Commentary: Father Duffy knew what Christmas really meant

WASHINGTON -- Imagine a pastor who begins his Christmas sermon with a Garrison Keillor story about a priest serving a church called Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility.

WASHINGTON -- Imagine a pastor who begins his Christmas sermon with a Garrison Keillor story about a priest serving a church called Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility.

The line goes over well in a congregation that is acutely familiar with Catholic guilt. And it follows an excellent rule for homilies: Get 'em to laugh and you'll get 'em to listen. Since Proverbs teaches us that "a merry heart doeth good like a medicine," it's even biblical.

Monsignor Tom Duffy, who told that Keillor story in a Christmas sermon many years ago, is a man with a very merry heart. He needed it to keep the peace at our politically diverse parish, Blessed Sacrament, on the northern edge of our nation's capital. This will be my first Christmas in a long time without Father Duffy as my pastor -- he retired this year at 79.

We are living through a moment when the definition of "Christian" seems to come down to which party you belong to, how you stand on a few hot-button issues, and how willing you are to scream at retailers who wish their customers "Happy Holidays." Duffy represents a Christianity that is more capacious and more demanding.

As a personal matter, he combines good humor, intellectual curiosity, and a non-contrived humility. Mary McGrory, my tough-minded late colleague who was a member of our roomy parish, once described Duffy as "kindness itself" and rightly said that he is "not one of those autocratic, bellowing prelates who rules with fear and the expectation of total deference." He is dedicated to the simple but difficult things prescribed in the Gospel: visiting the sick, comforting the aggrieved, strengthening the faith of doubters, helping families, lifting up the poor.


Do not for an instant think he's some stereotypical liberal priest. Such a man wouldn't survive in a parish that includes so many principled conservatives along with its many devout liberals. Duffy was so successful at maintaining warm relations among his parishioners on all sides of politics that a friend once said he "must either be very good or very vague." When I mentioned this to Duffy one Sunday, he replied, with a twinkle in his eye, "Sometimes, I like to believe I'm both."

In truth, he's not at all vague on the things that matter. Consider that Christmas sermon. In Duffy's telling of the Keillor story, an imaginary priest named Father Emil thunders at those in his prosperous congregation "who have left what you were brought up with that was good, that was true, and that was so beautiful beyond compare."

"They were clever," Emil snarls about the apostates, "and they learned how to rationalize their indolence and their sadness as a rebellion against orthodoxy and made it seem adventurous when in fact it was just their spirits that had become dull."

And then the priest finally, grudgingly, gets around to tidings of comfort and joy -- sort of. "The Lord had come to earth to save us from dullness of spirit," he says, "and this is what the shepherds found in one dazzling moment."

Having offered this challenge to his parishioners, Duffy promptly identified with the people in the pews, not with his imaginary preacher. "Christmas isn't the moment for pointing the finger of shame," Duffy said. "Unfortunately, we all suffer from the dullness of spirit that Father Emil spoke about, that slowness to perceive the wonder of God in our lives." But notice what Duffy has done here: He challenged the members of his congregation to think hard about their own dullness of spirit and to consider whether they take seriously the dazzling point of the faith that they celebrate every Christmas.

I dearly hope that my children and their children will encounter priests with Duffy's spirit. He was shaped by the moment of the two Johns -- Pope John XXIII and John F. Kennedy. Duffy, who occasionally celebrated Mass for JFK, recalled that era as an exciting time when Catholics all over the world sensed new possibilities and when American Catholics finally found themselves fully accepted in their democracy. Across the Christian denominations, there was less defensive peevishness and an opening to a theology of hope.

I'm grateful Tom Duffy was willing to warn a Washington congregation full of us aspiring and worldly folks against a "dullness of spirit." He offered us the Christ described in Luke's Gospel anointed "to preach good news to the poor ... to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed." Every Christmas, I hope I'll remember what Duffy preached.

E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is .

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