Only the Humble Are Happy

COMMENTARY: Remembering Father Angelus Shaughnessy

Father Angelus Shaughnessy
Father Angelus Shaughnessy (photo: Register Files)

I have some things in common with Mary Magdalene: I’m a sinner, I’ve been oppressed by several demons, and when I didn’t expect it I heard a voice that gave me great joy. The voice I heard wasn’t that of Our Resurrected Lord outside his empty tomb, but of Father Angelus Shaughnessy (1929-2018), a Capuchin Franciscan who played a significant role in my conversion to Catholicism.

In the summer of 2010 Father Angelus called me on the phone at my apartment in Corunna, Michigan, where I was then living so I could teach part time at a nearby college. I had written him at his friary in Pittsburgh, regarding a quote of St. Augustine’s he had used in some of his archived EWTN homilies; I’d put the quote in my novel, If I Needed You, and wanted to verify in what document the bishop of Hippo had written those words.

To say I was thrilled to hear Father Angelus’ voice is like saying Ernest Hemingway enjoyed an occasional drink. In years past I had watched Father on EWTN’s televised Masses, inspired by his words in a way Hemingway, as much as I admired his fiction, couldn’t equal.

For if in the sublime ending of Hemingway’s short story “Indian Camp,” a young Nick Adams, sitting in a rowboat, naively believed he would never die, Father Angelus had, in homily after homily, explained how booking passage on the Barque of Peter could take one past death to eternal life.

Admittedly, however, when I first started watching EWTN, I wasn’t ready to hear this truth, even though I sensed I needed more than my Lutheran faith had to offer. My sincere Missouri Synod pastors always told our congregation we were forgiven, but they never urged us to cooperate with grace and mend our ways, to mystically climb Mount Tabor and embrace a perpetual minitransfiguration of our lives — something I knew I had to do. Still, whenever Father Angelus started talking about “Holy Mother Church,” I grabbed the remote and switched the station.

Nearly as surprising as the phone call was Father’s eagerness to talk to me. He was as ebullient as he had been when preaching. In the past year he had turned 80, and he now referred to himself as an “octofriar.” He said it was a great age to be. And he must have been spending part of his free time reading about one of his favorite subjects, astronomy, because he talked with knowledge and awe about the billions of galaxies God had created.

I hung up the phone a bit awed myself. Father Angelus had taken the initiative to call me, someone he had corresponded with but never met, speaking to me as if I was the most important person in the world. Hearing his familiar voice, so attentive, wise, and compassionate, I realized I had just experienced, in a small way, what Mary Magdalene experienced at the Resurrection — and I anticipated the bliss I would feel when, eventually, I heard the voice of our Great High Priest.

On Christmas and Easter, Father Angelus and I sent each other Mass cards from the Seraphic Mass Association, and I’d also send one to him on his birthday and the anniversary of his ordination. For these later two occasions he always replied with a thank-you note, in which he’d write, “I treasure the Holy Masses!” And each message from him closed the same way: “Ever grateful.”

This closing, I’m convinced, was not mere politeness, but an expression of the way he lived his life, and of the way he thought all Christians should live — because he knew gratefulness is the key to happiness. In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The test of all happiness is gratitude,” and in his homilies, Father Angelus took this maxim a step further, frequently saying, “Only the grateful are happy; only the humble are grateful; therefore, only the humble are happy.” If we desire happiness, said Father, we must imitate Jesus and cultivate a humble heart (Matthew 11:29).

My experience has proven this true. Cultivating a humble heart has allowed me to celebrate my blessings while my literary career languishes in limbo, while in middle age I’m living like a college student, eating one-dollar packets of rice for dinner — which I realize would be a feast in many parts of the world — and a humble heart allowed me to trust that Jesus is in complete control of the demons, so I could be at peace even when they turned on my dining room lights, opened folded closet doors toward me, caused water to seep up through the tile floor of my kitchen, and, almost constantly, as if suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, made knocking noises in the electrical box outside my bedroom wall.

Yet the most important reason to cultivate a humble heart, according to Father Angelus, is that it’s necessary for salvation. He said only a humble heart can be open to the “Divine Invasion” throughout life, and at life’s end receive the graces required for final perseverance. And as a Franciscan through and through, Father couldn’t help relating how St. Francis of Assisi considered envy to be blasphemy against the Holy Spirit — because blessings other people have received are part of God’s providence, and God is identified with his providence.

How much I learned from Father Angelus! Mary Magdalene called Jesus “Teacher,” and I can say the same about the burly Capuchin with the white goatee. From him I learned distinctly Franciscan beliefs, such as St. Francis took Lucifer’s spot in heaven, and God had always planned the Incarnation of Jesus — a belief contesting “O, happy fault!” — as well as common Catholic devotions, including the Guardian Angel Prayer, the Angelus, and the Memorare. Father sent me a little card with the Morning Offering on it, and to this day I keep it atop my dresser.

Following the example of St. Francis, Father had a great devotion to our Eucharistic Lord. He emphasized being in a state of grace to receive the Eucharist, and making a good thanksgiving afterward. Moreover, he said the best time to ask God for something was right after receiving Holy Communion, when we are so closely united to Jesus — a closeness which lasts as long as the Sacred Species remains, usually about 15 or 20 minutes, because, as Father Angelus quipped, “Stomachs haven’t changed that much since Vatican II.”

Whether celebrated in the ordinary or extraordinary form, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, making present the Paschal Mystery on altars throughout world, is the most important thing that happens each day, and the most powerful of prayers. Father knew this well, and, undoubtedly, that’s one reason why, a year or so after the death of famed author and atheist Kurt Vonnegut, when I thought to write Father and ask if he’d offer a Mass for Vonnegut’s soul, he immediately replied and said he would. His response was the same when I later asked him to offer a Mass for the soul of Townes Van Zandt, the talented but troubled songwriter who had died back in 1997.

Father Angelus also fostered my devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In his homilies he clearly explained Catholic beliefs about her, so rather than being an obstacle to my conversion, she was one of the great attractions to crossing the Tiber. It helped that Father, who, like me, had taught English, quoted the Protestant poet William Wordsworth, who called Mary “our tainted nature’s solitary boast. ” No doubt it also helped — though I didn’t realize it at the time — that my baptismal date, Oct. 13, is the anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima. Our Lady had her eye on me all along.

And we need the care of our Heavenly Mother, because as poet and Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan, put it, “We all wear the same thorny crown.” Father Angelus understood this too, and he never shied away from the hard truths of the Catholic faith. He said Jesus is “nailed just to one side of that cross; the other side is for you and for me.” Of course, he went on to explain the value of redemptive suffering — how we can offer up our trials both for our souls and for the souls of others. I can testify that this traditional Catholic practice of uniting our sufferings to Our Lord’s, and offering them to God the Father, is an excellent way to persevere on our own via dolorosa.

It’s been reported that in his final days Father Angelus refused pain medication so he could visit with friends. Admirable as that is, I suspect there’s another, more lofty reason, one he was too humble to reveal: In several homilies Father recounted how St. Francis wanted to bear in his body, to the extent he could take it, the sufferings of Christ, and how this desire was fulfilled when he received the stigmata; as a loyal son of St. Francis who eagerly said Masses for Vonnegut and Van Zandt, Father Angelus probably chose to bear an additional measure of Our Lord’s passion, so he could offer it up for souls.

Near the end of “Indian Camp,” Nick Adams, who has just witnessed both a drug-free cesarean section and a suicide, asks his dad, a doctor, if dying is hard. At first his dad says it’s easy, but then he corrects himself and says, “It all depends.” That’s only a partial answer, though, because while it surely depends on how we die, also important is how we have lived — those pages of nonfiction that’ll be published when we stand before God. We can’t merit heaven by our works, yet Jesus emphatically states he will judge us by how we have treated others, especially the most marginalized (Matthew 25:31-46).

Father Angelus Shaughnessy spent his life in the service of others. A gifted athlete who declined a professional baseball career to enter the Capuchins, he was a priest on earth for 62 years. During that time, he worked as a retreat master, spiritual director, missionary in Papua New Guinea, where he taught seminarians and helped establish 11 permanent churches, minister general for the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word, and national executive director for the Archconfraternity of Christian Mothers. In Papua New Guinea alone, he baptized more than 1,200 people. How many hours he spent in the confessional over 62 years … well, that’s like asking how many types of Franciscans there are.

Despite these good fruits, the last thing Father would want is for us to unofficially canonize him, and thereby perhaps leave him stranded in purgatory. He often urged us to pray for dead priests, in particular those who gave us the sacraments, and we certainly should do the same for a Capuchin we might never have met but who, with the help of modern technology, preached so eloquently to people throughout the world about the beauty and truth of our Catholic faith.

Yes, the Church he loved is a mess right now. A combination of moral corruption and what looks like deliberate doctrinal ambiguity has some claiming this is the worst crisis since the Arian heresy. Nonetheless, we know doctrine can’t change, and embracing the historic Christian faith remains the greatest blessing of my life.

After 14 years I can still say, as Father Angelus did many times, “If I weren’t already Catholic, I’d crawl on my hands and knees to the nearest RCIA program and beg them to let me in!”

And so, dearest Father, for your crystal-clear teaching that enabled my conversion, for your fidelity to Christ’s Church and to your vocation, for your friendship across the miles, for your prayers for me while you were on this side of the veil and now, while you’re in eternity, I am, as sure as your baptismal name Matthew means “Gift of God,” ever grateful.

Augustine Himmel writes from Saginaw, Michigan. His stories have been published in the Beloit Fiction Journal, the South Carolina Review and several other places.