Lost Horizons at Maryknoll

At Maryknoll, they’re walkin’ the walk and talkin’ the talk. But where will it all end?

When Paul D’Arcy entered Maryknoll in 1937, he wanted to convert pagans to Christ. “It was a totally different mindset,” mused D’Arcy, now laicized and a New York psychologist. Before the Second Vatican Council’s decrees wrought a change in the concept of mission, Maryknoll was the creme de la creme vocation. Jesuits were clever and Franciscans meek, but Maryknollers followed heroically in the footsteps of St. Francis Xavier, seeking souls in the Orient. Many Maryknollers today scoff, to put it mildly, at their society’s former ideals. “We felt we had to convert the pagan Chinese,” shuddered cherubic Father Leo McCarthy, an old China hand now at Maryknoll’s Sixteenth Street house in Washington, D.C., “because they were a people living in sin and darkness. It makes you feel like vomiting today.”

This is a story about Maryknoll’s mid-sixties identity crisis and the men who were swept up in the change and lost their way.

Once upon a time, Maryknoll’s mission was easy to understand. Fathers James Anthony Walsh and Thomas Frederick Price, who founded Maryknoll in 1911 with the blessings of Pope Pius X, were animated by the ideal that American Catholics, themselves only recently emerged from mission territory status, join in the Catholic Church’s missionary activity. Both men were exemplars of the Marian piety of their day. A Founders’ Shrine at the society’s Ossining, New York headquarters displays Walsh’s breviary and the chain and scourges found on Price’s body at his death in China.

As even the most casual newspaper reader must know, Maryknoll projects a far trendier image today. Beer on tap in the refectory and Roman collars scarce as hen’s teeth. Embroidered peasant shirts are in for Maryknoll Brothers. Since being expelled from China in the forties, Maryknoll has delved into leftist politics and liberation theology in Latin America. A Maryknoll priest, Father Miguel D’Escoto, serves as Minister of Foreign Affairs in Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime. Orbis Books, subsidized by the Maryknoll Fathers, publishes the latest in liberation theologians like Juan Luis Segundo and Gustavo Gutierrez, both of whom liberally sprinkle Marxist terms about their work. A recruiting film entitled Walk With the People captures the ambience of modern Maryknoll: It is all about “transformations” and “human values.” The star is Brother Marty Shea of Guatemala. Brother Marty castigates the United States for its foreign policy and counsels getting down with the people. He speaks a hip, Sixties jargon. “You don’t have the right to talk the talk, unless you’re walkin’ the walk,” Brother Marty says.

What happened to the Maryknoll of James Anthony Walsh and Thomas Frederick Price?


Crisis One: The Life and Times of John McCormack

When the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965, Catholic missionaries were confronted with decrees that, at least on the surface, radically altered the missionary’s calling in life. Converting and baptizing non-Christians had been the obvious purpose of missionary work before the Council Fathers pointed out “salvific elements” in other religions. “Rome upset some of the older men,” recalled Father Robert Sheridan, now 86, during an interview at the School of Theology at Ossining, “because baptism was de-emphasized as the key to missionary work. You weren’t supposed to go in like St. Francis Xavier and break down the shrines.” Maryknoll was the first missionary society to grapple with the new ideas. Its 1966 general chapter, a watershed in the history of missionary thought, was the first chapter held in the United States after the Council.

As chapter time drew near, Maryknoll presented a confident face to the world. Vocations were plentiful; Maryknoll could boast more than a thousand priests. But mysterious cracks were already appearing in the smooth surface: approximately a dozen priests had requested laicization. An unprecedented number. Bishop John W. Comber, Superior General at the beginning of the chapter, ascribed the phenomenon to “the spirit of the times.” Change was already in the air.

One of the Young Turks of 1966 was Father William Frazier, a lanky Iowan then in his mid-thirties. He had studied theology at the Angelicum in Rome and taught at the society’s Glen Ellyn Seminary near Chicago. Frazier, though not a delegate to the chapter, exerted enormous influence on the outcome. His ideas formed the basis of Maryknoll’s reformulated concept of missionary work. Several other priests, all since laicized, helped him on the project. Their work was to shake Maryknoll to its foundations.

Many Maryknollers had been motivated in the past by the belief that salvation was available only inside the Catholic Church. St. Paul and St. Thomas Aquinas probably didn’t believe this, but Francis Xavier probably did. “I think this area was kind of fuzzy,” Frazier explained one afternoon in his book-lined office at Maryknoll. “It wasn’t thought out.”

Frazier’s theology of salvation focused on God’s “initial appeal” through “human reality itself” rather than through the Roman Catholic Church. Thus the zeal to convert non-Christians was vastly reduced. As the 1966 chapter’s “statement of policy” finally put it: “A new optimism reigns in theology regarding the salvation of those who never attain explicit faith in Christ and his Church. The saving invitation and power of God reach out to all men through the events and circumstances in which they normally live.” One of the more radical ideas was that the Catholic Church was simply “a sign or Sacrament of salvation.” Many Maryknoll missionaries must have been startled to read that the Church “as a sign is rightly preoccupied with sign-making rather than convert-making.” Missionaries as sign-makers? One wonders how Francis Xavier would like it.

Another key matter in 1966 was choosing Maryknoll’s next Superior General, the man who would steer the society through the gathering storm. A foward-looking faction led by then-Father Eugene Kennedy, a guru figure, was reportedly inclined towards Father John J. McCormack, a Cassius-thin priest with an intellectual bent. He was elected on the third ballot; the die was cast. Unlike Maryknoll’s previous Superior Generals, McCormack was elected to a six year term rather than a ten year one. Six years, the chapter decided, was the appropriate tenure in their brave new world of constant change. “Ten years,” Eugene Kennedy told the delegates, “do reflect a more leisurely and powerless age.”

In many ways, John McCormack might have seemed the perfect candidate for Maryknoll conservatives. “He was a rigid and highly self-disciplined individual,” said an associate. “‘He did some kind of flip-flop after Vatican II. He seemed to be forcing himself to be open and progressive against his natural instincts.” So rigid was John McCormack that his own father, an Irishman, is supposed to have greeted his son’s elevation by saying, “You people will regret the day you did this.”

One of the first tests of McCormack’s administration was the uproar over Maryknoll’s revised concept of mission. Priests in the field did not, overall, embrace it. “There was a lot of turmoil,” William Frazier recalled. “I think there were letters that went back and forth between superiors.” Maryknollers in the Japan region went so far as to publish a broadsheet attacking Frazier and his theories. At least one left the society in protest; he is still a priest in Japan. An irony of the situation is that the chapter delegates who had approved Frazier’s position may not have fully grasped the implications. “Bishops at the Vatican Council,” Frazier said, “didn’t realize exactly what they’d voted on. That’s sort of the way it was at our general chapter.”

At any rate, havoc reigned at Maryknoll after the chapter; particularly disturbing was the vogue idea that missionary work was supposed to be a two-way street: you were supposed to be evangelized by the very people you’d once called pagans. Very confusing. “If you’d known that before you’d gone, you might not have gone in the first place, huh?” said Paul D’Arcy. During the late Sixties and throughout the Seventies, many Maryknollers were forced to wrestle with their vocations. When D’Arcy himself left in 1969, it was a blow to morale. He had been a brilliant, charismatic professor, the sort who kept the class in stitches. Once, when another professor complained of the noise coming from D’Arcy’s class, charming Father D’Arcy quipped, “My problem is that I overstimulate them.”

When asked about his decision to leave Maryknoll, D’Arcy replied, “I left and got married to a lovely lady.” He added that he felt things at Maryknoll were “changing too slowly.” D’Arcy’s wife, whom he married shortly after his departure from the order, is also a psychologist and an ex-Maryknoll nun. Mary D’Arcy, who could be heard prompting her nervous husband, does vocational discernment work and advises the Maryknoll Sister’s lay missioner program.

Many of Maryknoll’s best and brightest joined the exodus and the society was reduced by approximately a fourth or a third, depending on the source. “Some people didn’t like the new style of relating,” said Father William Boteler, Maryknoll’s current Superior General. Two prominent Maryknollers who left were seminary rector George Webber, now said to be living in the Detroit area, and Joe Michenfelder, whose views on Latin America were influential at Maryknoll. Michenfelder, now a New York public relations man, declined to be interviewed, saying through his secretary that his thoughts are now “a thousand miles away from that world at Maryknoll.” The most famous ex-Maryknoller is, of course, Eugene Kennedy, a prolific writer on Catholic matters and a psychologist at Chicago’s Loyola University.

Maryknoll’s cheery attitude about the men who left during the great exodus is somewhat disconcerting. “We’re the only society that has a national newsletter for them,” bragged Father Robert Sheridan. He edits a gossipy little sheet called Tunc et Nunc for the Formers, as they are known. Tunc et Nunc is a quarterly but Sheridan is gingerly in letting a visitor see it. Many of the Formers whose names appear in it don’t like to have their anonymity broken. Not so with Paul D’Arcy, who’d just returned from a gathering of Formers at Maryknoll. He has worked on psychological consulting programs for Maryknoll since leaving the society. “We have a lot of ex-Maryknollers in this area,” D’Arcy remarked during a telephone interview.

As men left in droves, Maryknoll merrily rocked along with new ideas. If missionary work was to be a two way street, then Maryknoll would promote Third World theology in the First World. Orbis Books was established in 1970. Ex-Commonweal editor Philip Scharper, who as head of Sheed and Ward’s American division had introduced such then-avant garde theologians as Hans Kung and Edward Schillebeeckx to U.S. readers, was hired to run Orbis.

Scharper made Orbis, which today derives around twenty per cent of its income from the Maryknoll Fathers, the most famous purveyor of Third World theology in the United States. Its list includes both Latin American theologians and “questioning” works from American theologians like ex-priest Paul Knitter, whose No Other Name? is an Orbis title. Scharper, according to a 1982 interview in the National Catholic Register hoped that a contemporary thinker would come along and do for Marx what Aquinas did for Aristotle — i.e., harmonize the two systems of thought. Scharper died in 1984 and was followed by Robert Gormley. Gormley had been a Boston-based vice president of Wadsworth Publishers. A 1983 convert from the Episcopal Church, Gormley, in his tweeds and elbow patches and with a professed fondness for the Latin Mass, still seems just a tad High Anglican. His goal is to broaden Orbis’s list to include more liberation theology from Asia and Africa. “The Third World-First World dialogue will continue to be the heart of our program,” he said.

One of the rare happy events of McCormack’s era came in 1970 when Maryknoll Bishop James Edward Walsh (not to be confused with the founder) was released from a 20-year sentence in a Chinese prison. James Edward, a reminder of Maryknoll’s palmier days, had been interned when the Communists took over. His return was national news and a joyous occasion. Walsh himself was a sick old man, who’d held onto his sanity by reciting the rosary and going over the history of Maryknoll year by year.

It was hoped that after Bishop Walsh settled at Ossining he would write his memoirs and comment on the brave new Maryknoll he found. But Walsh held aloof from the fray. He was silent and serene. Both factions interpreted the bishop’s silence as approval for their side. When, however, a friend once asked him how he remained so serene, the frail old bishop is supposed to have replied, “I never get upset anymore, except once a month — when I get my Maryknoll magazine.”

But the biggest jolt was yet to come for Maryknoll. When his term ended in 1972, McCormack, whose bang, bang, bang style of administration had made many enemies, was not re-elected. Father Raymond Hill, whose geniality contrasted with McCormack’s tautness, was chosen. Hill had been regional superior for Chile. Some now sense that had John McCormack been given a second term, his poignant personal history might have been vastly different.

After he stepped down as Superior General, McCormack was sent to Peru. There he seemed a dejected, abstracted man. Soon the reason was apparent: the Very Reverend John J. McCormack requested laicization. Since canon law forbids the laicization of bishops, abbots and superiors, McCormack was in a bind. Maryknoll’s former Father Superior packed his bags anyway. Shortly afterwards, he married ex-Maryknoll Sister Patricia Fitzmorris, a brilliant physician who’d attended James Edward Walsh during his stopover in Hong Kong after being released from prison. “There was a little horror that it would make the front page,” a retired Maryknoller remembered; they needn’t have worried. Not a single Catholic news organization bothered to report what was certainly one of the most revealing Catholic stories of the year. John McCormack recently retired as manager of employee relations at the W. R. Grace Company in New York. Priests who have not been laicized are supposed to abstain from the sacraments. But John McCormack is an active Catholic, a daily communicant. “The only reason I haven’t been laicized,” McCormack said, “is that I was Superior General.” He has employed a complicated and dubious argument called the “internal forum,” and now considers himself laicized.

McCormack’s years had been painful ones. Confusion reigned and Maryknoll had lost its certainty. “I sometimes wonder,” said Father Boteler, “if a factor in his decision to leave was that he didn’t feel fully appreciated for the sufferings he went through.” Oddly enough, McCormack voices doubts about the Maryknoll he created. He recalled the latter days: “I kept saying to myself ‘This is insanity!’ Missionaries are not transculturators. You could set up a society to do that. But that wasn’t supposed to be Maryknoll’s function.”


Crisis Two: William Frazier’s Journey From Radical to Rearguard

When avant garde Maryknollers think of Father William Frazier’s brilliance in 1966, they shake their heads in dismay. As is so often the case with Young Turks, Father Frazier hasn’t kept up with the times. Bill Frazier is passe. He has become increasingly critical of Maryknoll’s socio-political concept of evangelization. “We’ve gone a little too far,” he said, “in embracing some of the thought on transforming social structures. We went overboard and forgot the ministry to the human heart. I think it got sort of one dimensional. It doesn’t do justice to the depth of Christianity.” Frazier works in a rather musty study at the School of Theology in Ossining.

As of yet, the debate over ministry to the human heart versus ministry to structures hasn’t quite surfaced. It is simmering just beneath the surface. Frazier has already dubbed it “Crisis II” (to distinguish it from the “Crisis I” he helped create in 1966). He stirred the pot with a position paper on the subject that he distributed at the community’s 1978 chapter. According to the priest, Latin American liberation theology, which focuses on changing structures, is “heavily weighted” with “environmental anthropology.” In an article sprinkled with references to everyone from T.S. Eliot and Francis Thompson to Abraham Maslow, Frazier indicated that Maryknoll’s current view of mission is too socio-political in orientation.

Frazier’s analysis is bleak. “Christianity can’t survive,” he said, “if it reduces everything to ministry to structures. I just see dangers there. What is distinctive about Christianity is passed over too lightly. This is our current crisis. It’s the crisis of younger Maryknollers.” He hopes his writings on the matter will provide categories of thought for those Maryknollers who are “victims of those who are more glib…. A lot of people have said that they knew something was wrong but couldn’t label it.”

At present, Maryknoll shows few signs of retrenchment. Maryknoll’s Father Miguel D’Escoto of Nicaragua led the protest that disrupted Pope John Paul II’s Mass in Managua when the pope went to Nicaragua in 1983. A recent issue of Maryknoll, the society’s glossy monthly magazine, published an article taken from Swiss Capuchin Walbert Buhlmann’s “The Church of the Future: A Model for the Year 2000.” It stated: “The structures of injustice and international capitalism stand like an almost impregnable fortress. Decision-making boards of multinational corporations and National Security regimes see the growing danger. They label ‘communist’ those theologians who identify with the poor, whereas the church, for that very reason, has again become credible to the people.”

Not everybody at Maryknoll is radical. A few older men from the past seem dreadfully out of place at trendy Maryknoll. Brother Fred, for example, is an ardent fan of the Wanderer and an even more avid reader of the Wanderer’s ultra spin-off, The Remnant. When a Maryknoll Father was trying to explain Maryknoll’s ideology to a particularly dense reporter, Brother Fred looked distressed. “You’re getting too complicated, Matt,” he said. “You’ve got to simplify,” he said simply. “You’ve got to simplify.” (Another of Maryknoll’s older members, former Superior John Comber, a resident of St. Teresa’s, the retirement home, rejected an interview request. He is lightly dismissed by a prominent Maryknoller as a man whose personal reminiscences might be interesting but whose perspective on the society is irrelevant. “He thinks priests should go around in cassocks,” moaned the model of the modern Maryknoller.)

What does the future hold for the oldest missionary society in the United States? Some dissident Maryknollers had hoped that the society’s last chapter would reverse some of the trends of the last twenty years. But this didn’t happen. Father William Boteler, the personable ex-Black and Decker accountant who became Maryknoll’s new Superior General in 1984, defends Maryknoll’s tendency to criticize U.S. foreign policy. “We’re out there experiencing things that aren’t being experienced in our culture yet,” Boteler, a man who favors discreet check suits, said. Boteler hoped the article wouldn’t focus on Nicaragua but he couldn’t resist pressing some newspaper editorials that clarified the Sandinista situation on a reporter. “We have a good relation with the Vatican,” he chirruped, “on everything but Nicaragua.” (He was referring to the case of Miguel D’Escoto, whom the pope would probably like to see suspended from Maryknoll.)

Maryknoll’s financial position is secure. The Fathers have an annual budget of approximately $43 million. Most of it comes from contributions from Catholics. For every Catholic who is turned off by Maryknoll’s activism, another new donor pops up, according to the public relations office. But the vocations picture is not so bright — Maryknoll ordained a total of four priests last year. The new vogue is lay missioners who make a temporary commitment, but everybody knows this isn’t the same as having a supply of priests.

As Maryknoll moves into the uncertain future, William Frazier, the man who started it all, seems like a man out of place in his environment. “I suppose they think that I’m somebody who had a few good ideas at one time but doesn’t anymore,” he shrugged.


Charlotte Hays is Director of Cultural Programs at the Independent Women's Forum. Hays has appeared on cable television programs such as Politically Incorrect, C-Span's Washington Journal, and PBS's To the Contrary. A former correspondent for the National Catholic Register and a feature writer at The Washington Times, Hays has been fascinated by politics since covering local politics for alternative weeklies in New Orleans. She is coauthor of three humorous books on southern culture, the first of which was the best-selling Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral. She is also author of Fortune Hunters, a book on what it takes to make a Midas marriage. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, the Washington Post’s “Book World,” and the Weekly Standard.

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