The Modern Priest as Bridge Builder

After more than a decade in the Holy Land, Fr. Michael McGarry returns to the U.S. as president of the Paulist Fathers

In front of the Tantur Tower

Located on the main road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Tantur Ecumenical Institute serves as a bridge of sorts in a very divided land. Founded by Pope Paul VI, the institute was established to help foster the dialogue and scholarship among Christians that had begun during Vatican II. Under the direction of Paulist Father Michael McGarry from 1999 to 2010, Tantur also served as a neutral place where Israelis and Palestinians interested in discussing how to overcome the seemingly intractable conflict in the region could talk safely. But with his recent election as president of the Paulist Fathers, McGarry returned home to discover how deeply divided his own country was as well.

In the interview that follows, Fr. McGarry discusses his years in the Holy Land and his extensive work on Jewish-Christian relations. The Los Angeles native also touches on the divisions he sees in both American politics and the Catholic Church in this country and how the fundamental question that drew him to the Paulists back in 1965, “Can a Priest be a Modern Man?” is still as relevant today as it was 45 years ago.

Busted Halo: How did you decide to become a priest and what led you to the Paulists?

Michael McGarry: I wanted to be a priest since I was very young and in my third year of high school I saw this ad for the Paulists in a magazine that said, “Can a priest be a modern man?” I thought that was a pretty good question in 1965, and actually I think it’s still a good question in 2010. I joined up because I wanted to be — what we called then — a “Missionary to Main Street,” I wanted to bring the gospel out of the church rather than wait for people to come into the church, and I think that’s a basic Paulist impulse.

BH: How did that question, “Can a priest be a modern man?” speak to you?

MM: What it said to me then was not that a priest could compromise being truly Christian, but could someone who was going to speak the message to the modern world do it in language that the modern world could understand? In the church we have our own code language, you hear Catholics all the time speaking language that nobody else understands. But if we speak language that modern people can understand, maybe then we can get the message across. So that’s what I wanted to do; I wanted to get out of the church and bring the gospel to the modern world, “Main Street,” as we called it at the time.

“Coming back, I have to say, I find it a morass of cultural wars, both within the church and against the church… I am a little bit nervous about trying to get into this, because some people who are the liturgy police or the orthodoxy police or the patriotism police will want to chastise you for not living up to their particular take on what it means to be American and what it means to be Catholic.”

BH: When did your interest in the Jewish-Christian dialogue begin?

MM: Well, I sometimes say that my first girlfriend was a Jewish girl. And that’s not a joke. We were both four years of age in Los Angeles; her family moved to Washington and broke my heart at age four (laughs). When I did my graduate work a professor said someone should write about the Christology — that is, how we talk about Jesus — in the midst of the Jewish/Christian dialogue. So I started my work in Jewish-Christian relations with my thesis out at the University of Toronto. And then I started to see what happened in the Shoah, the Holocaust. I had not studied that in twenty years of Catholic education. And I asked myself, ‘How can it be that Christians of Europe did not stop the Holocaust?’ Indeed many were perpetrators. And the answer is very quick and easy — they obviously were not very faithful followers of Jesus and they claimed to be following him. But as usual with complicated issues, when you come up with a simple and easy answer, you come up with an inadequate answer. When I studied the history of Jewish-Christian relations through the centuries I found a horrible legacy of how we Christians are taught about our Jewish brothers and sisters, which is quite disturbing and quite un-Christian, you might say. It raised the question for me that maybe it wasn’t simply that Christians were not Christian enough, but maybe the very way we teach about our faith is inadequate to the way we understand our Jewish brothers and sisters as still loved by God and still in covenant with God. So I really read myself into it and then I started to have a passion about, how is it that we as Catholics and Christians can teach about our Jewish brothers and sisters without being anti-Semitic?

BH: How did that passion take shape in your ministry as a Paulist?

MM: A lot of my work as a Paulist priest in this country has really been about how to help my Christian brothers and sisters preach without being anti-Semitic. I’ve been trying to advance the teachings of the second Vatican Council that the Jewish people continue to be beloved by God, and this was certainly part of the agenda of Pope John Paul II, this was very close to his heart for obvious historical reasons — the way the Poles were steam-rolled by the Nazis — but also personally; he had a good friend, a Jewish doctor who came almost once a month while he was Pope and had lunch at the Vatican. He always had good friends who were Jews, and there’s no substitute for the personal in this. It’s not only theory, it has to be personal.

“Because of its unique location between Israel, Palestine, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, [Tantur] became a place where Israelis and Palestinians courageous enough to work for peace would find a place where they could talk with one another; it became a place of peace because it was neutral but not indifferent.”

Let me give you an example. A lot of times in the gospel, Jesus is teaching something and He is confronted by the leaders of the time, and, of course, they’re Jewish leaders and He’s a Jew. Even in the gospels, sometimes you think that Jesus was Catholic and all of his opponents were Jews, because even the gospel writers sometimes identify His opponents as being Jewish, but not Jesus being Jewish. Secondly, there will be a way in which Jesus “trumps” his own tradition by saying, for instance, God created us for the sake of life, to live for the Sabbath — that we were not made for the Sabbath; the Sabbath was made for us. Then people start say, “isn’t Jesus non-legalistic, he’s showing us the legalism of those Jews, and we Christians have been liberated from that.” Well, that kind of template — where you say Jesus is the one over and against his own tradition, and lifting up our Christian tradition, is a misunderstanding of the gospels. Jesus was a good Jew trying to purify his own tradition. And a better analogy would not be Jesus dumping on the Jews, but a good Christian priest dumping on the hierarchy, saying ‘When our leadership are not true to our deepest values, someone has to speak up; as Jesus did it in His tradition, we need to do it in ours.”

BH: How can that be done?

MM: I think we Catholics are wringing our hands about mistakes made in the last 25 years, and one of the mistakes among many is how Christian/Catholic leaders protected “their own” from being arrested, from being shamed, from being embarrassed, from embarrassing the whole clerical club. And we did this at the expense of people, and that betrays the deepest traditions in our Catholic faith and someone has to stop and say, “Wait a minute, this is not who we are as Christians.” And sometimes the leaders will balk at that as they did at the time of Jesus, but the true Christian is the one who remains faithful to the principles of Christianity and not just being faithful or loyal to the guys.

BH: It is a tough time in many ways for the Church in the US. You’re new to being back; do you sense a change in the landscape at all?

MM: The landscape is so different. I told my good friends in Jerusalem that I’m leaving the Holy Land and coming to the Promised Land. Because that’s the way a lot of people look at America around the world. I love being American; I love my country. And that’s part of being a Paulist too — we’re Americans for the sake of North America. But coming back, I have to say, I find it a morass of cultural wars, both within the church and against the church. Within the church, there are some who are saying “I’m more orthodox than you, therefore I’m more Catholic than you,” or, “You’re not Catholic because you don’t agree with me,” or, “I’ve got the truth and you don’t.” Within the church it revolves around a lot of moral issues: divorce, same-sex marriage, abortion, stem cell, and so forth. These life issues are very, very important, but you don’t have to cut off the head of your opponent to prove how prophetic or how true a Catholic you are.

But there are also culture wars against the church. You don’t have to be one who protects the church in its wrongdoing to recognize that there are some people taking great glee in how much the church is suffering right now (for our own sins admittedly) but they’ll pile on the lawsuits or defamatory words, as they say, “Anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice,” “How can you have a brain and be a Catholic?” or, “You don’t still believe in that nonsense, do you?” I’ve had people in this country tell me that I’m not a Christian because I’m a Catholic. Even within my own love for America, I find that people don’t realize that our foreign policy sometimes hurts people; it hurts people in the Middle East, in the Far East; it hurts people in Africa. I have to say, coming back, I am a little bit nervous about trying to get into this, because some people who are the liturgy police or the orthodoxy police or the patriotism police will want to chastise you for not living up to their particular take on what it means to be American and what it means to be Catholic.