Monsignor Joseph T. Donnelly, 75, is retiring after eighteen years as the pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Southbury, Connecticut. He was my pastor at St. Bridget Church in Manchester in the 1990s. He presided over my wife’s conversion to the Catholic faith in 1997. He performed our wedding later that year.
He is, for good and for ill, representative of the Baby Boomer priests who came of age in the immediate wake of the Second Vatican Council. Most significantly in the era of Pope Francis and President Biden, he is a case study in how those priests seem to have outlasted younger “JPII priests.” Many conservative Catholics have long thought they would one day restore a more orthodox Catholicism the older generation had given away.
Fr Joe’s goodness is apparent from the grand sendoff the Sunday Republican newspaper gave him in its Easter edition. “He is doing all sorts of great things to foster inclusion and to do this faithful, justice-oriented ministry as a pastor in the best sense,” said the local Rabbi.
“He doesn’t turn his back on anyone,” said Catherine Hughes, a longtime parishioner from Prospect. “Anybody who’s in need, he would happily embrace. It’s not about being a Catholic priest. It’s about reaching people in need.”
According to the newspaper, he created over 50 ministries at Sacred Heart. They include “one that sustains a church and medical clinic in Haiti; a men’s group that meets at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday to accommodate fathers shuttling children to sports events; a religious education program that brings parents and grandparents for faith instruction; a group that reaches out to former or ambivalent Catholics; bereavement groups; and a ‘Stephen Ministry’ that sends members out to ‘faithfully listen’ to those in crisis and distress.”
That is the Joe Donnelly I remember, the one I knew when I was in my 20s. His legacy was still felt at my childhood parish more than a decade after his departure, when I visited. St. Bridget’s was still groovy, I wrote in a Facebook post captured by David Mills.
It had the guitar and drums, altar boys in shorts and sneakers, a wreck-ovated interior, a congregation that stands after receiving communion instead of kneeling. But then I opened the bulletin and read six pages of direct actions St. Bridget is taking on behalf of the poor that blows away any conservative parish I know.
As the article in the Sunday Republican says, he believes faith should be in the public square. When people say we shouldn’t talk about politics and religion, he says, “I think we can. I think we must.” Some parishioners complain that he’s inserted politics into the Mass. But it’s not politics, he says. “I’m talking about moral issues and Jesus had things to say about that.”
I could not agree more on that point. My objection is not that Fr Joe brought politics into the church too much. It is that he did not do it often enough. Or rather, that he did so only on issues that favored one side of the political fence.
It was St. Bridget under Fr Joe that I was describing when I told the story of a friend whose attempt to start a pro-life ministry had been squashed. It was during his last year there that he kept me on the phone for 45 minutes explaining why his parish would not participate in the petition against same-sex marriage that the bishops had requested in every Connecticut diocese. And in the 18 years he was a pastor in Southbury, I never once saw his parish at the annual pro-life Mass or the 40 Days for Life.
Again, the good work he did in nearly 50 years of priesthood is beyond dispute. Those 50 ministries at Sacred Heart tell the tale.
But was it really politics to which some of his parishioners objected? Or rather, partisanship? Even a kind of gaslighting partisanship, where those who object to one-sidedness are told that they are the ones being “partisan” or “polarizing”?
Fr Joe’s downplaying of Catholic distinctives can have its advantages. My then-“pro-choice and happy atheist” fiancée says she might not have converted at all were it not for the “Catholic-Lite” of St. Bridget under him. The “mirthful,” “ruminative,” “understanding” “humble” and “flexible” priest who so impressed the author of the Easter Sunday article always impressed us too.
But downplaying Catholic distinctives and denying them altogether are two different things. Fr Joe says in the sidebar article, “Part of the Catholic ethos is, ‘Oh, nobody’s as good as Catholics.’ I think it’s heretical to even talk about that stuff, that ‘we’ve got it better’ or ‘we’re the one true religion.’”
I am not sure what he means by that last part. Did he only mean to say, as Vatican II does, that many elements of sanctification and truth can be found outside the Catholic Church? Or did he mean to declare the Church’s declaration of its own uniqueness to be a heretical teaching?
That ambiguity, shading toward dissent, is also something I remember about Fr Joe. Due partly to his influence, I went in that direction myself for a time. I gobbled up every word printed in Commonweal, America and the National Catholic Reporter. It was under him that our church organized parish trips to the Call to Action national conferences in the Midwest, which I attended. I wrote of those experiences here and here.
Fr Joe was not, I think, an NCR guy. He was more an America guy. He does not usually come right out and say it. It is more what he does not say.
Omissions have consequences. It is why we have so many Catholic politicians in deep blue states who vote for abortion and — just recently, here in Connecticut — assisted suicide, even while citing their Catholic identity. It is why some of the biggest pushback I’ve gotten for defending life and marriage comes not from old public school acquaintances but the people I knew from my one year in Catholic school. As a layman, I sometimes feel that I’m relying for spiritual support on a Church that does not believe its own teachings.
As I said at the beginning, the rise of the “JPII generation” of priests and laity was supposed to fix all that. The results have been mixed. Indeed — and despite all of the above — the results thus far have actually increased my respect for Msgr. Donnelly.
I was full of piss and vinegar nearly twenty years ago when I wrote the blistering response to Peter Steinfels’ A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America. Time has a way of humbling us all. “The JPII generation is out there,” I declared. “We are happy, growing in numbers and confident that the future of the Church belongs to those who are faithful to her teachings.” My column reads like quite the period piece today.
The Catholic homeschooling communities to which my family belongs, for example. Great people. I love them all. Homeschoolers generally hold that even the better Catholic schools don’t offer the Catholicism homeschooling does. In the 18 years we have been involved, none of us have produced a single vocation for the Archdiocese of Hartford. Meanwhile, a teacher I know at Xavier High School in Middletown tells me three of his students are in seminary for our Archdiocese.
Those JPII priests? Several we knew quit the priesthood. Indeed, two of the three I mention here started out as JPII priests. Even the third guy struck me as more orthodox than Fr. Joe. But he absconded with a million dollars from his last parish while the monsignor retires with honor.
And that is one of the big takeaways for me, two decades removed from my Steinfels article, at the time of Msgr. Joseph Donnelly’s retirement and my own middle age.
I wish Fr Joe had been out there swinging as hard for the unborn child and the true definition of marriage as he was for gun control and Haiti. I wish he had not approached Church teaching as if Hans Kung had become Pope instead of Joseph Ratzinger. Whatever value Catholic-Lite has in select cases, in the long term it is an obstacle to the re-evangelization of the West.
But as a Generation X child of divorced parents, I cannot help but note that Msgr. Donnelly never quit. He has stayed a priest for nearly 50 years.
For all my disagreements with them, liberal Baby Boomer priests who make it to retirement model a fidelity that younger, more orthodox Catholics who leave the priesthood (or their own marriage) do not.
Peter Wolfgang is president of Family Institute of Connecticut Action. He lives in Waterbury, Connecticut, with his wife and their seven children. The views expressed here are solely his own. His previous article was The Pandemic Came, Christians Went Bonkers.
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