4 Seismic Lessons I Learned from Father Joseph Henchey, Jesus’ ‘Holy Henchman’
Father Henchey showed how the roots of Christian joy are cruciform, how suffering is a great school of hope, and how Christ seeks to glorify our wounds.
I have been blessed to know hundreds of great priests whose friendship, words and example have made me a more faithful disciple and more fervent missionary. But the one who had the greatest impact of all, the one who never failed to inspire me — and countless other lay people, seminarians, priests, religious and bishops — died on April 7, during the Year of St. Joseph, in the heart of the Easter Octave and the Novena to Divine Mercy.
Stigmatine Father Joseph Henchey was born in 1930 in Woburn, Massachusetts — just 20 miles, as he would often remind me, from my birthplace in Lowell. He grew up during the Great Depression and World War II wanting to be a professional baseball player. When he was 15, a group of seminarians came to the baseball diamond. He befriended one of them, from the Congregation of the Sacred Stigmata, and it didn’t take Joe long to discern that God had drafted him onto his own team. With the permission of his parents, he entered the Stigmatine high school seminary at 15-and-a-half. Eleven years later in 1956 he was ordained a priest.
He served for many years in formation work and in parishes in Massachusetts and Virginia. After obtaining his doctorate in Sacred Theology in Rome at the Angelicum, where he had previously studied under his theological mentor, the great Dominican Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Father Henchey taught there for more than 20 years, while simultaneously serving various periods in the Stigmatine leadership.
I first met “the Henchman” in 1996, when he was appointed a spiritual director at the Pontifical North American College (NAC) in Rome, where I was a seminarian. We hit it off immediately, two Red Sox fans with enviable phonetics. He had an infectious self-deprecating sense of humor, loved to converse about theology, history, Rome and practically any other subject, and brought joyful vivacity to any lunch table. He was our Saint Barnabas, a son of encouragement (Acts 4:36), believing in us and confirming us in our call and mission. He would later do the same for seminarians at Pope St. John XXIII, Dunwoodie and Mundelein seminaries.
From him I learned several seismic lessons.
First, he taught me about the Sacrament of Confession and was the best confessor I ever had. When he arrived at the NAC, confessions were formally offered one night a week. He started to open his door from 4-6 a.m. for anyone who would want to come by. Eventually so many started coming that a confessional was built in the chapel so that those waiting would at least be in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
One morning I knocked on his open door asking if he’d be kind enough to hear my confession. With a smile, he led me over to the makeshift confessional in his room. I don’t remember exactly what I confessed, but I do recall my shame and sorrow that I was vulnerable to temptations to which I thought as a seminarian I should be impervious.
He replied, “God is going to bring great good out of this humble confession, Roger, and make you a kinder and more merciful confessor to others. God will use even our sins to make us better priests!”
His whole approach taught me that penitents should be able to float joyfully out of the confessional rather than crawl, that every reconciliation is meant to be a resurrection, and that God seeks to transform all our sins into happy faults. I learned how to be a confessor in his confessional. I told him once that he has gotten an “assist” on every confession I’ve heard.
Second, he was a tireless prophet of hope. The theme of every homily, conference and retreat he preached, no matter how it started, ended on hope. The Henchman told me explicitly that that’s what he thought people need most. They have some faith, they have some desire for doing good, but often they’ve lost their hope. And so he, using the image of the Letter to the Hebrews, would always try to help them throw their anchor beyond the clouds (Hebrews 6:19). The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve seen his insight validated — and the more I’ve tried to echo his emphasis on Christ our hope (1 Timothy 1:1).
Third, he was a great theologian who never stopped praying and studying to know God better and love him more. He struggled mightily as a young student and later in life would humbly and readily compliment others, including seminarians, for being “much smarter” and “more gifted” than he was. But not only did he get his doctorate and teach at a Pontifical University and various seminaries for nearly five decades, but, applying himself steadily with diligence, he became the world’s greatest scholar of St. Gaspar Bertoni, his founder, and the author of so many incredible courses on theology, the notes of which many of us treasure and regularly use.
Over the last two months, I have been listening during my morning walks to two 50-episode podcasts —on St. Peter and on the wounds of Christ — that he recorded in his late eighties with the assistance of his remarkable spiritual directee and eventual caregiver, Professor Lisa Fortini-Campbell. I told Father Henchey with sincerity the last time I spoke to him, a week before he died, that listening to him was like listening to a doctor of the Church. I pray his enormous theological corpus will, in the decades ahead, nourish the Church as it has nourished me.
Fourth, Father Henchey enfleshed the Stigmatine charism of sanctified suffering. St. Gaspar was an invalid for the last 41 years of his life. The Henchman endured extraordinary suffering over the course of his life. He had polio as a child and spinal surgery that left him in a body cast for over a year. He had so many bouts of pneumonia that his physicians thought for decades he had lupus. He contracted pancreatic cancer and the doctors didn’t think they could help him, but after surgery, he recovered. In later years he had terrible trouble with double-vision that left him barely able to see, atrial fibrillation, bowel obstructions, kidney stones, a heart attack, a broken hip and finally congestive heart failure and renal failure. None of these sufferings, however, robbed him of his joy or made him withdraw inward: he kept teaching, serving and praying until the end. He showed how the roots of Christian joy are cruciform, how suffering is a great school of hope, and how Christ seeks to glorify our wounds.
Once when he preached a parish mission where I was assigned, I wanted to give him a stipend but he characteristically refused. So to thank him I commissioned a painting by Dominican Sister Mary Grace Thul,. It was an Emmaus scene with him and St. Gaspar as the two disciples who recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:13-35). I knew he would have to keep it because of the presence of St. Gaspar!
Sister Mary Grace made Father Henchey, who resembled his founder in virtue, resemble him in physiognomy. They were both filled with joy toward Jesus’ self-gift in the Eucharist, as Jesus looked at Father Henchey with love. The tablecloth included the crest of the Stigmatine Order on which Father Henchey had written the definitive study. Close to the Henchman’s hand was a hammer covered in red velvet, a reference to the nickname his decades of students gave him, “the Velvet Hammer,” indicating his firmness in faith and tenderness in approach. But the hand next to the hammer was strangely feminine, to show the maternal love of the Church with which he would wield it.
At Father Henchey’s 50th priestly anniversary in 2006, the painting was displayed and many came by to admire it, including Archbishop Timothy Dolan, his former student and close friend. Some religious sisters present asked the future cardinal to decipher for them the painting’s symbolism and, seeing me present, he passed the buck, not having any clue that I was the one who had commissioned the work a few years earlier. I proceeded magisterially to explain every detail on the canvas that others thought I was seeing for the first time!
The awed prelate — my former seminary rector — enthusiastically quipped, “Not bad, Roger!” Pointing to Father Henchey in the painting, I said, to his and the sisters’ laughter and delight, “We all had a good teacher!”
Indeed we did.
I pray that, like in that work of art, Father Henchey is now united with St. Gaspar in beholding with joy the Risen Lord Jesus in the “sanctuary behind the curtain” where he helped so many of us to cast our anchors.