In certain circles, Jack Egan came back to Chicago in 1983 more a symbol than a person. Hed tried to fend off the notion that he was in exile at the University of Notre Dame. Thats why I tell the story of Cardinal Cody giving me his reluctant permission to leave in such detail. But the mythas Jack Hill says, myth takes over when history deterioratespersisted. To much of the city Monsignor John Egan had been exiled, and the exile was returning. Jacks Back, the Chicago Sun-Times trumpeted.
The headline in the National Catholic Reporter on a story linking Jacks return to his 40th anniversary Mass and party at Sauers Restaurant on Chicagos near South Side read: Monsignor Jack Eganhome at last! The Chicago Tribune called him a maverick returning from exile and described him shaking his head over racism in the current mayoral campaign. In a certain sense, he said of those manifesting hatred toward black mayoral candidate Harold Washington, you can cry for those people. Its sad, because theyre rejecting the very fundamental basis of what their religion is. Theyre rejecting the meaning of Easter; theyre rejecting the meaning of the Crucifixion. Their religion becomes hypocritical, self-serving. Jack was back. Jack was speaking out.
For many, Jack returned from the exile-that-never-was as the grand old networker of the halcyon ecumenical days, the inveterate tilter at windmills who stirred the imagination of the young and the stumps of the lethargic. The first to organize a welcoming dinner were members of the American Jewish Committee. To many Jews, as Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz said repeatedly, Monsignor Egan was the best friend they had in Chicago.
Not everyone was equally enthusiastic at the exiles return. Some saw him as less than untarnished hero. Jacks friend and classmate Bishop Timothy Lyne offered him a berth at Holy Name Cathedral rectory (where Lyne was rector) in hopes that the cathedral parishs certain amount of prestige would help Jack over a hump that wouldnt be that easy somewhere else. Lyne was aware of pastors who felt theyd suffered the daily heat of the battle when Jack had fought and run away. Lyne adds mildly that there were years when (pastoring) was a tough business. It was hard. So I think there was . . . I dont know if resentment is the right word as much as questioning . . . that its one thing to take a position somewhere else.
Lyne was one of those consulted in numerous conversations with Archbishop Joseph Bernardin and other people about a post tailored for Jack. On July 23, 1982, when Jack first talked to the Archdiocesan Personnel Board about a return to the Windy City, Archbishop Bernardin was newly appointed. He had yet to be installed. Two months after his August installation, Bernardin talked to Jack Egan about returning to the archdiocese. Jack immediately wrote Father Hesburgh about his desire to go back to Chicago where my roots are . . . I wish to assist the new archbishop in his quest to make Chicago the finest archdiocese in the country. The problems there are overwhelming, and he knows full well that he will need all the help that can be offered to him.
On March 16, 1983, Jack Egan was appointed Director of the Archdiocesan Office of Human Relations and Ecumenism. He and Peggy moved to Chicago permanently on April 17, and went to work the next day. To Bishop Lyne, his friend Jack Egan was an outstandingly good organization person. That skill plus a lot of connections with various other churches made him a natural for the human relations/ecumenism post. When Archbishop Bernardin offered Father Egan the post, Jack was unhesitating. Id like it very much, Monsignor Egan told his ordinary, so long as you dont expect me to be an ecumenical theologian.
Under the human relations and ecumenism mantle, Jack Egan could pick up the threads of his earlier activities and reclaim the friendships and alliances he had carefully nurtured. As he says of his South Bend days, There was never a week I wasnt in Chicago. Bishop Lyne ascribes much of Jacks accomplishment to his energy. He says Jack went to so many affairs at black and non-Catholic churches that he developed a very fine relationship with a lot of ministers and leaders in those communities. Even when he was at Notre Dame, he kept up a great deal of that. So he had national exposure and a good relationship over a lot of years. When he came back and took this job, he did an outstandingly good job of cultivating these people.
If that office seemed a natural spot for Jack to archdiocesan brass, it still intimidated Father Egan some. As always in times of change, Jacks natural eagerness (hed once been parodied as Father Eager at a Cana gala) was undercut by his residual craving for approval. That need for approval was mitigated, in part, by his willingness to see life steadily and (see) it whole. In some ways coming back to Chicago scared Jack. But he was scared by the reality of the currently tense situation in the city as well as by his perception that much was expected of someone billedperhaps overbilledas a returning prophet.
By the time he moved into the Holy Name rectory, Chicago had experienced an election that raised problems of race in unacceptable ways. An angry crowd had jeered Harold Washington, the black mayoral candidate, and Walter Mondale, the presidential candidate, on the steps of a Catholic church in the city.
Jack had witnessed the coverage of the troubling scene on South Bend television a few days before he took leave of Notre Dame. He was haunted by the sight. As he told Arthur Jones, religious affairs writer for the National Catholic Reporter, he lay in bed that grim night, asking himself: What can the Church do? Have we completely failed? Or, in the last twenty years since Martin Luther Kings death, have we just taken it for granted that the educational work and formational job were being done?
He told Jones, It would be abnormal not to be scared. If theres anything Ive learned over the last thirty years, its that this thing (racial animosity) is one of the most intractable of problems. Back in Chicago, he would have to heft some of the responsibility because, as Jack saw it, This has to be looked at on a diocesan basis. Plus, it transcends the Catholic Churchits a citywide issue in a political campaign. Its a challenge to all the churches; particularly the Roman Catholic churches where, it seems to me, the key people are the parish priests.
Realistically, what could Jack do? Those who felt the city was in a holding pattern vis-a-vis church-to-church-to-synagogue relations, advocacy for the underclass, and community organizing, were heartened by his return. Also expectant. They expected that Jack would reach out to them as the archdiocese was reaching out to him.
If Cardinal Bernardin had appointed a committee of my dearest friends and said, `How can we make Jack Egans return to Chicago most pleasant? they couldnt have devised a finer plan, Jack says of his welcome back to his hometown.
He breakfasted with aldermen, lunched with community activists, and dined with church people. He probed for insight. What important things were going on in the city? Who was spearheading laudable endeavors? How could he expedite the good work going on from his position in the archdiocese? He was seen back in the kitchen in Florence Scalas Taylor Street restaurant, celebrating their jousting against the University of Illinois at Chicago during the early sixties. Scala had headed the Harrison-Halsted Community Group pledged to prevent the leveling of entire blocks filled with old families and solid homes on the near West Side.
To witnesses like John Johnson, the most successful black businessman in American history, who founded Ebony magazine and built a multimillion-dollar cosmetics and insurance empire on $500 he borrowed using his mothers furniture as collateral, Jack Egan is everywhere. Hes like the sun, the moon, and the stars. I give a commencement talk at Roosevelt University. Hes there. I appear for the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Hes there. Im at the Economics Club. Hes there. Jack dubs his social suffusion the sacrament of presence. He cites Woody Allen as his oracle in this regard: Eighty percent of success in life is just showing up. Jack Egan wants to show up for the people of Chicago. Evidently, they want him to.
No life is without its special ironies. Jack Egan experienced one of those unexpected turns of events when he and Peggy Roach arrived at the Chancery Office on April 16, 1983, to work out the details of their move. They were nervous. Maybe, Jack suggests, because those offices had put the fear of God in people during Cardinal Codys tenancy. Jack had written down his twenty or so questions in case he might be intimidated by those memories and forget something important. There was no need. Monsignor Francis Brackin, instructed by Cardinal Bernardin that Jack and Peggy were to be treated royally, dealt with most of their concerns with no prompting. Jack decided not to ask his last question: What about moving costs?
The office they were assigned was one of the finest in the Chancery Office on East Superior, Jack recalls. Roomy, well-lighted, and in an advantageous location on the friendly third floor. Father Larry Gorman had already told Peggy and Jack that the third floor was the fun floor: nice people and away from officialdom. The splendid new quarters had great space, many windows, and good closet room.
Monsignor Brackin could see they were pleased. Is everything okay? he asked, poised at the door. Jack assured him they were completely satisfied. More relaxed now, he made bold to ask one more question. With his eye for the handsome artifact, Jack had observed that the commodious desk set across the side of the commodious room was an unusually handsome piece of cabinetry. Hed accepted a passel of hand-me-down furniture in his day and learned to make do. Hed expected furnishings of a higher order in the Chancery Office. But this was truly special. He asked Monsignor Brackin the origin of the mighty large and beautiful desk.
Monsignor Brackins expression did not change. He answered coolly as he stepped out into the friendly third floor corridor, That was Cardinal Codys desk.
Jack matched the official equability. Only when Monsignor Brackin was goneand in succeeding days as he had the timedid he explore the secret doors in that wonderful desk. And allow himself to marvel at this twist of fate. Someday I shall know how Cardinal Cody felt about my getting his desk, he says. For himself, newly returned to an as yet untried slot in the Chicago Churchs sanctum sanctorum, that he should inherit Cardinal Codys desk was a certain sign of a new order. However the legacy might have affected his late ordinary, Jack Egan knew how he reacted to inheriting this piece of Codiana: I felt delighted.
He couldnt preen, however, because he and Peggy also found old files from Monsignor Ed Egans days in the office. I found them discouraging, Jack admits. The exchanges between Cardinal Cody and Ed Egan in the files were very critical of Jack Egan and his work with the Association of Chicago Priests. It looks like Jack Egan is up to his old tricks again, something like that, he quotes loosely. The past wasnt quite buried.
Nonetheless, the priest who sought social contact as assiduously as Cardinal Cody had avoided it set out immediately to use the phone on Codys desk to plug into the city. We hit the ground running, Jack says of himself and Peggy Roach. I look around. I smell around. I find something very interesting. The newly elected mayor of the city, Harold Washington, didnt know the Catholic Church. Neither did the people around him understand its structure: the Churchs 443 parishes, each with a school. We were educating 150,000 youngsters, most of them black or Hispanic. Our sixty-three high schools. Our Catholic Charities bigger than all other charity operations put together.
Jack Egan determined to get to know the new mayor through their mutual friend Bill Berry, who had worked on Mayor Washingtons campaign. Soon Jack could say, I was the only Catholic priest in the city with a warm personal relationship with the mayor. Jack had the mayors home phone number. I would call him on Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving. He also arranged breakfasts between the mayor and Cardinal Bernardin at the cardinals mansion on north State Street.
I think the Lord gave me the talent to encourage people, to help them, to walk with them. I think thats a ministry, Father Egan says. And its the same in the political order. I become friends with politicians not because I want anything from them. I want to know movers and shakers to help solve the problems of the city.
The mayor began to trust the guidance of the archdioceses human relations intermediary in such matters as attendance at public functions. Father Egan spoke firmly to the mayor about his by-passing an ordination of four bishops that included Wilton Gregory, Chicagos first black bishop. Mayor Washington found Egans nudging so valuable he invited him to join his kitchen cabinet. Both Cardinal Bernardin and Father Egan considered that an inappropriate role for an archdiocesan official. But the rotund mayor and the little monsignor grew close enough that Father Egan could press the mayor on his health when they met at the Palmer House Hotel only three days before Mayor Washingtons untimely death.
The Father Egan/mayor of Chicago relationship continued into Mayor Eugene Sawyers term. By now, Father Egan had the confidence to advise the mayor to fire an employee giving virulent anti-Semitic and anti-Christian speeches. Ive asked him to tone down his rhetoric, Mayor Sawyer told Jack. Jack replied firmly, Im asking you to fire him. He is a blight and hes going to cause you a great deal of trouble if you dont fire him now. Hes causing great distress, especially among the Jews of this city.
As reaction against Steve Cokelys diatribes spread, Ann Marie Lipinski, Pulitzer Prize writer at the Chicago Tribune, called Monsignor Egan (by now at DePaul University) for comment on Cokely tapes the Trib had secured. Jack listened for ten minutes and found Cokelys sentiments as truly anti-Semitic as any he had ever heard. The four paragraph response he typed out (and cleared with Peggy Roach and DePaul president Father John Richardson) appeared at 10 a.m. Saturday morning in the first Sunday edition of the Tribune. It was a big story on the front page, Jack recalls. When the paper hit the newsstands, all hell broke loose. I was the only clergyman quoted in the story.
By 11 a.m. the Chicago Sun-Times had called for a statement for its Sunday edition. Popular columnist Irv Kupcinet phoned for an inclusion in his Monday column in the Sun-Times. Television Channel 7 was at the cathedral Sunday at noon for a statement for their six and ten oclock news shows. I was all over the place, Jack recalls, and now whenever I meet anyone concerned about Jewish relations or anti-Semitism, they thank me for speaking out. `Ill never forget you.
The practice of making himself available to reporters, as to the rest of the city, was by now as natural to Jack as the daily walk to work down Wabash Avenue recommended by his doctor for cardiac health. In contrast, the Council of Religious Leaders issued what Jack Egan considered a fine statement about the Cokely matter. However, it had to be cleared in so many places that it was ignored when it was finally issued. The city had moved on.
Jack Egan was not simply plinking at flying targets like Cokely. In his mind, he was living what his friend David Ramage, president of McCormick Seminary on Chicagos South Side, calls a lonely witness. Ramages career in the city paralleled Jack Egans in many respects. In the early fifties they were both working on the near South Side, Ramage as a detached worker with teenage gangs in the Pilsen area. Frustrated in his dealings with an old Bohemian priest at St. Procopius who thought that any Roman Catholic kid involved in a Protestant settlement house should be excommunicated, Ramage sought help. Someone said, `Go see Egan, he recalls.
That first meeting was replicated often, for their lives corresponded in interesting ways. Both were ecumenical pioneers in a Protestant/Catholic clerical discussion group Father Tom McDonough hosted Saturday afternoons once a month at the Calvert House at the University of Chicago in the late 1950s. We couldnt talk about it, Ramage says. This sub rosa support group was not a public event. The separation between churches was so absolute, the degree so extraordinary, the insularity so total, Ramage says, that pastors with churches on the same block did not know each other as human beings in those pre-Vatican II days.
Egan and Ramage worked together subsequently at the Urban Training Center and the Organization for the Southwest Community. By this time, Ramage was pastor of the Emerald Avenue Presbyterian Church in Englewood, a parish going from white to black. When Jack Egan headed the Office of Urban Affairs for the archdiocese, Ramage held the corresponding office for the citys Presbyterians. We were exactly equivalent counterparts, Ramage recalls. Both men left Chicago about the same time. Jack did not leave until he was essentially forced, Ramage says, which stands to reason because of the nature of his commitment to the city.
To Ramage, that commitment was to carry the whole Roman Catholic Church with him to the city. Jack Egan saw himself as a vessel, a means, in Ramages words, to allow people today to have a sense that there is a continuing truth that the Church in resecularized society can act in such a way as to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly . . . Ramages voice trails off.
Ramage understands the ambiguity in having two concepts of Church living uncomfortably in the same use of language. One is the Church sacred: the Body of Christ. The second is the Church human, sinful, and fallible, the pilgrim Church defined by Vatican II. Some see the church, Ramage says, as an institution to be controlled, managed, and used for their purposes. Jack Egan meant the Church to serve the people in whatever way they needed service. His willingness, Ramage says, to be the token Roman Catholic invocation-giver in the city links in here with his understanding of himself as a public Roman Catholic presence at these important value-defining structures and events.
In his official capacity in the archdiocese (before he retired to DePaul University), Father Egan had suggested to Cardinal Bernardin that he invite the judicatory heads of Chicagos faith communities to form with him a Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago. I thought it was important that they should know one another, Jack says. Experience had taught Jack Egan that such entities flourish only when each religious leader agrees to participate personally. When Father Egan suggested that no substitute should take his superiors seat in his or her absence, Cardinal Bernardin agreed to attend each meeting. To his credit, Father Egan says, hes kept that pledge except on the occasions hes been in Rome. And he served as chairperson that first year.
Buoyed by post-Vatican II empowerment, Father Egan and Peggy Roach planned signal events to bring to life the decrees Vatican II bishops had brought to paper. They used those decrees the way Monsignor Hillenbrand had used the social encyclicals, pressing them to the extreme. With their ecumenical partners they planned a celebration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luthers birth. People came to Holy Name Cathedral from city and suburb. They came from Roman Catholic church and Lutheran. People young and old, but particularly the old who had lived with Protestant/Catholic division to their sorrow, all came walking in the air of glory, in poet Henry Vaughns words, the fresh blameless air of mutual interfaith respect and regard.
Chicago artist Franklin McMahon caught the moment in an impressive rendering: Dr. Martin Marty, esteemed Lutheran minister and historian, preaching from the pulpit of Catholic Holy Name Cathedral, embracing each worshipper with word and gesture. Many of them had known when it was a sin for Protestant and Catholic sisters and brothers to share church pews. Now they could sing together their great hymns as fit benedictions. They could share their great awe that this momentunbelievable in a world so recently divided into Catholics and publicsshould come to pass.
Mundelein College on the North Side where Sheridan Road turns west at the lake, where young Jewish women had been welcome from its earliest days, hosted the Jewish/Catholic exploration of the 1965 Vatican II document Nostra Aetate. The Church repudiates all persecutions against any man, the Council Fathers had written in their declaration on the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions. Moreover, mindful of her common patrimony with the Jews, and motivated by the gospels spiritual love and by no political consideration, she deplores the hatred, persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source. However beg-pardon-come-lately this declaration may have seemed to some, no muttering could muffle the general exultation as Christians and Jews mingled at Mundelein in general gratitude for the declaration they celebrated.
We did four programs in those four years we were at the chancery, Father Egan recalls with gratitude and satisfaction. Besides the celebration of Luthers anniversary and the Jewish/Catholic event, we completed the Episcopalian/Catholic covenant, marked the twentieth anniversary of the Vatican II decree on ecumenism, and started the process for the Lutheran/Catholic document.
By Christmas, 1986, Jack had talked to Father John T. Richardson, president of DePaul University, about retiring to DePaul as Father Richardsons Assistant for Community Affairs. Jack was seventy. His brother had died that spring from a heart condition strikingly similar to his. Jack knew that the stress of developing archdiocesan programs and the staff work for the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago was telling on him. He wrote Cardinal Bernardin about a June 30, 1987, retirement. Father Richardsons offer to Jack Egan was intriguing. Wed look at you as an ambassador from DePaul to the city of Chicago.
Mentally adding his small pension benefits to the amount he was receiving from Social Security, Jacks response to Richardson was a counter-offer. How would you like two for the price of one? he asked Father Richardson. If you compensate Peggy Roach adequately for her services, you can have me free. Jack welcomed the association with DePaul which he admired for its generous policies, its administration open to new ideas for helping the city and the Church as well as the university. Here I am at one of the great universities of our land, he said after moving into the offices at 243 S. Wabash. It wasnt (great) when I was here in 1935, but it is today. It has no religion test for anybodyfaculty or studentand it never did. It admitted women in the early part of the century when other Catholic universities did not. Some great universities had quotas for Jews. This university never did. It has educated some of the finest lawyers, Christian and Jewish, in the city. It has taught the poor and the citys working men and women.
At his last meeting with the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago before he left the Office of Human Relations and Ecumenism, Jack made two suggestions born of his years of organizing: 1) hire an executive director, and 2) reach out to members of all religious faiths with large contingents in Chicago: Buddhists, Hindus, Bahais, Moslems, and American Indians.
Reach out, reach out! Jack Egan had been reaching out since the day he was ordained, since before his ordination. Reaching out to his friends, his fellow priests, to Sisters who wanted to organize, to laborers and labor organizers, to the poor, to young marrieds and old marrieds, to blacks, to seminarians, to Jews, to Protestants, to young working women and old faltering priests. Always as a priest.
Always and everywhere, Jack Egan is first and foremost priest: Father Egan. When his friends asked what to call the new Monsignor in those days before priests went by their first names, Jack suggested that Father Egan would still do very well. He displays a touching eagerness when he tells stories of functioning as a priest, particularly when he can describe bringing the gentleness of Jesus to a sick bed or the side of a dying friend. He lingers reflectively over his accounts of special people who have called for him in their extremity. Have I told you this story before? he asks, eager to tell again how he achieved closure in some of the most important relationships in his life. Jack Egan is able to live with certain inevitable break-offs of friendships as the condition of this pilgrim existence. He is constitutionally unable to let a person once dear to him die alienated from him.
From Jack Egans point of view, Father James Voss had turned on him after Cardinal Stritch and Monsignors Burke and Hillenbrand died, because I was the recipient of the largesse. Years before, in 1947, Jack Egan had got the Cana appointment that Jim Voss had every reason to expect. Jack would hear reports of badmouthing: Boy, what did you do to Father Voss? fellow priests would ask after visiting Voss rectory. Apparently Jim had it so much in his gut, Egan says, and it hurt so much that he had to tell everybody about it.
Yet when Jack Egan heard that Jim Voss was dying of cancer, he wrote him a long letter telling him that if there was anything I had ever done that hurt him in any way, I was deeply sorry for it. I regretted the day he was not appointed.
Two days later Egan got a phone call from Voss: Jack, this is the letter I wish I had written. When Jack asked if he could visit, a meeting was arranged for nine oclock the next morning. Jim, Jack said, lets begin at the beginning. As Jim told his story and Jack told his, they realized that they were both wrong and should have talked years before. I really didnt know the depth of his hurt until that day, Jack says, although, I suspected it. If we had only talked to each other thirty years before, maybe we would have cleared it up. But maybe we wouldnt have been able to talk at the time. Here, Jim was facing death and we were very honest with one another.
The two priests prayed together. They rehashed their backlog of old stories. Then Jack Egan prepared to leave for the last time. I knelt down and he blessed me. I blessed him. We hugged one another for a long time. It was one of the better days of my life. Jack Egan got one last letter from the man whod lost out to him thirty years before. He died with that bitterness removed.
There are others, like Joe Matthews of the Ecumenical Institute, a neighbor of Jacks in Lawndale, who simply want to check in with Jack Egan before they die. In Joes case, Jack got a requestit is such a humbling request, Jack saysfrom Joes wife Lyn. Joe doesnt want to die until he sees you. What Joe Matthews wanted to entrust to his cherished friend was his vision of the Church for the future, his patrimony to the world, the results of his lifelong search for a unifying principle.
Weve tried to get the established Church to see that its not about peddling abstract dogma but about awakening men into life and significant engagement in the historical process so that they might truly experience the glory of life through intensification of consciousness, and intensification of engagement, Joe urgently capsulized his belief for Jack as an attentive Sister in the corner took down his urgent message.
As he had with Father Voss, Jack prayed with his friend Joe Matthews, blessed him, and knelt for the blessing of this very beautiful and bright man. At Matthews funeral at the Ecumenical Institute headquarters at 4750 N. Sheridan Road, celebrated by Joes brother, the Methodist Bishop of Washington, D.C., Jack placed the cross of Jesus Christ on the oak box holding Joe Matthews ashes. It was October 1977. I was the only outsider participating, Jack says. If this had happened before Vatican II, I never would have been allowed to so participate. And to this day I am a member of the Ecumenical Institutes Board of Directors.
Jack describes his calling to be present as people are dying: I think there is a certain kind of judicious instinct which will help a person to know when they must give time to the need of another. But how do people know that the person they need is Jack Egan? How did Father Charles Curran, the finest counselor Jack Egan ever encountered, know? Jack was at Notre Dame when he got a call from Jenny Rardin, Currans faithful associate. Charles Currans cancer was spreading, she told Jack. He wanted to see Jack Egan before he died. The doctor thought that Father Curran, who was a relatively young sixty-two, had perhaps about three months. But three days after first alert came a summons: Father is slipping and the doctor says hes going to go fast. You better come. He is asking for you. Jack cancelled his appointments and got on the road to Dubuque.
Charles Curran was totally jaundiced, but that mind was clear and lucid. I sat at the side of his bed, and we went over everything. I thanked him for what he had done for me, which was considerable. Then he thanked me for all I had done for him which was also considerable. After the old war stories, ritual prayers, and the mutual blessings, Jack remembers looking down at the failing body that still harbored Currans indomitable spirit. Charlie, is there anything that you want to tell me that you would like me to remember? We will not see one another again in this life.
Yes, Jack, said the dying man, counselor to the end, you are Irish and probably feel guilty about all you have not done. Please never forget all the good you have done. It was Gods work and grace, but you did it. His last kindness was to absolve Jack from the might-have-beens, an impossible task as Peggy Roach could have told Curran, but a necessary and valiant effort. Jack Egan, in turn, used Currans last words to absolve many others in after years. To this unusual rite of absolution, Jack Egan often adds the story of the eighty-five year old woman asked why she didnt rest. To Havent you done enough? she routinely answered, as Jack would answer, How do you know when you have done enough?
How could he have ever done enough for Father Curran or for Monsignor Reinhold Hillenbrand, the most profound single influence in his life? When Jack Egan got the word that Monsignor Hillenbrand was dying in May 1979 he called Hillenbrands rectory immediately. Peggy, he said as he hung up, Im going to try to see the great man, perhaps for the last time. He began the familiar route from South Bend through Chicago and north to Sacred Heart Church in Winnetka, where Monsignor Hillenbrand was pastor for thirty years.
Monsignor Hillenbrand was sitting in a chair, erect, rigidly neat as always. His flat, lined face was expressionless, his hands empty although his breviary and rosary were beside him. Fans could be heard shouting, Cubs could be seen whacking balls, on the television set up by the deacon who got the revered monsignor up each morning and settled the monsignor each evening as he returned from work.
As his old teacher flipped off the ball game and looked up at him, Jack Egan felt their mutual surge of joy. It could not have been otherwise since we had shared so much of life together. We talked about old times, old friends. Jack felt a satisfying contentment in their ease with one another. But here were tears misting the monsignors fading eyes. What could be disturbing him? Jack was wholly startled when his idol, always so sure of his preeminence, began uncharacteristically questioning his own achievement. Johnny, he wavered plaintively, have I wasted my life? People tell me I wasted my life working with small groups, with the Young Christian Students, the Young Christian Workers, and the Christian Family Movement.
The old roles were reversed. Once Monsignor Hillenbrand had been Jacks mentor. Now Jack was the monsignors mentor, a father talking to a son. He gathered his resources, the skills he had learned at other bedsides, with others who had looked to him for the guidance, the wisdom, the help, the solace he wanted to give. To Jack, Monsignor Hillenbrand asking if his life had meaning was the voice of the Lord. The call of the Lord comes to you through the needs of other people, Father Egan says. You just dont say no to the call of the Lord. Jack had become a priest to answer the needs of those who needed him, and nowbless Godhe was there for this old priest who needed him as much as anyone ever had.
Jack Egan brought to this task of reconciliation all the poetry and compassion of his Irish soul. I recounted his life for Monsignor Hillenbrand, the influence he had in Catholic Action, the liturgical movement, the social action endeavors in the United States, his influence in the labor movement, the renewal of the seminary system. Then, as he would in a few days for the reporter at the Sun-Times, Jack assured the dying priest that he was one of those rare persons who truly made a difference in the American Church, that he had anticipated and helped prepare the total American Church for Vatican II.
Jack Egan listed for Monsignor Hillenbrand the roster of those whose lives he had directly influenced. I mentioned them all by name. The tears streamed down his tired cheeks.
Then Jack generously recalled the influence that his beloved teacher had had in his own life. Monsignor Hillenbrand listened with exquisite attention, finally bringing himself to sigh, Then, Johnny, I didnt waste my life? Jack Egan assured him that his was one of the finest priestly lives that had ever been lived.
They prayed together. Jack knelt for the blessing of this great old man from whom he had been so long estranged. Then he blessed his friend, both of us knowing that we would never see each other again. The monsignor died the following week.
The deacon who cared for Monsignor Hillenbrand stopped Jack in the parking lot after the funeral Mass celebrated by Cardinal Cody. He described how restless Monsignor Hillenbrand had been in his last weeks, until you came, Monsignor Egan. After your visit a great peace settled over him that lingered until he died. Jack was grateful to have played a final part in Monsignor Hillenbrands life. He remembers that last visit as the rarest of privileges.
Next Chapter . . .