The Most Important Minister: My Tribute to Fr. Donald F.X. Connolly

One question that Christians often ask each other is “What preacher (or minister or priest) had the greatest influence on your life?”  For me that’s never been an easy question to answer, especially in the church I’m in now.  Most people would assume that the church I’ve ended up with produced the most influential one, but for me it’s just not the case.

I came from a family with deep-seated anti-clerical attitudes.  Like many “traditional” Episcopalians, they tended to regard ministers as another form of hired help, like those at the club and the business.  My father also tended to look at just about all ministers as pompous, mealy-mouthed blowhards, irrespective of denomination.  Given the instinctive “Anglican fudge,” Episcopal ministers didn’t stand much of a chance making an impact on me.

My mother was rather fond of Robert Appleyard, whose later claim to fame was the first Episcopal Bishop to “legally” ordain women into the priesthood in the now-controversial Diocese of Pittsburgh.  His successor, Hundson Cary, was another matter altogether.  I had fun with the “Bore’s Head” re his initiation of the turn of the year celebration, and he found himself caught between Vestry and ladies’ guild in the founding of the Church Mouse resale shop.

On the other end (in every sense of the word) are the many Evangelical and Pentecostal pastors and ministers I have had contact with.  My years of working for a denomination set aside, the biggest block about the ministers where I’m at is that Evangelicals of all kinds are primarily focused on the impact of the Gospel on the individual, and that to the exclusion of everything else.  Although that’s important, for someone of my background and temperament that’s just too narrow of a way to view life, something that readers of this blog have probably figured out.  (That also explains many of the difficulties that Evangelicals have in politics, but that’s another post).

In the middle are my years as a Roman Catholic, and here I’d like to pause and give tribute to the one Catholic priest who has had more impact on me than any other minister I have met: Fr. Donald F.X. Connolly.  Not well-known today, better known forty years ago when I first met him, he made the difference in my life when a difference needed to be made.

My introduction to him was rather unique, as told here:

I had started attending the Catholic church in Palm Beach just a few months before that, the same church that Jack Kennedy attended when he visited the family compound there.  My parents weren’t too thrilled with this decision, but I did it anyway.  Moving however required me start attending another parish.  That lasted for a few weeks; they then announced that a new parish was starting less than a kilometre from where we lived, and that we should go there.

South Florida is well known for fast growth. The major seminary for the Archdiocese of Miami was located in Boynton Beach, so they impressed the use of the seminary’s chapel for the new parish.  (Photo below.)  The church certainly had its own pastor but they also impressed seminary professors to say Mass (some acted like they had forgotten how it was done!)

I took a low profile going there, because I wasn’t sure what I really wanted to do in Roman Catholicism.  That wasn’t difficult at first because this parish, like most, didn’t have a lot of social interaction amongst the parishioners.  But that changed abruptly one Sunday morning at Mass.

I came in as usual and sat down towards the back, minding my own business, when someone came from behind the altar and asked me to be the lector for the Mass.  The lector is the person who is reads with the first two appointed selections of the Bible for the Mass (plus the Responsorial Psalm when it isn’t sung.) I was surprised at this but I went on back and met the parish priest.  He asked me, “Have you ever been a lector before?”

“I’m not even Catholic,” I replied.

“We’ll take care of that later,” he answered.  So he gave me a crash course in lectoring, we ascended to the altar of God and I lectored my first Mass.  I was instantly a regular lector at the church, which not only involved me in the life of the parish but also did wonders for my public speaking.  Before the year was out I formally converted to Roman Catholicism and began the greatest spiritual adventure of my life.

Fr. Connolly was St. Thomas More’s first parish priest.  But he was no “ordinary” parish priest: he was also professor of homiletics at St. Vincent de Paul Seminary.  Ordained in 1960, he had also been pastor of several other Catholic churches in the Archdiocese and principal of Monsignor Pace High School in Miami (sadly, one of my school’s athletic rivals).  He was also a radio and television personality, having even appeared on the Tonight Show.  At the time he hosted a call-in program with a Methodist minister in Miami.  He had authored several monographs and edited several books.  The parish was blessed to have a man of his calibre.

My conversion process was as unusual as the two people involved, as I related here:

Once my parish priest realised he had his new parish’s first convert on his hands, he spent a little time with me preparing for the event.  (How he found out about me is recounted here.)  When I told him that I had read St. Augustine’s City of God over the summer, he was a little surprised.  That was heavy reading for most converts, but it had been preceded by the Divine Comedy the previous spring, the work which first set forth Roman Catholicism to me in a serious way.  But both of these seminal works turned out to be the bulk of my preparation for conversion.  The parish had no organisation to catechise converts except to make me read a little booklet, and so before Advent I was Roman Catholic.

Connolly was a no-nonsense kind of priest, refreshing in and of itself.  But along the way—a way that lasted four years—he sowed into my life some very important things.

The first thing he did was to introduce me to various members of the faculty at the Seminary.  This gave me a broader perspective on many topics, especially Biblical studies.  Connolly is best described as a progressive traditionalist; he demanded fidelity to Roman Catholic teaching, but also knew the importance of serious inquiry and an intellectual challenge.  This preparation has saved me a good deal of grief over the years, especially avoiding painting myself into a corner with a defective Biblical hermeneutic.

He also encouraged and directed me towards good Catholic reading.  I didn’t need much encouragement for Patristic and Scholastic reading; I spent much of my undergraduate years wading through St. Thomas Aquinas and in the years after that the likes of Origen, Tertullian, Moses Maimonides and more recently Cyril of Jerusalem.  But he introduced me to two much more recent Catholic authors whose impact on my life has been considerable.

The first was the Jesuit John McKenzie.  His books The Two-Edged Sword and The Power and the Wisdom, on the Old and New Testaments respectively, shaped much of my thinking about the Bible and its meaning, especially the fundamentally revolutionary nature of the New Testament that shows almost every existing church to have come up short of its concept.  It certainly got me past any temptation to make “a business deal with God”, a phrase Connolly used for much of pre-Vatican II Catholicism and one which could explicitly be used to describe prosperity-teaching immersed Evangelicalism.

The second was one better known to readers of this blog—G.K. Chesterton.  It’s difficult to imagine twentieth century apologetics without this brilliant writer who started as an Anglican and ended up as a Roman Catholic, and his works have given me both joy and ammunition to face Christianity’s opponents.

Finally he challenged me, a product of a formal and somewhat mechanistic background, to let my humanity come out, which has made life a far more joyful business than it would have been.

After graduation we lost track of each other.  Unbeknownst to me he suffered a stroke in 1981 and died of a heart attack four years later, gone at 52 well before his time.  In the meanwhile I had struggled through dodging the covenant community experience and leaving Roman Catholicism for good.

Although I had and still have substantive issues with Roman Catholicism’s concept of itself as a church, choosing and staying in a church can be a complex business.  Much of my problem after college was that the Catholic Church that had produced the experience I had during and immediately following my conversion fell down into routine parish life, especially after I came to Chattanooga.  One day I had a conversation with a colleague at the university who is a Third Order Franciscan.  She noted that the churches in the area lacked the vision to offer for such things as retreat houses and places where a deeper walk with God as a Roman Catholic could be found.  I can’t say absolutely that I would have stayed even with these; I can certainly say it would have been far more likely.

Such things, I suppose, will be the stuff of long conversations with Fr. Connolly in the Mystic Rose.  He is doubtless not the kind of mentor that Evangelicals normally like to see—especially for men.  But he is the one that God sent at the time, and for his influence and legacy I can only be grateful.  As the Jesuits would say:

Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam

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