My genius friend Ed Upton is now retired, and living in a condo that’s an architectural dupe of the one I occupied for a dozen years. He was the founding pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Orland Park, leading it step by prayerful step from a storefront to memorable buildings and grounds that serve more than 3,000 families.
One of Father Upton’s talents is churchmanship, and part of his genius is the kind of leadership you read about in the New Testament.
He’s one of six priests who met as boys attending Quigley Prep Seminary, ordained in the Class of 1969 and friends today. The different lives of those men are brought together in a book that tells about massive change in the Catholic Church and how it happened.
“Catholic Watershed: The Chicago Ordination Class of 1969 and How They Helped Change the Church” is an engrossing 394-page book by Michael P. Cahill, a history PhD from the University of Chicago who has taught at Mundelein seminary and chaired Chicago’s Archdiocesan Pastoral Council. There’s a foreword by Martin Marty. The publisher is ACTA, www.actapublications.com.
The six priests who propel this eyewitness account of a large archdiocese shaken by the Second Vatican Council are Fathers Mike Ahlstrom, Larry Duris, Bob Heidenreich, Tom Libera, Ed Upton and Bill Zavaski. The Council was more revolutionary than it may seem 50 years afterward, and less revolutionary than some reformers hoped.
In some respects it is still an experiment in progress, resisted by some elderly Catholics caught in ecclesial quicksand of the past, and by some young Catholics whose unease with the present glues them to a past that didn’t happen.
These six men were ordained by Cardinal John Cody. He was secretive about his health, and about most things. He didn’t always tell the truth. He asked me to accompany him to Mundelein when he retired, to help him write his autobiography. I spent hundreds of hours talking with him at his Chicago residence, but the book was never written. Cody died in office, less liked than when he was appointed to Chicago. The thoughts about Cody in this book are accurate and interesting and probably would not have been included in Cody’s own book.
There was a different spirit when Cody’s successor, newly-appointed Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, began his homily at a Mass attended by hundreds of priests : “I am Joseph, your brother.”
“He clearly distanced himself from Cody, Ed Upton said. Cahill observed that “the contrast in tone and style to Cody could not have been more striking.” I was there, and remember the springtime atmosphere on that August evening.
I was managing editor of The Honolulu Advertiser when Bernardin asked me to become director and the first editor-in-chief of the National Catholic News Service, now known as CNS. We remained friends, and I visited him several times while he was Archbishop of Cincinnati. He slipped into my Chicago condo for dinner as anonymously as we could arrange, while Cody was still the archbishop and not a Bernardin fan.
At the suggestion of Dan Herr, I wrote a book for Thomas More publishers. My first title was “The Mind of Cardinal Bernardin,” but it went to press (three times) as “The Spirit of Cardinal Bernardin.”
Tom Libera spoke of Bernardin’s final years, his battle with pancreatic cancer and his death in 1996: “Bernardin wound up being a man of deep faith who met death in a way that became an incredible pastoral ministry…a priest who says by his life, ‘Things aren’t set in stone. You can change.’”
His successor, a Chicago native soon to be given a red hat, was the man we know as Cardinal Francis George. He is on the edge of retirement. His highly regarded successor, Archbishop Blasé Cupich, is in town.
Bernardin was a tough act to follow, Cahill observes, and “many priests’ initial impressions of George were not positive. George arrived in Chicago, however, under different circumstances than did his predecessor. The profound grief Chicagoans felt at the loss of Bernardin muted George’s early days. ‘It wasn’t like after Cody,’ Upton explains, “where people were happy to get a new archbishop—people were sad.’”
Cahill explains that “a presbyterate whose pride in the Chicago priesthood Bernardin had largely restored, their new archbishop’s complaints about perceived errors and abuses, mostly liturgical in nature, stung.”
While the six young men were students at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary at Mundelein, President Kennedy was assassinated, and there was non-stop coverage by newspapers, television and radio. Schools were closed. But not at Mundelein.
“It was,” Bill Zavaski says in the book, “the most historic thing that happened in this country in my life and we were not told. We weren’t allowed to watch TV. It was crazy.”
“No radio, no nothing,” said Ed Upton.
Michael Cahill spent hours interviewing each of the priests and quotes them extensively. Priests really are human. Most of them, especially these six, are exceptional humans. The anecdotes recalled by six priests with six personalities are gems, and the entire book is a treat.