An Alley in Chicago

“He Deserves the Honor He Needs”

In some extravagant metaphorical sense, Jack Egan became a man of the Church because it not only made him a Father, it made him a Father Christmas. If there’s one thing he likes better than Nina Polcyn Moore’s fresh file in a fresh folder in a fresh filing cabinet, it is putting his hand to the big bag on his back and drawing out a wonderful gift for someone in terrible need. It may be solace for a Monsignor Hillenbrand needing to be eased into his next life. It may be, and often has been, a bundle of money for some young woman who needs her teeth fixed. Jack knows young women need to feel pretty. It can be a woman needing guidance in annulment proceedings. It can be that legitimacy that people get from Jack’s presence because he brings the presence of the Church to the spot where he is operating. It can be his last twenty dollar bill to a person who knocks against him in an El station.

Jack’s response to need can be seen in Jack Hill’s story of Jack Egan, Jack Hill’s mother-in-law, and Jack Hill’s mother-in-law’s sore toe. Years after Jack Hill had left Presentation Parish and resigned from the priesthood, after he was married and working to build low-income housing with RENEW in South Bend, the Hills invited Jack Egan to a family party on the Fourth of July at their Michigan farm about thirty miles from the University of Notre Dame. “A cook-out,” Hill says. “A lot of people.”

Jack Egan was at his gladhanding best, circulating through the gathering, punctuating the conversational hum with short bursts of gentle repartee. Always alert to the out-of-the-way, he noted that Jack Hill’s mother-in-law was having trouble walking, “hobbling just a little bit,” as Hill tells it. Matching his pace to hers, Jack Egan said, “You’re limping.” When she explained, Jack Egan was immediately concerned about her disorder. He described a friend with the same problem. They talked at some length about the friend’s toe and the mother-in-law’s toe. Jack made it clear he knew how irritating such an ailment could be. The mother-in-law listened wonderingly, thinking, “He noticed, someone noticed.”

She’s never forgotten Jack Egan, according to Hill, although it was eleven years later when he was telling the story and she’d never seen Jack Egan again. “When it was all over, Jack had got through to her through the sore toe. To this day, she thinks the world of him. `Oh, that wonderful man.’” Hill notes that Jack Egan “didn’t sit down and talk with her about the social needs of the world. He met her on a personal level when he asked about her toe. Her toe was what was bothering her.”

That hankering in the psyche that Jack Egan observed in himself, marked in the people at St. Justin Martyr, acted on in Hyde ParkKenwood, dealt with in the Office of Urban Affairs, and studied at the University of Notre Dame is the universal need to have one’s sore toe recognized. Jack Egan learned to attend the sore toes of the world. He discovered early that it was through those sore toes he could enter into the heart of life.

Monsignor Hillenbrand made Jack see that he could never stop with individuals’ sore toes, an easy thing to do because there are so many of them. Hillenbrand fixed Jack’s focus on the sore toes of society—racism, homelessness, poverty, illiteracy, prejudice. It was by continuing to function as parish priest that Jack balanced individual needs against society’s needs. Just as he kept one foot firmly in the Church and one outside, so Jack had wall eyes, one fixed on the individual and the other trained on the community.

Jack credits all the “great people” in his life (whom he will list at length at the drop of a biretta) for any insights he has. It was they who brought Jack Egan early to his ministry as enabler of the laity, servant of the needy, and minister to the wider Church and the wider society. They helped him eschew triumphalism before most people in the Church knew they suffered from it. Looking at Jack’s ministry in the Church, columnist Father Richard McBrien, chairperson of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame, suggests that Jack Egan, who saw himself as a mouse at the Vatican Council, was actually one of its props.

In a column he wrote when Jack Egan left Notre Dame, Father McBrien told of “the valiant men and women who prepared the way for Vatican II, often at the cost of their health, their reputations, their peace of mind, and their standing in the Church.” Vatican II did not invent critical biblical scholarship, McBrien reminded his readers. There were great biblical scholars who “paid a high personal price for their pioneering achievements” long before the council.

Vatican II did not invent the concept of religious liberty. “There were scholars and ecumenists who were way ahead of their time in this apostolate, and working always under a cloud—people like Fathers John Courtney Murray and Yves Congar, both of whom were forbidden for a while to publish and even to teach.”

“And Vatican II did not invent the profile of the priest as enabler of the laity, servant of the needy, and minister to the wider Church and the wider society,” McBrien continues. “Twenty years before the council there were priests exactly like that, preparing the way for Vatican II and for the Catholic church we all now take for granted: Monsignors Reynold Hillenbrand, George Higgins, Daniel Cantwell, and one who holds a very special place in my heart, John J. Egan.”

McBrien calls Jack “a pioneer in the marriage and family apostolate, a pioneer in the urban ministry apostolate, a pioneer in the lay apostolate, a pioneer in the building of priests’ associations, a pioneer in inner-city ministry, a pioneer in community organization, a pioneer in priestly ministry as a ministry to the whole Church and to the whole of society.”

In McBrien’s view, the Church was playing catch-up at the Vatican Council. One of the people it was catching up to was Jack Egan. Only now are theologians formalizing the concepts Jack Egan lived. Joseph Nangle, O.F.M., director since 1982 of the Justice and Peace Office of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, tells today’s superiors of men’s religious orders that the beginning point for a spirituality of social justice is not the Church’s traditional inward orientation. Rather, Nangle suggests, “it’s an outward orientation to reality—the world, current history. The source of life in God for those who take seriously the call to engage in `the transformation of the world’ is the parade of countless issues and events which affect that transformation.” Put in Jack Hill’s terms, God is encountered in reality, in mothers-in-law, in the sore toes of the world.

Theologian Karl Rahner advises modern Christians to “pray with the Scriptures in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other.” Rahner couldn’t have described better a Jack Egan who turns daily from the news of the day to his daily writing stint, the sheaf of short notes that carry his sympathy, his encouragement, his commentary on life and his explication of motive, his warm congratulations and hot tips, his fellow-feeling, his deferential admiration, and his pleas for understanding to all those who feel they have a special tie to Father Jack. His newspaper and his mail are his daily agenda for action.

Nangle specifies a corollary: the social minister increasingly finds his or her center of gravity outside the self. That’s how Jack Hill describes Jack Egan. “At rock bottom, Jack is a very selfless person.” Jack Egan has kept the vow he made on his ordination day that he would never say no to a person who came to him in need.

That’s not to say that many people don’t remain ambivalent about Father Egan. “There’s a certain amount of resentment,” the former Father Hill admits, slowly trying to analyze the special nature of Egan’s effect on people. “You almost have to come to peace with Jack and your relationship with him. A person doesn’t become a friend of Jack’s. He comes to know him. Then he comes to hate him. Then he comes to respect him. Then hates him again. Then he comes to appreciate him and comes to love him.”

Perhaps the ambivalence in that off-hand, but thoughtful, analysis settles in the ambiguity of Jack Egan’s tremendous need to be liked. His father set him up when he refused his son the approval that would have saved Jack Egan the torment of seeking approval all his life. But, in making friends with his own hunger, Jack learned to respond to the hunger he found all around him. He found ways to show people how much he approved of them. He learned to notice other people’s sore toes. “He knows how to do it with a word,” Jack Hill says. “That’s why a large number of people at Presentation (where Hill served with Egan) felt they each had a personal relationship with Jack,” Hill says. “And they still do, I’m sure.”

For Jack Egan’s friends, as for Jack Hill, their “special tie” to Jack is nourishment for them. According to Hill, “This is also nourishment to Jack. He needs to be liked. He needs to be honored. He’s paid his dues. He deserves the honor he needs.”

Through the years two forces have played off each other within Jack Egan. In one area he harbors this charism for special friendship. In another, he’s done the work Nangle says is necessary for social justice. He’s allowed himself to be formed by “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted,” as the bishops wrote in the Vatican II document about the church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes.

In his CMSM Forum article, Father Nangle explained why such an orientation sometimes looks like less than whole-hearted loyalty to the Church. For Nangle, “The interests of the Church, important as they are, must be at the service of the New Creation.” He suggests that for one working at the transformation of the world, criticism of a Church which at times abdicates its service to the Kingdom is a supreme act of loyalty and love. It is the same love, Nangle says, which impelled God to chastise his chosen people: “You may multiply your prayers, I shall not listen . . . search for justice, help the oppressed, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow.”

Many times Jack Egan’s political skills have been criticized. Years after the Sunday night group at Annunciation had broken up, long after the “Egan heresy trial,” those priests imprinted by their master rector at Mundelein Seminary got together with Monsignor Reynold Hillenbrand one last time. For one last mutual purpose. Jake Killgallon. Gerry Weber. Dan Cantwell. Larry Kelly. John Hill. John Egan. Walter Imbiorski. William Quinn. John Hayes. These men were not comfortable with their mission. They shrank from the dark, dark, dark. Were they all going into the dark?

In talking over the future of the movements at that moment in the 1960s, they had agreed that Monsignor Reynold Hillenbrand’s growing rigidity and controlling presence were hindering the Catholic Action movements from evolving and maturing as they might with another national chairperson. No one of them brave enough to bell the cat, they’d gathered as a group of loving associates to suggest to their long-time mentor that he step down. They meant to broach the subject delicately. However, no matter how carefully they worded their conviction, there was no disguising its import. Monsignor Hillenbrand listened patiently, according to Jack Hill.

Finally, stonily, eyeing the circle of earnest, uncertain faces, he gave his reply to their suggestion he step down. It was in character: “Hell, no.” Who were they to be judging his effectiveness? Then he cannily worked his way around the circle of those who had thrown the first stones, piercing each of them in his most vulnerable aspect. “John Hill, your criticism comes from you with ill grace,” Jack Hill remembers clearly Hillenbrand’s felicitous phrasing of his criticism of Hill’s current counseling efforts. Then Monsignor Hillenbrand turned to Jack Egan. “Who are you to criticize me, Johnny? You who are nothing but a politician.”

Jack Hill agrees that Jack Egan has political gifts, but “Jack never considered them dirty which, of course, they’re not. They’re very necessary. But we were living in a world where we all thought they were (dirty) at some repressed level of our being.” Jack Egan used his political gifts, knowing they worked. But other people didn’t understand a political sense like Peter Finley Dunne’s or like “the sort of thing talked about in The Last Hurrah,” Jack Hill says. They couldn’t understand how Jack could combine political pragmatism with idealism. Didn’t he have to be one or the other, pragmatic or idealistic?

Jack Hill describes how Egan used his political gifts in a typical week at Presentation. First of the week, Father Egan would call Streets and Sanitation for a tot-lot clean-up. Next day he’d be consulting with Jack Macnamara about local organizers putting garbage cans on the City Hall sidewalk as a protest. Sunday, Father Egan would baptize the child of Mayor Daley’s administrative assistant. On Tuesday, he’d be back with the local organizers to plan another action to get some desired movement from the city administration. Jack Egan found no contradiction here. But the typical liberal priests of the 1960s, according to Jack Hill, “had pure consciences by definition. They were always on the side of the angels, wouldn’t want to tarnish their consciences by sitting down with the other side and checking out what could be done.”

Hill suggests that in this area, as in many, Jack Egan moved ahead of history. “Jack was prescient. He felt things before they were here. He fought the widespread demolition of brownstones in Hyde Park which would never be allowed today. Same way with ecumenism.” Like Father Hesburgh who wrote his thesis on the role of the laity, Jack acknowledged early the importance of the laity.

And finally he was ahead on what Joseph Nangle calls “this new spirituality of social justice which has the power to serve as an antidote to the pallid and deadening religiosity practiced in much of the affluent world.” Nangle traces the beginnings of the spirituality of social justice to that first social encyclical which Monsignor Hillenbrand taught his boys, Rynie’s boys, at Mundelein Seminary in the 1940s. Its principles were carried into the present by Pope Paul VI who said it is not enough to recall principles. “These words will lack real weight unless they are accompanied by a livelier awareness of personal responsibility and by effective action.”

It has not been easy for Jack Egan to be in the vanguard, whether it was setting up one of the first pastoral teams, the first office of urban affairs, directing the first diocesan-wide marriage education program, heading the first national organization of social activists. Misunderstanding pains him, and innovation breeds misunderstanding. He has gone to bed many nights wondering how he could smooth out some faltering relationship.

Yet he goes on trying to blend the principles Monsignor Hillenbrand taught him with that “livelier awareness of personal responsibility” and effective action Pope Paul VI advised. Jack thinks of that responsibility in the words of his friend and fellow student Monsignor George Higgins who told Jack in his seminary days, “You have to learn to fight injustice wherever you find it, Jack.”

Jack accepted what he calls “that terrible responsibility” when he was ordained. “Don’t be afraid to stand up against injustices, whether it be in government, industry, in labor, throughout the world, the injustices you find within yourself, and also within the Church,” he says. “Injustice weighs heavily upon personhood and denies the magnificence of the creation of Almighty God.”

“One of the difficulties of getting older,” Father Egan admits, “is that you feel tired. I’ve done my part. I’ve fought against this and not much came out of it. I developed these programs and nobody seems to care. Whatever the ennui that sets in, or the laziness, or the frustration, it is a temptation.”

Then he adds, reflectively, “What I think I am learning as I grow older is that maybe your task, your responsibility, is changing, that you may not have to be the one to develop the programs to fight against injustice.

“What you have to do is find the people and encourage them, inspire them, educate them, mentor for them, train them, build bridges for them, so they will do the job. You have to pass the torch, to use a trite expression. But the torch has to be passed. You cannot just throw it out. You can’t say the fight’s over. It’s never over.”

Jack realizes he has to moderate that remark. He’s summing up a life that ties himself as a newsboy-fresh seminarian to himself as a young priest standing up against forceful Chicago powers to himself as a middle-aged pastor of a struggling parish. What energized his spirit for almost fifty years? “You fight injustice wherever you find it and for as long as you find it. Because you never, never can stop loving, right until the very, very end.”

Then, characteristically sanguine, Jack Egan looks toward that moment expectantly, reassured that he cannot have strayed much from the goal he set himself on his “marriage day,” his ordination on May 1, 1943. “You can never stop loving until the very end,” Monsignor Jack Egan sums up his core belief, “because your last breath may be your best act of love.”

Next Chapter . . .