HICKEY, THE QUIET MAN
A Tribute to his Eminence James Cardinal Hickey :
October 28, 2004
"BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO SHOW MERCY; MERCY SHALL BE SHOWN TO THEM.' [Matthew 5,7]
The walk from Farragut West Metro station to Rhode Island Ave. was pleasant under the gaze of a warm fall sun smiling from a clear blue sky. Inside the Catholic Cathedral of St. Matthew’s, the light filtered shyly through the stained glass and alabaster windows dappling the marble floor. At 1:45 pm it was quiet, with a few people scattered around, sitting in the pews or performing their devotions at the saints’ altars. Two middle-aged men in black uniforms and plumed hats, Knights of Columbus, were standing guard at the top of the aisle, just outside the alter rails. A pair of kneelers was placed alongside the coffin were James Hickey lay robed in a chasuble, his fingers clutching his mother's Rosary beads. I plumped down on my knees to pray beside the man who had treated me well; a quiet man, who had dispensed to me ‘the milk of human kindness’. My first encounter, in early 1985, at the Pastoral Center in Hyattsville, Maryland, was really quite serendipitous, or, in Christian terms, providential.
When I 'precipitously left' the Legion of Christ religious order in November 1984 after a total of 23 years-with twenty-two years of religious vows and thirteen years of priesthood under my belt-I was so devastated and disoriented I could have ended up anywhere. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my situation had been aptly described in clinical terms by the American Psychiatric Association: ‘fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day; feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt nearly every day; diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day…’[DSM-IV, Major Depressive Episode].
But, with a little help from my friends, I was heading for Washington DC. However, I was 'lucky' to reach the rendezvous. Due to my ‘condition’, and also because as a Legionary I never had traveled on my own, I was confused by the fact there were three airports to fly into. 'Serendipitously', I got on the right plane to the right airport at the right time: a priest friend was waiting for me when I came into the luggage area at DC National. Another priest friend, also ex-Legionary, arrived later and we took off for dinner together. They wanted to get me drunk. I looked so haggard, emaciated, so depressed, so shaken, and this was their male 'clerical'[?] method of helping me relax and get a load off my chest. On the way ‘home’ I remember catching a glimpse of the Potomac River glistening on my left. They brought me to a nice restaurant, but I didn’t get drunk; guess it’s just not my thing… But that night, after decades of catching up, and finally exhausted, I slept safely in a rectory, knowing that two friends cared about me and for me. I was on the road to recovery.
My good brothers had explained my plight to his Eminence -or maybe ‘His Grace’ at that time- and I began living with another F.B.I., foreign-born-Irish, priest in a quiet residential neighborhood. Winter was turning to spring and I relished the progressive budding of a variety of flowers and shrubs in my leisurely strolls. After a couple of weeks, I was given an appointment with the archbishop at the Pastoral Center. My mistrust of superiors must have been hard-wired at that stage. Hickey was kind, plain and simply. My recovery was at a point where I wanted to be honest with myself and others; I was tired of lies, deception and hiding in the Legion. Catch-22: I needed to try out my priesthood in his diocese and for that I did not want to give a bad impression. On the other hand, I could not lie about the sturdiness of my priestly vocation, after the hammering it had taken in the Legion.
‘Well, Paul, I hope you are comfortable at St.… parish’, was a good, disarming, ice-breaker. -So, here is a superior who appears genuinely concerned about my well-being’- I thought to myself. -Where had that been during the past 23 years?- I was somehow able to convey to him my ambiguity and insecurity. He reframed it like a skilled therapist. ‘Yes, you have not been feeling well…Take a few months resting with Monsignor…and then let us know how you are doing; when your health improves and you are able to take up further responsibilities…’ I was being treated like a person, a human being, a fellow priest; with kindness and consideration; with respect for my situation and for my freedom of choice. I couldn’t believe it. That is part of what His Eminence gave me: time to sort myself out in the midst of the most harrowing crisis of my life. I was able to peacefully and enjoyably serve the people of God for another four years, thanks to James Hickey and the other good priests and faithful of that diocese. When the sad moment came to ask for a leave of absence from my duties, His Eminence met me with the same pastoral and fatherly concern. ‘We would love you to continue serving the people of the diocese and working with your fellow priests, but I respect your decision…’ What a contrast to my previous experience where the superior was the one who made the decisions, and I had to accept no matter what I thought or felt!
Thank you, James Hickey, for showing me another, kinder, face of the Church and the hierarchy, when I felt like turning away in anger. People like you make the Church believable and worth serving; you are a credit to the priesthood and to the Savior you served. And Blessed are you now, James Hickey, because whatever you did to the most insignificant of Jesus' brothers, you did to Him. [see Matthew 25, 40]
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