By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
As a child my first exposures to pastors were as different as I think it is possible to be:
At St. Joseph Parish In Fond du Lac, WI, we had Msgr. Riordan. He spoke forcefully from a high pulpit that jutted out, ominously, above the Communion rail. His favorite verse, delivered in full throat, seemed to be Revelation 3:16: “Because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Msgr. Riordan did not tolerate shorts on women or anyone joining the YMCA, and we were all more than a little intimidated by him.
At Holy Cross Parish in Champaign, IL, where I moved just before starting fourth grade, we found Msgr. Higgins. He was a tiny man rendered smaller by the severe curvature of his spine, rendered nearly blind by poisonous gas in a WWI foxhole, who gently referred to everyone – even the burliest of men – as “my precious little darling.” As a student in the parish school we all went over to the nearby YMCA for PE classes and afterschool swimming lessons. Msgr. Higgins intimidated no one.
But Msgr. Higgins had a powerful sway over us. We never wanted to disappoint him because he loved us so much – we truly were his precious little darlings -- and we wanted to love him just as much as he obviously loved us.
I’ll never forget either man. But I have to confess that the one who impresses me more as the years pile up was little, gentle, soft-spoken and loving Msgr. Higgins.
That is not to say that Msgr. Riordan was not a great role model. The back of our house faced the back of his rectory, and we saw the bums line up at his back door for meals on a regular basis. He was a warrior on behalf of both devotions and acts of justice. When he was appointed a monsignor, people in the parish had to step up to buy his monsignor garb because his money had gone to help the poor.
He certainly walked the talk. And he was, in every sense of the phrase, bigger than life.
That is not something anyone would have said about Msgr. Higgins – except when it came to his love and concern for us. Then he had no peer.
In the years since, I’ve thought often about their contrasting leadership styles and gifts – and what they say about what it means to be a man, priest or lay (in this context it doesn’t matter).
When he visited the U.S. a year ago, Pope Francis told the nation’s bishops, priests and laity:
Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.
When I came across those words again recently, I thought of the incredible moral authority that tiny, little, stooped over and nearly blind man had.
The lesson for me, a layman, is that there is no reason to be afraid -- not even of our own vulnerability, not even if we are a man, and not even if we have been given formal authority.
Why are we afraid to be vulnerable? Reflecting on that question, I thought back to my own dear mother, trying to raise a growing brood of us on very limited resources. Usually we obeyed her. But sometimes things got out of hand and she just couldn’t cope any longer.
That’s when she would cry.
It didn’t happen often. But every time it did, it stopped us in our tracks. Immediately, we drew close to her and told her how sorry we were.
Sometimes it’s our weakness that turns out to be our greatest strength.
Knowing that, there’s no reason to ever be afraid.
Thanks, Msgr. Higgins. And thanks, Mom. Your lesson is one I won’t forget ... even if I struggle to live up to it.