Leaven Blog

Spectacular obstinance

by Anita McSorley

Not so long ago, one of our pastors in Kansas City, Kansas, was a notorious soft touch.

His parishioners — particularly his St. Vincent de Paul Society members — were always suggesting to this particular priest that not every person who presented him- or herself at the rectory door for assistance was actually deserving of it.

The woman might just go and spend the money the pastor gave her on drugs or alcohol, parishioners warned. And didn’t that man just hit the priest up last week?, they’d ask.

These parishioners were not uncaring or selfish. Their concern was less for the money than for the fact that their good-hearted pastor was being taken advantage of.

But their arguments left their pastor unmoved.

This priest was literally a mover and shaker in Wyandotte County for much of his priesthood.

He had led most of the major Catholic institutions of the city at one time or another.

So he wasn’t afraid or incapable of making hard decisions. He had made many.

But when asked about his open-door policy, he would explain it this way.

If someone came to him for help with the intention of deceiving him, he would say, well, that was on them.

But if someone came to him in genuine need of help that he could provide, and he refused it — well, the pastor would say, that was on him.

The decision, for him, was easy. And that single decision saved him countless others.

Many of you will have guessed by now that the pastor I am describing is Father Ray Davern, who died in 2009. And I have been thinking about Father Ray a lot as Lent approaches.

These are stressful times in our body politic, our church, and sometimes even within our own families.

And Lent is a time in which we undertake new disciplines in an attempt to strengthen virtuous habits.

Now I don’t know if Father Ray ever had to struggle to reach his open-door policy of unquestioning charity. I don’t know if, the first few times, he had to work to be non-judgmental — to discipline himself, to make a habit of his charity, so to speak.

But I do know that when I first heard this story from one of his parishioners, I envied him. I envied him the simplicity of his position, the clarity of his vision — and his spectacular obstinance in the face of frequent, if well-intentioned criticism.

I envied him so much that now, even long after his death, his example calls to me.

Father Ray was not born in this country. He came over to the United States from Ireland when he was 19 years old and was ordained a priest for the archdiocese four years later.

But I think he came to embody the sentiment of something Abraham Lincoln once said.

“Be sure you put your feet in the right place,” Lincoln said.

“Then stand firm.”

If Lent is a time for anything, it is a time for searching out those right places in our lives to plant our feet.

And perhaps Father Ray Davern has already taught us something about standing firm.

About the author

Anita McSorley

Anita, managing editor of The Leaven, has over 30 years’ experience in book, magazine and newspaper editing, including stints as the assistant editor of the “Diplomatic Papers of Daniel Webster” at Dartmouth College and then in the public relations departments of Texaco, Inc., and the Rockefeller Group in New York. Anita made the move to newspaper editing when she came to The Leaven in 1988, where she has been ever since. Anita is a member of St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kan., and in her spare time, she enjoys giving her long-suffering husband, her children and her staff good advice that they never take.

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