by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism
Dr. Knight: You have worked in the Archdiocese of Chicago in a very effective/affective manner with running a parish, missions, evangelization and many other projects that I have witnessed in your work in the archdiocese. Would you please share with us your own early Catholic formation?
Father Michael: I grew up in a Catholic Family who took their faith seriously. We were not overly pious but we went to Mass every week; said grace before dinner; had religious articles in our house; my mother sang in the parish choir and my father attended Mass every morning on his way to work. My parents also instilled a sense of honesty. I was not raised to fear God so much as I was raised to know God loved me. I also attended Saint Leo Grade School and Saint DenisGrade school and was an altar server at the parish.
Dr. Knight: Please tell us the significance of your high school years in formation.
Father Michael: I attended Saint Laurence High School in Burbank, IL. I remember having a great appreciation for the brothers and lay teachers who taught there. In Senior year I made a TEENS ENCOUNTER CHRIST (TEC) retreat and that had a significant impact on my life. I came to a deeper understanding of Jesus. I was introduced to scripture. Equally important, I became aware of the larger church of Chicago. I assisted with 1 day retreats in other parishes; made life-long friends and discovered I had abilities to lead and to share.
Dr. Knight: You went to college and joined the seminary. How did you make that decision?
Father Michael: I actually did not enter the seminary until I was 26 years old. I attended university at Loyola of Chicago. During that time I continued to be involved in retreat work with the Archdiocese. I also was part of the Campus ministry liturgy team at the University. For a couple of years I was a volunteer with the University Day school program for children with various levels of autism. In my senior year I lived on the Christian Community Floor in Mertz Hall where Father Jerry Overbeck had a significant influence on my life.
I think there were three areas that enabled my faith life to grow. I became involved (through a class I was taking) with an organization called Community Advancement Programs. We worked with children who had largely been through the juvenile detention system. It opened my eyes to a world I never new – a world of poverty and struggle. This deepened my desire to make a difference.
Second, I spent a semester abroad at Loyola’s Rome Campus. Being in a place where we could walk with church heroes like Saint Francis and participate in the experiences of the church in Rome was very powerful. Traveling thorough Europe opened up my sense of both the church and the world.
Finally, my involvement with many priests through the TEC program deepened my appreciation of the good a priest could do in the world.
After graduation I was accepted into the Jesuit Volunteer Corp serving in Seattle Washington. This also allowed me to experience the church as a ministry of service. It also helped me to question the societal reasons for inequality and poverty. It was a year that changed my life. The JVC often speaks about being “ruined for life.” It is meant in a positive way. I certainly felt that.
When I returned to Chicago I actually put aside the notion of being a priest. I entered the business world. But after a couple of years the thought that I might be called to priesthood continued to be part of my thought process. In the summer of 1981 I began what was a year-long discernment that resulted in applying to the seminary in 1982.
Dr. Knight: You were called by God to be an archdiocesan priest. What is the significance of your call to be a follower of Christ?
Father Michael: Vocation is a call from God. Vocation can occur in any walk of life including marriage, parenthood, or single life. Many work situations are experienced as a vocation. Teaching and medicine come to mind.
The essence of this is that through our gifts and our limitations, God is inviting us to bring his love to the world. The longer I have been a priest the more I understand that it is to parish priesthood that I am called. I served ten years in the seminary system and that was very grace filled. Even there I approached teaching as a form of pastoring. I love the diversity of the parish. Every day is different. Every day is an opportunity to love.
Dr. Knight: You spent formation finding out your abilities and gifts through discernment. How was your discernment helpful to you personally?
Father Michael: I am very grateful to Mundelein Seminary for the way they structured our formation in the 1980’2. It was a mixture of self-reflection, spiritual direction, retreats, community and ministerial experiences. I was assigned as a seminarian to Saint Agatha Parish on the west side and it helped me see the church as a conduit for social justice. Clinical Pastoral Experience at Saint Luke’s in Milwaukee was another place where learned skills but also journeyed with seminarians of different faiths.
Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that your life is somewhat a mosaic of your different gifts? We are sharing with our readers the many ways you call people to evangelize.
Father Michael: Everyone’s life is a mosaic of gifts and weaknesses (God used our weaknesses as well). As Cardinal Newman once wrote “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission.”
Too many people do not know their gifts. One challenge for Catholics in the United States is that we have heavily relied on institutions such as Catholic schools and religious communities to make Christ visible. This is clearly changing and individuals must see themselves as evangelizers. This requires a significant shift.
There are many signs of hope. Young people especially respond to the call of service. There are entire volunteer communities that deepen this. At the parish level activities like Christ Renews His parish help people reawaken their faith and their sense of giftedness. This is powerful indeed.
Dr. Knight: What do you want the readers to understand after reading this interview about being a priest? About assisting others in living the Catholic life?
Father Michael: Priesthood makes sense only in the context of love. The various aspects of priestly life, such as celibacy, commitment to prayer, and the sacraments only make sense in the context of love. A good priest “falls in love” with his people. At least that is my experience.
It is not just our personal love. We become instruments of Christ’s love. This is probably most apparent in the sacramental celebrations. We also become connections between people if we choose. I will share one brief story to illustrate this.
For over twenty years I have been involved in an organization named Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos, which serves thousands of at risk children in many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Many of these children would be on the streets. I was privileged to spend some time in our homes in Mexico and in El Salvador. About 12 years ago a group of young people from NPH El Salvador came to the United states to raise funds and awareness. They came to my parish. I connected them for part of the day with the children from my parish school. Despite the language barriers, friendships developed. This connection between the children of Evergreen Park and the children of El Salvador developed because I was the conduit. Those moments of connection are so grace filled.
Dr. Knight: What are some of the challenges of the future Church?
Father Michael: We have many challenges. So much has changed. Much of our society is explicitly unchristian. The culture of materialism, immediate gratification, and doubting authority all challenge the Gospel message. The terrible tragedy of sexual misconduct by clergy has significantly damaged trust.
Within the church there are intense divisions which are hard to reconcile. Jesus prayed that we would be one yet the prayer has still not been answered.
Nonetheless the central message of Christ remains valid. He is present in this broken community. Young people continue to search and we must find the languages that can assist them in coming to Christ.
Dr. Knight: What are some of the joys you’ve experienced as an archdiocesan follower of Christ?
Father Michael: I would actually go beyond the word “joy” I would add words like “meaning” “wonder” and “awe”.
As a parish priest I am amazed at how God works in people. Part of being a pastor is to be a witness to God’s grace. I have seen so many moments of holiness and grace. This is very powerful. There is great joy when connections are made between people. These is joy in celebrating the sacraments but especially during the Triduum Liturgies. There is joy when seeing parishioners simply enjoy each other’s company, whether that is at Sunday hospitality or other gatherings.
Dr. Knight: As a member/leader of the parish what are some of the duties that you perform/pray?
Father Michael: It seems to me that a Christian parish must connect worship, formation and learning, service, and community. As a pastor I am involved in all of these. Obviously a significant part of ministry is tied to sacramental service and preaching. But there is so much more. I am a roving catechist in Religious Education, have traveled with youth on pilgrimage, been present at community building events like trivia night and our parish dinner.
As a pastor one needs to have immediate attention when someone comes to discuss a personal situation and also have a vision for the future. As a pastor I have found the “ministry of Presence” to be especially important.
There are also important aspects of the ministry that includes administration, staff management, and more. We have a large staff in my parish. They work very hard and collaborate well. Sometimes my job is to stay out of the way.
Dr. Knight: Thank you so much for offering us this interview and letting us see all the good works that the priests do for us all.