Big Sky Men: Priestly Fellowship in Montana

By Meyers, Jeffrey | Commonweal, October 7, 2016 | Go to article overview

Big Sky Men: Priestly Fellowship in Montana


Meyers, Jeffrey, Commonweal


Because of the current unpopularity, even condemnation, of the Catholic clergy, it might be illuminating to provide an outsider's view of the personal lives and characters of a group of unusual priests in the remote state of Montana. In the 1980s and '90s I made annual trips to Bozeman, an attractive college and ski town, with good shops and restaurants, in the thin air of the Rocky Mountains, to visit Ernest Hemingway's former secretary and daughter-in-law. She now worked as secretary for one of the city's Catholic churches and through her I met a congenial group of elderly Irish priests who'd all attended seminary together fifty years ago. In old age they continued to answer urgent midnight calls in the midst of raging subzero blizzards.

The priests lived in two different social worlds. They were formal with their parishioners and intimate with their colleagues. I was ecumenically included in their circle, and felt unusually safe and protected. I met them at the same time as I began my friendship with and writing about the occasional Commonweal contributor J. F. Powers, who composed gently satiric novels and stories about the trials of the Catholic clergy in the upper Midwest. The real and fictional priests had the same shared background, friendships and conversation, conflicts, complaints and criticism of influential busybodies who interfered with their work.

I found these priests (the first I'd ever met) sympathetic and intelligent, fond of eating and drinking (though some had to be on the wagon). They were even willing to hear my pope jokes: the pope ordering a pile of pizzas in the Vatican, the dying pope revived by his first sexual experience. In their shabby rectories, they not only embodied Powers's fiction by talking about their priestly duties, but were also willing to discuss their personal lives and to confide in a friend outside the parish and the faith about demanding parishioners, tormenting loneliness, and drinking problems. As working priests they were as critical of the church hierarchy as I was of university administrators. But they admired the Jewish-born Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris, and supported the liberal Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle, who had previously been bishop of Helena, Montana. Hunthausen came into conflict with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, who curtailed Hunthausen's administrative duties and liturgical powers.

I admired the coffin fitted out with bookshelves that Fr. Ernie Burney had stored in his basement crypt. When he told me there was no St. Ernest, I urged him to go for it and seek martyrdom among the unconverted tribes of Montana. As the time came to remove the bookshelves and prepare to squeeze his bulky frame into the coffin, Ernie did not welcome the prospect of salvation, but was bitterly angry and afraid of his impending death.

Fr. Tom showed me a postcard sent by an Irish colleague during John Paul II's visit to Knock, Ireland. It depicted a priest, assuming a correct cringe and sycophantic smile, telling a disastrously unfunny Polish joke to the stone-faced pope. The unfortunate courtier, sent much against his will as a missionary to the Congo, disappeared into the jungle and was never heard from again.

Fr. Gregory had a red nose, veined cheeks, and rough-hewn peasant features. "Good Greg" (in contrast to "Bad Greg," my friend's ex-husband) was a sharp social observer. He often struck up conversations with strangers, made easy contact with everyone, and immediately recognized a honeymoon couple when we stopped for lunch at a mountain lodge. He was an efficient parish administrator and fundraiser, as keenly interested in the state of his stocks as in the state of his soul. After acquiring a substantial fortune through years of shrewd investments, he was assiduously courted by his nieces and nephews on his frequent trips to Ireland.

But he lived simply and bought his leisure clothes in thrift shops. …

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