Thursday, October 28, 2010

A "Great Tree"... A Great Light

In 1950, the Catholic population of Florida comprised some 70,000 souls scattered sparsely across the Sunshine State.

Today, that figure's increased some 70 times over, now approaching 5 million.

Regardless of what the papers like to say, that just goes to prove that the dominant thread of this moment in the American Catholic story isn't so much one of decline, but epochal demographic shift -- a precipitous fall in its Northeastern cradle, sure... but with it, a staggering upswing of the church's presence in the South and West, a reality born as much from migration from within the country as immigration from outside.

Still, it didn't just happen. Much as the fruits of the "new" Stateside Catholicism have rapidly reached full flower over recent years, the groundwork that birthed what's become our time's ecclesial boast on these shores only came as it ever does: from the foresight, courage, sacrifice and work of the many nameless, unsung souls who, decades and more ago, ventured to an unknown place, that they might tend a fresh field and see it grow.

In Florida, as most of the Southeast, these builders were predominantly Irish -- religious, laity and clergy alike; "FBI" and from parts North both. Many never got to see their efforts come full circle in this life; many others who did still went to their reward in the same quiet with which they built, the work of their hands doing the talking, serving longer than even they could.

Now, though -- and fittingly -- one of these pioneers has come to receive the farewell merited by each... even if it's as much for how he died as how he lived.

Concelebrating morning Mass on Friday at the Gulfside parish where he kept on in retirement, after 86 years of life -- 62 of them in priesthood -- Msgr John Francis Scully collapsed and died at the liturgy's ultimate priestly moment: the "institution narrative" of the Eucharistic Prayer.

Born and ordained in Boston, five years after his ordination -- that is, in 1953 -- Scully headed South in response to a call for priests, founding eight parishes and multiple schools to serve the church's nascent Florida boom, alongside stints as vicar-general of St Petersburg and in a host of other diocesan posts.

Arduous enough as ministry at home can be, though, his vacations weren't spent resting, but on mission tours in Africa -- where, having learned two native languages, the monsignor (left, at a Chrism Mass) likewise founded at least one parish in Kenya and, as his ordinary noted at today's funeral, "has probably baptized, absolved, confirmed and married more Catholics in his life than most of [those present] combined."

"In hope, like the energizer bunny, he kept on ticking – hearing confessions, praying his office, begging for the opportunity to begin yet another parish even at the age of 78, desirous of knocking on doors of homes in search of converts," Bishop Bob Lynch said in a memorable, funny, poignant farewell (posted in full at the Mother of All Episcopal Blogs... where other tributes are also being paid).

"He knew that God’s favors were never exhausted and His mercies were never totally spent."

In his wake, Scully's been dubbed a "hero"... yet as many of us know, he is just one of many such figures in our midst.

In dioceses both growing and not 'round here, these days for priests are widely ones of falling numbers, bigger workloads, horrific scandals, low morale and high burnout. Yet amid it all, the good monsignor's homegoing providentially opened the door to one last act of love for the church... and, above all, the "long black line": a moment that's served to highlight what, almost always and at its best, priesthood is and priesthood does.

Sure, this is a reminder to a wider world that could use it after recent years. Just as much, though, in many quarters it's a needed prod for many of the guys themselves, that what they do -- what you do -- matters, quite possibly more than they might usually realize.

It can seem pretty cliché, but whenever a standout soul leaves our midst, some among us like to say that "a great tree has fallen in the forest." As we don't have a tradition of felling trees, though, for our purposes, maybe it's better to recall the opening rite of the Easter Vigil -- of a church only as bright as the number of candles lit and held within it (each, however hard we try, still dripping wax on the pews) -- and, ergo, to see each loss among us as that of another great light gone out.

Whatever our image, grief and prayer will only ever go so far. As ever, but especially now, the challenge of each loss among us lies in finding others who'll take up the light... or, in some places, to simply share it more and better with those already seeking it out.

Now as ever, this church knows the feeling of darkness and, just as much, the feeling of heat -- per usual, one that comes as much from within as without.

However hot it might run, though, no degree of the latter could ever replace or replicate The Light that gives sight, grants freedom, gives life.

Like it or not, darkness and heat will always be with us... but if the future promises to be as bright as our past, suffice it to say, whatever your call, Lights Wanted.