
Father Joe: I spent a year taking undergraduate philosophy courses. I had a novitiate or spiritual year and then attended Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Because my undergraduate degree was in English literature, I liked the Scripture courses more than the theology courses, because Scripture is full of stories and poems. Jesus was a great storyteller. He knew that stories grab people in ways that ideas and concepts often fail to do. Probably my favorite course was The Psalms. It was taught by Fr. Carroll Stuhlmueller. It met for three hours in the evening, and he would sometimes spend the entire three hours talking about just one psalm. He was amazing.
Gordon: How has the Servite order influenced your devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary?
Father Joe: Although the early Servites connected more with the call of Mary at her Annunciation, for the last five hundred years, we have been associated mostly with Mary’s Sorrows. During the 1930’s and 1940’s the Servites were behind an enormously popular novena to Our Sorrowful Mother. Through the years of meditating on Mary’s Sorrows I have come to appreciate her faithfulness. It is one thing to say “Let it be done to me as you say” when you do not yet know what is going to be done to you or done to the son you love. At the foot of the cross Mary is courageous and faithful, standing against a background of mockery and cruelty. She was not to be moved.
Gordon: Why do the Servites have a special devotion to St. Peregrine?
Father Joe: Because St. Peregrine was a Servite friar in the fourteenth century. The interesting thing about St. Peregrine is that he started out very anti-church and a member of what we would now call a street gang. He was healed of cancer late in life, but he was also healed of his anger and his propensity for violence earlier in life. All that makes him a very relevant saint today.
Gordon: What are some of the principal challenges as pastor of Assumption Parish?
Father Joe: For many decades after the Italian parishioners moved out, Assumption was primarily a church of convenience for commuters who worked downtown, with a small but faithful group of people returning for Sunday Mass. Some of these people still come; but over the past twenty years, the area has become residential again, mostly apartments and condominiums. We have a mixture of young adults, who work mostly in the finance and high-tech fields, and the retired or semiretired, who have moved downtown after raising a family. Both groups are highly mobile. The biggest challenge has been to relaunch Assumption as a real parish, with adult faith programming, sacramental preparation, a pastoral council, charity and justice work, etc. Because many of our parishioners do not stay in the neighborhood a long time and because Assumption was for so many years a very anonymous place to go to church, it is also a challenge to get people actually rooted here and involved in church life outside of Mass.
Gordon: Based on your experience, what are some of the reasons that the Catholic Church has lost many younger members?
Father Joe: The biggest reason is simply cultural change. The movement from a primarily religious to a secular world view has been going on for hundreds of years, but has been felt in the US mostly in the last fifty years. For a long time, our societal norms and laws were in harmony with church teaching and practice.
One reinforced the other in a way that made churchgoing part of being a good citizen. That is no longer the case. Also, younger people have been exposed to a tremendous diversity of viewpoints, beliefs, religions, and lifestyles that did not challenge many of us older folks so directly when we were younger. I finished high school in 1971.
When I was in high school, a classmate was no more likely to come out as gay than they were to fly to the moon in a helicopter! Remaining Catholic now is a deliberate choice, not something you just do because everybody in your family is Catholic. There is also a general mistrust of institutions today. When you talk about “losing” younger members, you are really talking about two groups. There are those who make a deliberate decision to reject Catholicism or organized religion because of our teachings, our institutional sins, and the poor example of some of us on the front lines (the “nones”).
Then there are those who have no real beef with the church but have simply drifted, because they don’t see church involvement as very important. That one is on us. I believe that in the post Vatican II era our religious education and religious formation programs have been far too generic. What I hear from a lot of the young adults in marriage preparation is that when it comes to being Catholic, all that really matters is that you try to be a good person. While on one level that is true, what are they missing out on having only a fuzzy idea of who God is or not having a personal connection with Jesus or a sense of how their life could be enriched by being part of a faith community and participating in the sacraments?
Gordon: Your homilies often reflect your exceptional sense of humor. Considering that God is infinite, do your think that God has an infinite sense of humor?
Father Joe: I’m not much of a joke teller; but I believe that the ability to laugh at ourselves not only opens us up to change but helps build bridges with people. I grew up in a racist culture in the South in the late 50’s and early 60’s, and I don’t believe at some deep level these attitudes every completely leave you. So, when I was pastor of an African-American parish I’d often reference this stuff, as a way of saying, “I know I’m not black and I don’t fully understand what your life has been like.” Now, talking to a congregation with many young adults, I use humor to acknowledge how out of touch I am because of my age. . . . As for God having an infinite sense of humor, well, that’s a theology question, and I said theology was not my strong suit. But I don’t know how anyone could read the Book of Jonah and not think God has a sense of humor and also that God really loves practical jokes. Perhaps if God’s sense of humor really is infinite, that would explain why some people think God lacks a sense of humor. His jokes go over their head.
Gordon: How have you spent you favorite vacation?
Father Joe: Since I live in the middle of a big city, I enjoy vacations in wide open spaces and exploring national parks. I also like trains; and through the decades I have had some amazing trips on Canadian trains that were still running because they travelled through regions where there were no roads. One beautiful trip through the Canadian wilderness ended at Prince Rupert, a town on the west coast of Canada which one rail builder thought was going to be a more important city than Vancouver. He really had no luck with any of his investments. A few years later he booked a first-class ticket on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.
Gordon: Chicago is blessed to have you as a pastor of an exceptional parish