For Father John

It is a bright, cold afternoon in late fall. Pulling open an embossed bronze door, I enter the monstrous Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore. Ahead of me, the heavy glass doors between narthex and nave are propped open by two full black trash bags; I silently step past them. Walking up the warm but gloomy center aisle, I turn for a moment to look up at the ranks of organ pipes, their form leading the eye to a huge stony Christus Rex surrounded by stained glass. I remember the relatively recent recital here of music by Messiaen, including a physically oppressive piece that was intended, according to the program notes, to express the power of the Catholic Church. The mass of sound from the pipes high behind us pushed with unrelenting pressure against our necks and backs, pressing us down until some of us were bent over and leaning against the pew ahead for support, wanting to escape. As I reach the transept, I smile and shake my head at the irony: Messiaen knew not what truth he told.

Blessed Sacrament ChapelThe chapel on the north side of the transept is named the “Blessed Sacrament Chapel.” Except for ambient light from the dim nave, only a small sanctuary lamp, a sign to believers that Jesus is present as bread behind the veil of the tabernacle, relieves the darkness of the space today. I discern the bent form of a white-haired man kneeling near the altar, adoring his hidden Christ in the hidden wafers while gilt angels inexplicably show their backs to his savior. The old man is small and frail in the vast, hard church. But the cathedral has its own frailty: looking up at the massive side walls of the chapel, I note the long, crooked crack in each, cracks spanned by small devices that track their widening over time. I know that the south transept is also cracked and metered. Slowly but measurably, the arms of the cross are breaking off as the church’s foundation fails.

Leaving the old man to his murky worship, I turn and walk to the south side. The chapel here is a shrine to St. Joseph, the shadowy husband of the mother of Jesus. But now the altar and its reredos, with its tall gilt Joseph, are covered by a large curtain, before which is a crèche lit by electric lanterns held by plaster figures. The scene, with angel and star suspended on strings, is empty at its center: the season being Advent, the plaster baby Jesus has not yet been placed. Mary gazes tenderly upon the emptiness that magi, shepherds, and angels adore. I smile again while a smaller Joseph, not susceptible to irony, looks on solicitously, perhaps a little worried about the widening cracks.

On my way out, I make the visit that I came for: the altar dedicated to St. Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, le Curé d’Ars. Like the other saints at the abandoned side altars, this white stone priest is attached to the wall, seeming to hover there as, according to the friar who told me the story, a devil did during a famous exorcism. But Jean Vianney is the patron saint of parish priests and the namesake of one of the kindest men I have known, John Vianney Kelly, O. Carm., the prefect of my class at the Carmelite seminary. The author, age 14, at CarmelI was thirteen years old when I began living under Father John’s gentle oversight, and it was he who soothed me on the nights when, weeping, I could not sleep. Although he must have been tired, he never turned me away. I remember that he would remove his capuce, scapular, and tunic, kissing the small ivory cross embroidered on the scapular as he hung the habit on a hook on his cell’s door, and, wearing the white tee shirt and black slacks that the brown robe had covered, talk to me about my life and future, about his hopes and fears, and about art, especially religious art. I, having come from my two-tiered bunk in the dorm next to his cell, would be wearing pajamas and a bathrobe. Today, I recognize the danger of such a scene, but then I was an innocent. Had Father John been a predator, I don’t think I would have survived the disillusionment and shame. But he was a kind man, a sincere follower of Christ. John Vianney Kelly saw his thirtieth birthday that year, and he told me that he felt old. Perhaps he was prescient at that moment; he died, I learned recently, before the age of fifty.

“They have taken your other prie-dieu,” I tell the saint as I approach his narrow altar, which at my last visit was flanked by kneelers on both sides. Noting that no votive candles burn before the curé, I ask, “Has the patron of parish priests fallen out of favor — and in this, Benedict’s “Year for Priests” in honor of the 150th anniversary of your death? Is this your situation now, that only an atheist stops to speak to you? Well, I won’t light a candle for you, because I won’t give them the five dollars that their sign demands. But I will talk to you: I have something on my mind.” I kneel on the remaining prie-dieu and look the statue in its stony eye. “Father John Vianney Kelly took yours as his religious name. True, he laughed as he told me that he had chosen your name partly because his given name was John: there was already a John in the province and therefore he could not simply keep his baptismal name when he made his Carmelite vows, but ‘John Vianney’ was considered to be sufficiently distinctive. And so you helped him retain the name that his parents had given him and avoid some obscure tongue-twister. But it’s also true that he admired you and tried to follow you, especially in your self-sacrificing dedication to the ordinary people under your care. He was a beautiful soul. He brought honor to your name and profession.”

I look intently at the saint’s rigid features. “But what would you think of those other priests? What would you think of the consecrated men who had befriended me before I met Father John, men like Robert Hopkins, the proud priest who outlived John Kelly by many years, basking in the admiration of the gullible while abusing children over a quarter-century, confessing his crimes only when confronted as an old man? And that other one, the one who never confessed? I know what they were. I know that they were grooming me. I don’t think that they were ever able to molest me, but I know that other boys were not as lucky as I.”

As anger and sorrow rise in my heart, I arise quickly and walk toward the narthex. Stopping at the great glass doors, I turn back to the statue. “I try to do good in the world,” I say silently to the vacant saint, “despite your evil men and despite the fear and emptiness that your church gave to me as God’s gracious presence. I have made a promise to your brother John, who was truly a father to me, and although he no longer exists I keep that promise: I help feed the hungry, heal the sick, comfort the afflicted, liberate the oppressed. In doing those things, I honor him, because, priest though he was (and he held his priesthood humbly), he showed me how to live love. His spirit speaks to me today, renewing my resolve. Like him, I will look to what is beautiful in human existence, to kindness and art. Like him, I will give of myself in the small things of everyday life. Like him, I will be a source of hope and comfort for children who weep and don’t know why.”

I pass through the open doorway, past the bags of trash, into the cooler air of the narthex. At the outer doors, I turn and pause. “Goodbye, patron of priests. You must remain attached to your sinking church, shamed by what your men have done. I leave you behind in your gloom, but the spirit of your namesake goes with me. Something good must come of this; I promise you that.” Pushing the ponderous bronze door, I step into the clean, cold light of day.

Front door of cathedral

4 thoughts on “For Father John

  1. George your prose captured what a truly wonderful man Father John was to us young guys. I was in your class and he is one of my most vivid memories of that freshman year — his kindness and good example for us all during those formative years. You are correct when you say how easy it would have been for any of those priests to be predators BUT none of them were! I spent all four years living there and my memories of those priests and brothers are of men dedicated to God.

  2. Today, as I’ve done many a time over the years, I searched John Vianney Kelly, O. Carm. I discovered The Postmodern Quaker “For Father John.” With much interest I read your words and found myself deeply moved. Your prose is most beautiful and your words about Fr. John touched me so deeply.

    You see, I was a student at the Carmelite Seminary in Hamilton, 1962-1965 also. Father John had a most profound impact on my life. During those tearful nights of loneliness, I found myself sheltered by his kindness and warmth. I felt like the most important boy in the world when I went to his room to talk after “Lights Out” and the beginning of the Grand Silence. He taught me sign language and comforted me with my sadness and loneliness, missing my home. During study halls when he was the monitor, we would sign words and phrases, he so skilled, and I still learning.

    I recall so well when he left to serve in the missions in Peru. I would write him often. Prior to his departure to Peru via a ship from the Port of Newark, New Jersey, my home town, he stayed two nights at my parents’ home. We had dinner, and I prepared for his departure. I recall Mom and Dad driving my sister, Fr. John, and me to the ship. He walked up the gangway and waved goodbye … tears in my eyes but feeling so honored to see him off to his new mission. As the ship moved from the dock, he stood and signed a final goodbye. Over the next several years we shared letters. Then contact diminished.

    In March of 1965 I was dismissed from the seminary for an adolescent escapade, memorable to many who are part of the Carmelite Order. A friend and I went joy riding in the middle of the night with a community Chevrolet Malibu. Many nights we would cruise the roads of Hamilton and Wenham. One night we hit a guard rail. The riding was over. Rumors and whispers that one of the friars, drunk, had damaged the car and did not recall were throughout the hallways. We decided to confess and promptly were expelled with kindness. I recall how I wished Father John were there to save me from myself.

    Fr. John was truly a role model of a man and priest. He was a father to me, a big brother, a friend. He helped me discover who I am today. For that I am always grateful.

    So George, although I do not recall you, there were so many of us, I do want to thank you for putting into words memories that never die….

    Bob Grabowski
    Carmelite Jr. Seminary
    1962 – March 1965

  3. Although it is now 45 years later, I remember Fr. John well. Mostly I remember how much he wanted to go to the missions. To me, Fr. John was one of those guys who always asked you how you were doing. The difference was he asked it and you knew that he really wanted to know. He took his job as prefect of freshmen to heart. Freshman year at Carmel stands out in my mind, after all of these years, because it added a stability to my life that wasn’t there at home.

    There is one special thing that Fr. John did for me that I had forgotten until reading this piece. I think it was in spring of 1964 and I was not faring well at the seminary. I can see now how noticeable it was to others, but not me. I was on the verge of quitting then and going home. I was treating my fellow students terribly and Fr. John saw this.

    One day my mother called to talk with me. Fr. John sent a student to find me, but while he held the phone he talked to my mom and told her how lonely I was. Fr. John knew I was very close to my older brother and mentioned that perhaps my brother could visit me very soon. He could stay at Carmel and it would really make a difference in my attitude at the time.

    My brother, Jim, flew up to Hamilton the next weekend. I was totally surprised and it did make a difference in my attitude. Fr. John never told me that he had spoken to my mom. My mother told me a few years later.

    By the standards presented by a troubled clergy then and years later Fr. John was a unique man. His sense of nurturing and caring was in itself unique. I am saddened to hear that he passed on so early in his life. He gave so much and still had more to offer.

    Fr. John was there at a special time in my life. And it took Fr. John to fill that necessary special position. As George mentioned, had he been a predator I would not have survived emotionally.

    As Billy Joel wrote, ONLY THE GOOD DIE YOUNG….

  4. George, a well written and thoughtful piece that has transported me back to my days as a member of your class in the Carmelite Junior Seminary. Thank you for reminding me about this kind and gentle man, who embodied everything that I still think Christ would have hoped for in one of his servants. My years there certainly had its highs and lows. I also remember Fr. John as a kind and supportive confessor and advisor, someone who could help you thru whatever problems you were encountering and did so with a smile and inner strength. He seemed a contrast to some of the other priests, unfortunately, that we had as teachers or rectors while we were there. While I consider myself a very spiritual person, who has strived to lead a good life by helping the less fortunate and imprisoned, I no longer consider myself “Catholic.” I find myself at odds with many of the political and idological views of the Vatican and many of the other organized religions out there. One thing I can easily agree on, however, is that Fr. John Vianney Kelly was a uniquely good man, who the person Jesus of Nazareth would have been proud to have represent him. I am so sorry he died so young. I think he will live on in our memories, though.

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