“Tell me, is Monsignor Hickey still alive?”
“Yes, he’s alive,” the visiting priest answered his host as they sat out on the lawn, one summer day in 1970, overlooking the valley vista beyond them. “But he’s very, very sick.”
A pronounced pause of silence followed as the old man’s mind wandered away. The young cleric respectfully waited for his frail host to lead the conversation again.
“Did you say Monsignor Hickey is well, or is he sick?”
“He’s sick,” graciously repeated the guest, having no trace of impatience with the aged man’s forgetfulness. “He’s not at all well.”
They rose and walked a few paces. “That’s our little cemetery down there,” the senior priest lovingly noted for his guest, who was the first diocesan priest to visit him in many a year. But his memory and mind were failing. His voice was barely audible, and his speech somewhat slurred. What a dramatic contrast, the visitor must have thought, to the thunderous preacher of past years whom he had heard so much about!
Then once more the older Father, reminiscing on those earlier times, queried: “Is Monsignor Hickey well, or is he still sick?”
“He’s still sick.”
Father Leonard’s mind would drift away again, but only to come back as he remembered his guest. The young priest had come up from Harvard to visit him.
“If we had stayed in Cambridge, we would have converted at least a third of that place,” Father Leonard asserted confidently, his memory of those extraordinary years at the edge of “that place,” Harvard University, returning to him and rekindling his zeal.
“Father, we had two hundred converts,” the age-worn priest went on to boast proudly.
“Oh,” he lamented at length, “if only the Church would stand up today and say this is the one, true Church, and there is no salvation outside of her!”
That was the quintessential Father Leonard Feeney, Founder of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, even in his dotage still championing the solemn truth in whose defense he had given and suffered so much.
* * *
“Father Feeney is trying to do something that would take a saint to do.” So said the president of a Catholic University in Canada, during the great Church controversy that arose midway in the 20th century — the controversy known as the “Boston Heresy Case,” which sent tremors throughout the entire Catholic world.
To anyone knowledgeable of the sainted giants of Catholic history who had fought in defense of the Faith at whatever the personal costs, this would seem an apt observation of what Father Feeney was “trying to do.” The priest who offered it, however, clearly meant that he considered Father Feeney to be something less than a saint — probably even that the famed Jesuit poet, on this account, should have abandoned his hugely uneven battle against the hierarchy and public opinion, for the sake of sparing his own reputation and the Church’s tranquility. After all, many a fellow priest who quietly agreed with Father Feeney’s doctrinal defense – and there were many – were saying much the same thing.
Great men whose individual endeavors have moved the world for the better are relatively few indeed among history’s long ages. This writer feels blessed personally to have known two whom he measures by that standard. Father Leonard Feeney was one, though I scarcely knew him on a personal level, and only in the last five years of his life, when his health and faculties were already diminished and noticeably failing more with each of those years.
The other man I esteem of true greatness left his stamp on political thought; and him I knew much longer and more intimately than, to my regret, Father Feeney.
Both men sacrificed all in the respective noble causes for which each fought. Neither, mind you, was in any sense a “revolutionary”; for each had championed, in disparate realms, only lofty ideals and profound truths which, in earlier, more honorable ages, had been uncontested. Yet the rage of vilification was so pandemic and so intense against both as to constitute living martyrdom for them.
The keenest heartache for each was inflicted not by their open enemies who persecuted them, but by those who were expected to defend their causes, yet did not.
I omit naming here my champion of political thought, who still evokes controversy many years after his death, only because doing so would be an unnecessary distraction in the present context. It is worth noting in this context, however, that, like Father Feeney, he had many who said of him, “I agree with what he says; I just don’t approve of his methods.”
To these I responded — and do forgive my abandoning the editorial “we” in favor of a more functional narrative “I,” as I’ll occasionally need to do in this account — “Well, if you do agree with what he says, if you truly understand the worthiness of the cause he’s undertaken and the enormity of the danger he’s fighting, just what methods would you approve? And, if you do know better ones, why don’t you put it into practice on your own?” Never did the question summon forth an intelligent reply. Almost always it was answered with silence.
I never presume to know the heart of any man. But I’m reasonably convinced that most who invoked this “I agree with what he says; I just don’t approve of his methods” position, did so more to excuse their own personal responsibility in an eminently worthy cause than genuinely to fault the “methods” of one man who did have the courage and character to take it up.
And I certainly don’t know the heart of the university president mentioned above. Nor those of other contemporary priests at large who felt constrained to approve Leonard Feeney’s doctrinal defense soto voce, while disparaging the man himself as not being enough a saint to defend it worthily. But one has to wonder, first, how a priest in Canada or elsewhere could fairly assess the sanctity, or its lack, in a Boston priest whose manner and methods had to be known mainly from public news sources. (As to the reliability of such news sources, a wag once said: “I wouldn’t even believe the page numbers in Life magazine unless I counted them myself!” Skepticism of this sort isn’t entirely undue, considering that Whittaker Chambers testified to being a high-level member of the Communist party during almost the same era, while serving as an editor of Time magazine.)
More importantly, if defending so foundational a Catholic dogma as extra ecclesiam nulla salus – “outside the Church there is no salvation” – against practically the entire Catholic hierarchy, were a challenge fit only for a saint, one must also wonder why fellow priests would not be more inclined to credit that to Father Feeney’s saintliness, rather than to his unsaintliness.
In truth, defending any solemn teaching of the Catholic Faith, whether against a single person denying it or against the whole Catholic world repudiating it, is not a charge Our Lord reserved only for saints. It is a duty incumbent upon every single Catholic, be he priest or layman. Not to meet that duty would be a grave sin. Doing so merits eternal reward. The greater the challenge against fulfilling the duty, the greater will be the eternal reward. Certainly one must objectively admit that, like St. Athanasias long before him, Father Leonard Feeney stood alone as a priest defending Catholic dogma against the world. For three decades. For that alone, if he was right and the world wrong, his eternal reward would have to be inestimable.
As a Boston Catholic born only a few years before the Boston Heresy Case burst forth, and who has come to appreciate the rich fullness and integral beauty of the Catholic Faith only since 1973, when I first met Father Feeney, I can speak personally to the state of Catholic education and Catholicism in those times and in that place. To Boston Catholics of my generation, and even of earlier ones, Catholicism was something one merely practised. And, at that, rather marginally. Almost the entire sum total of Catholic education I garnered in parochial schools was a collection of arbitrary obligations and rules – thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots. Observe them, and you save your soul. Additional meritorious points could be earned spiritually by reciting the rosary and attending extra masses in Lent. In short, the Catholicism taught to me was more a skeleton — cold, colorless, inert, devoid of the flesh and blood, the vibrant, living body for which it was intended to give structural support.
To Father Feeney, the Catholic Faith was not a mere practice or code of laws. It was a lifestyle. Indeed, it was a life, with all its glorious vitality, wonder and mystery. And it was a challenge. And that, perhaps, is what came to set him so far apart from the great mass of other Catholics like myself, and even from other priests. Little wonder so few among us practising Catholics understood the sanctity of his crusade. It is hoped, therefore, that the following glimpses at the life of Father Feeney – taken not from news sources, but from those who knew him personally and intimately as a priest and teacher – will come to understand him better, to revere him for his living martyrdom, and to cherish him as one of the Church’s courageous heroes.
Sweet Lion of Youth
At least from all I can infer as a latent disciple of his, there are really almost two distinct lives of Leonard Feeney, each set apart by roughly the midpoint of his earthly existence. The first was that of a famed poet, essayist and lecturer who was widely esteemed, acclaimed and loved. The second was that of a brilliant theologian, inspiring apostle and heroic defender of Catholic truth who was even more widely ridiculed, persecuted and despised. Common to both lives was his priesthood and a prodigious intellect which, during the former one, seems to have left a restless anxiety to serve God more fruitfully, more meaningfully in some way not yet discoverable to him. And that, combined with God’s inscrutable Providence, is what I surmise gave birth to the latter life, the greater life, of Father Feeney. But let’s begin our look at both with the most logical starting point.
In his book, Survival Till Seventeen, a delightful collation of reminiscences from his childhood, Father Feeney reflected:
“Among the very few papers in my possession which might be honored with the dignity of being called ‘notes’ is the certificate of my birth…It is such a decisive, laconic, frightening document, that I have often stared at it with something of the feeling one might have if he could tip-toe into his own nursery and find himself asleep in his own crib. The document remarks, concerning an existence which is indubitably mine:
“NAME OF CHILD: Leonard Edward Feeney
“DATE OF BIRTH: Feb. 15, 1897
“PLACE OF BIRTH: 118 Adams Street, Lynn, Mass.
“FATHER’S NAME: Thomas Butler Feeney
“MOTHER’S NAME: Delia Agnes Leonard
“It was the original intention of my parents to give me no middle name, but by a combination of my father’s and my mother’s family names, to make my own a happy union of the two. The Edward was thrown in at Baptism in honor of my Uncle Edward, who was my sponsor, but it was thrown out later after we had satisfied him with this courtesy.”
The Leonard half of that surviving union of family names was contributed by a petite, gentle, and lovely Irish girl – “like a little doll!” as Father Feeney, in later years, proudly quoted some “astute observer” as describing her. Before marriage at age eighteen, “Her name was Delia Agnes Leonard,” wrote Father Richard J. Shmaruk in the only extensive, if not entirely favorable, biography of Leonard Feeney of which we are aware, “but she never cared for her first name. She liked to be called Agnes.” Sister Mary Clare, one of Father’s longtime disciples who composed a much more favorable, if less extensive, biography after his death, describes Agnes Feeney as “a gentle, exquisite lady, simple and untutored,” and says “he idolized her.” Such that, had there been no Mother’s Day, one suspects he would have invented it just for her.
The father, an Irish immigrant, likewise was of rather small stature, but possessed a gregarious personality that was larger than life. It may well have been that personality, that gift of charm for which the Irish are so well known, that led to Mr. Feeney’s highly successful career with Metropolitan Life.
By 1909, the second tier of the Clan Feeney consisted of Leonard, Thomas Butler Junior, Eileen and John. (All three boys would eventually become priests.) That year the family took up permanent residence in a spacious three-story, six-bedroom house at 73 Lewis Street in Lynn, a dozen miles up the North Shore from Boston.
“When I went to school,” Father would write years later, “I came to believe that Leonard derived from the Latin words: leonis ardor, meaning ‘fierceness of a lion,’ and I was wont to boast of this signification. Some years later, however, I met a priest in Florence named Leonardo, and he told me that our name is taken straightforwardly from the Latin: leo and nardus, meaning ‘lion and spikenard,’ and rendered freely as ‘strength and fragrance’ or ‘strength and healing.’ However gracefully he put it, I was not pleased with the new translation. I preferred being a ‘wild lion’ to being a ‘sweet lion,’ and wish I had been left under my original illusion.”
But, in fact, one finds nothing about young Leonard that was wild. The term might have more closely suited his younger brother, Tommy, a lovable and irrepressible prankster with a penchant for shinnying to the top of lampposts and climbing up the sides of large buildings. But even Tommy’s antics were wholly innocent. (Father Tom, as he was endearingly known to us in later times, had a priestly grace all his own. His Sunday homilies – which were rather a potpourri of humorous anecdotes, though always with holy subjects – were so entertaining, that we almost felt guilty about enjoying ourselves so much at Mass. Even now, years after his death, I can’t hear the name “Father Tom” without a smile coming to my face. God rest his dear soul!)
No, Leonard was far more the quiet thinker than a “wild lion.” And one has only to read, in Survival Till Seventeen, his contemplative analogy of Gold Fish Pond and heaven to realize what a prodigious thinker he was, even as a young boy.
He was also a sensitive youngster. He spoke of a poor Jew who went about Lynn collecting rags and had been the object of abuse from neighborhood miscreants. “I was eleven years old,” our priest recalled decades later, “when there suddenly dawned on me the tragedy of this poor vagabond’s existence. True, I had never joined with the hoodlums stoning or abusing him, but I had failed to appreciate the extent to which he was a victim rather than an enemy. When this realization came to me, I decided to let him know how I felt toward him by offering a few cheery words of sympathy. These he disdained as something suspicious. He merely rubbed his long beard and drove on.”
That didn’t lessen Leonard’s sympathy or his determination to make it known. He spent an entire day following the man’s wagon around the city.
In Lynn could be found, in those days, a fulsome variety of ethnic nationalities and religions, including a Quaker community. Nearby the Feeney household, in fact, lived Mary Baker Eddy, foundress of Christian Scientism. (I recall Father Tom telling me how he and his older brother often saw the pathetic soul out on the sidewalk, with a huge, open Bible displayed on a stand, attempting to preach to every passerby, but all would only continue to pass her by.)
A serious and sensitive thinker young Leonard was by nature. But by force of environment a counterbalance was cultured in him and all the Feeney children. “Our house was always ablaze on Sunday evenings,” he wrote. “We invariably had at least three roomsful of visitors, and what with music, laughter and oratory, I do not know what the neighbors thought of us. It must have seemed as if the Feeneys were putting on a perpetual bazaar. As far as I can remember we never visited anybody. People always visited us.”
One did not just “visit” the Feeneys. Guests would have to furnish compellingly persuasive reasons for not being able to sleep over as well and partake of a hearty breakfast fare in the morning. Such was the generous hospitality there, that it would appear there really were no spare rooms in the large Feeney house. They seemed to be continually occupied, if not by guests, then by relatives or friends who had come on hard times; “and they lived with us until they either (a) died, (b) married, or (c) entered religion.”
“My father was an incorrigible cenobite,” the firstborn would record. He detested solitude and had a positive horror of silence. He delighted in noise in any form. He particularly liked to hear others sing. The worse you sang the more my father applauded, and the more he urged you to an encore.”
Guests had only one obligation in return for the famed Feeney hospitality: Almost as a matter of compulsion, they were expected to perform. Play an instrument, sing, recite poetry, tell stories – it didn’t matter, nor did the quality, just so long as they contributed. As can be imagined under such house rules, therefore, the Feeney children by mandate had to develop talents for entertaining not the guests so much as Mr. Feeney himself. Leonard played the violin, and Tommy the clarinet. More than that, they early acquired oratorical arts and skills that would serve them well in their priestly careers.
As might also be imagined, the venue attracted a rich variety of personalities and characters. The careful study of which, I venture to guess, helped equip Leonard with one of the special charisma for which he was known as a priest: his uncanny ability to discern the character of others. Anyone who has felt the powerful gaze of his penetrating, dark eyes knows exactly what I mean.
“You have to have a Catholic education,” was more than Mr. Feeney’s conviction: it was a fundamental truth. And it’s said that he imparted it to others liberally. For his children Catholic education began at St. Joseph’s, the local parish school. “During Lent and the whole month of May,” Father Shmaruk writes, “they would make that trek of three-quarters of a mile six times in a single day.” The same source mentions: “Leonard and Tommy excelled in their studies at St. Joseph’s school.”
All three of Tom Feeney’s sons would go on to study at Boston College High School – “B.C. High,” as it is more familiarly known to Greater Bostonians. According to Father Shmaruk, Leonard was “one of the smartest boys in the class.” He “participated in school theatrical productions,” proving to be a “good actor.” And he was “active in debating and elocution competition.”
In the class ahead of Leonard Feeney’s was a young fellow named Jimmy. According to Father Shmaruk, Jimmy had had no parochial-school education before B.C. High. He was a product of the Boston Public School system, “and he had little to show for it except a long record for truancy. So he dropped out when he was fourteen to go to work. He was not intelligent, however, and some priests . . . convinced him . . . to go back to school. Now, in his junior year at Boston College High School, the boy’s grades were so poor that the prefect of studies sent a letter to his father . . . .”
“Jimmy had one saving grace,” Father Shmaruk continues. “His oratorical talents attracted attention at the school.” Those talents occasioned his competing in debate with our young man from Lynn. Jimmy’s full name was Richard James Cushing, later to become the Archbishop of Boston who censured Father Feeney. That high-school debate was when, as Father Shmaruk notes, “Leonard Edward Feeney and Richard James Cushing matched wits for the first time. Leonard would brag to friends many years later that he had won that contest, and he’d joke that his opponent was finally taking his revenge . . . .”
Leonard’s Jesuit teachers at B.C. High took careful notice of his academic prowess and had nurtured in him a vocation in the Society of Jesus. In September 1914, shortly after the death of Pope St. Pius X, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at St Andrew-on-Hudson, near Poughkeepsie, New York. He received honors for his academic achievements, and was singled out as “a great prospect . . . to keep an eye on.”
Even in his childhood he had always been somewhat frail. During his novitiate, he grew ill from some ailment that evaded diagnosis and “lost a tremendous amount of weight.” He underwent surgery, in which part of his stomach was removed, and was allowed to return home for a short period of recuperation. He did recover somewhat before being called back to St. Andrew’s, but, in his own words, only to “about 49 or 50 percent” of normal. His overall health thereafter would never improve beyond that level.
Following philosophy and theology courses at Woodstock College in Maryland. And, in 1927, in he was assigned to Weston College near Boston to complete his seminarial training.
It was at Weston, that he was ordained, on June 20, 1928, by the Jesuit Bishop Joseph N. Dinand. “On the following day,” Father Shmaruk writes, “he signed a statement [attesting] that he had taken the required oath against Modernism.” At the command of Pope St. Pius X, this Oath was required of all priests being ordained. Part of that oath read as follows: “I sincerely accept the doctrinal teaching which had come down from the apostles through the faithful Fathers in the same sense and meaning down to our own day. Therefore I wholly and entirely reject the false invention of the evolution of dogmas, whereby they pass from one meaning to a meaning other than that formerly held by the Church.” After Vatican II, as the new spirit of “ecumenism” swept through Church, the Oath against Modernism was suppressed, and priests were no longer required to take it.
The “Literary Lion”
“When he finished his courses at Weston in 1929,” Father Shmaruk chronicles, “he was chosen to spend a year in Europe studying ascetical theology at Saint Beuno’s in Wales.” He then was sent to Oxford to study English literature. Father Feeney would write: “There was a time when the Vatican forbade . . . Catholic boys to go to Oxford or to Cambridge.” But already, so shortly after the passing of Pope St. Pius X, the times were changing. And so were the Jesuits.
Sister Mary Clare quotes one of his professors, Lord David Cecil, as having said: ‘I am getting more from my association with Leonard Feeney than he could possibly get from me.'”
While still a seminarian, Leonard’s nationwide literary acclaim was already in the making. Periodicals such as Harper’s, Commonweal and America had published some of his verse during this time. His superior gave permission for the publishing of a collection of his poems. And his delightful book, In Towns and Little Towns, was published in 1927.
There was also the open letter to New York Governor Al Smith that he published in 1928. Smith had been defeated in his bid for the presidency that year, in what was decidedly a vote against the candidate’s unapologizing Catholicism, not his political platform. The published letter was entitled the “Brown Derby,” a reference to Smith’s famous hat which had become his trademark In the letter, taking the initiative to serve as spokesman for American Catholics, Father commended the governor for standing by his Catholic convictions in spite of the cost: “Politically, it hurt you to be one of us. It ruined you. If only you could have disowned us somehow. If only you could have soft-pedaled the fact that you go to Mass on Sundays, if only you could have snubbed a few Catholic priests in public, or if only you could have come out with some diatribe against nuns and Religious Orders, or something of that sort, nice and compromising, you could have had the White House, garage and all, for the asking.”
By reply, Smith told Father, “I know of no article that has received such widespread publicity as that one. I was compelled to send to the publishing house for some copies, so many of my personal and intimate friends were asking me for them.”
Before his death years later, Al Smith honored Father Feeney with what was perhaps his most coveted earthly possession: his brown derby.
Sister Mary Clare wrote, “By 1934, Catholics in America began to realize he was a priest who had style, who had wit, who had words, and something to say with them. He was in demand for lectures at their colleges, and talks at their communion breakfasts in places like the Waldorf Astoria, and eventually was put on the radio Sunday nights. It was their hour, the ‘Catholic Hour.’ He complained that on Sunday nights a radio speaker had stiff competition from ‘contraltos, commentators, and comedians – none of which I am.’ He needn’t have worried. He held his audience spellbound from the beginning. His magnetic voice and dominant personality seemed to reach each one, singularly.”
Father Feeney, in fact, was the only person Bishop Fulton J. Sheen would ever allow to substitute for himself on his nationally broadcast radio program.
Meanwhile, Father’s writings had even become mandatory reading in many of America’s Catholic schools. In short, through his poems, his essays, his radio broadcasts, Father Leonard Feeney very quickly had become a national celebrity. Celebrity was something the Jesuit Society in America relished, when it redounded to the Society’s own prestige. And so, in 1931, Father was assigned to Boston College, where he would teach, and where he could write.
Approaching the Crossroads
As a distinguished writer and lecturer, Leonard Feeney, S.J., well served the Catholic Faith he loved and practised so intensely. “His energy, his anxious, intense personality, his vigorous mind and character attracted those who loved the Faith as well as those who hated it,” as Sister Mary Clare attests. He regarded himself first and foremost as a priest, and disdained being call a “poet priest,” saying it gave the impression “of a poet who did a little priesting on the side.” He longed to be able to perform more priestly ministrations, and not merely in the quiet, polite, mild manner that suited New England Yankee tastes, but boldly, fervently, challengingly, after the example of St. Francis Xavier. The forum for free expression of thought that he had observed in London’s Hyde Park had fascinated him and sparked in him a novel notion: Why not set up a soapbox on Boston Common and preach Catholicism in the same manner! He approached his provincial with the idea: “He said, yes, I could, but he would have to ask Cardinal O’Connell for permission. . . . Two months later, I was sent to New York as [an] editor of America.”
Since their suppression in 1773, the Jesuits, at least in the United States, have had a penchant for giving some of their institutions atypically non-Catholic names. Such as Georgetown University, instead of, say, St. Ignatius University; or Boston College, rather than Xavier College; or Woodstock College, not St. Isaac Jogues College. Some see in this a tint of the murky, anti-apostolic, minimalist current within the American Church that Pope Leo XIII condemned, calling it Americanismus — “Americanism.”
America, though the title would never betray it, is a Jesuit national weekly published out of New York City. And having so popular a literary name as Leonard Feeney, S.J., on its masthead certainly had to have appealed to the Jesuits’ taste for prestige a lot more than letting him expound Catholic doctrine from a soapbox on Boston Common, only yards from the ears of Brahmin society living on Beacon Hill.
Arriving at America in 1936, Father applied himself fully and energetically as Literary Editor. By some accounts, however, he was not happy in the role. That would be understandable, since it only isolated him more when he yearned for greater priestly activity among the people. His prominence as an acclaimed literary figure, after all, was one which had been shaped more by ambitions of the Jesuit Society than of his own.
In this period, Sister Mary Clare noted, “he was moving freely and frequently in the highest circles of New York with well-known figures like Sinclair Lewis, Dorothy Thompson, Jacques Maritain, T.S. Eliot, Noel Coward, Fulton J. Sheen, and others.” Many of which literati he was, or would become, highly critical of. So few were of his spirit. One of those few, however, was the prominent Catholic historian, William Thomas Walsh, with whom Father shared a close friendship and mutual respect. He “preferred people like taxi-cab drivers, dock-workers, janitors, and waiters,” Sister continues. They were the simple of heart and he called them ‘the soundest of all metaphysicians and, under the influence of divine grace, the profoundest of all mystics.'”
In any event, he became increasingly displeased with America’s editorial policies, after its conservative editor-in-chief, F.X. Talbot, was quietly eased into obscurity, and John LaFarge assumed control. Father Feeney was never a student of politics. Nonetheless, he was politically astute enough, from his solid Catholic principals, to be opposed to Roosevelt’s radically socialist New Deal agenda. LaFarge was a New Dealer. And so also became America under his administration. By 1940, according to Father Joseph Merrick, “Leonard Feeney didn’t have anybody at America who was too fond of him . . . .” The tension and stress took their toll on Father’s already substandard health.
“The October 5, 1940 issue of America,” wrote Father Shmaruk in his unpublished biography, “listed his name among the members of its staff for the last time.” He was reassigned to the faculty of Weston.
Spirits Intersect at Bow and Arrow Streets
Father Feeney was now at the height of his literary fame and national popularity. He had no inkling of it as he returned to Boston, but he was about to embark on a new life that clearly had been charted for him by Providence.
In that same year of 1940, on the Feast of St. Joseph, Catherine Goddard Clarke and two other devoted Catholics, opened a modest lending library – “a place,” in Mrs. Clarke’s words, “where non-Catholics could find out from Catholics what the Church was teaching.” It was called St. Benedict Center and was situated amid the sprawling complex of campus and dormitories of Harvard University at the corner of Bow and Arrow Streets, across the street from St. Paul’s Cathedral, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And its purpose was to fulfill Cardinal O’Connell’s mandate to “teach the Faith without compromise.”
Due in large part to Mrs. Clarke’s magnetic personality, uncommon intellect, and indomitable apostolic spirit, student interest in St. Benedict Center as a lay apostolate began to flourish. And with it, so did the scope of activities. A philosophy course was started. And the Harvard Catholic Club began using its facilities for meetings.
When a friend had brought Father Feeney by the Center for a visit one afternoon, he was so impressed that he returned to observe one of its philosophy sessions and joined in the discussion. One of the students posed a question to Father, which he answered so clearly that the student later said: “That was the most satisfactory answer I have ever received. The question was one which has been bothering me for a long time.”
The need of a priest to answer just such questions had been felt, and an appeal was made to Father Feeney to fill the void. Busy though he was at Weston, Father eagerly offered his teaching skills. With that, his Thursday night lectures at St. Benedict Center – and, unknowingly, his lifelong association with it — had begun.
“We could scarcely believe the wealth of riches which Father Feeney brought to the Center, in himself,” Catherine Clarke would write several years later. “He brought us the example of real holiness, of priestly zeal. He brought us his great love for Our Lady, which everyone who has ever known him has acknowledged to be extraordinarily deep and beautiful. He brought us the fruits of his scholarship, of his many years of learning . . . . His rich humor, his poetry, his love of the poets, his story-telling, at which he is a master, filled us with joy. He seemed to think everyone was good, everyone (of us) a genius, everyone almost a saint. We expanded under the warmth and charm of it. If we weren’t saints, we would try to be. At least we would work hard for God, and let Him take care of the saint part of us.”
Father Feeney and St. Benedict Center became a powerful combination that rapidly began attracting patrons, both Catholic and non-Catholic, both student and non-student, by the hundreds. (Once a Navy man showed up at a lecture, owing his presence to the fact that word of the Center was in wide circulation even aboard U.S. war vessels.) Attendance was so large on Thursday nights that the audience “filled the aisles, jammed the doorway, and stood on the sidewalk, at each window.” When the scholarly Dr. Fakhri Maluf* was added to the Center’s attractions, conducting Tuesday night lectures on philosophy, these numbers grew still more. Catherine Clarke, in fact, was able to boast that, by 1943, “We were able to reach a thousand students a week.”
Members of the famous Kennedy family were known to visit. Jack was running for Congress when he first came to the Center, and surprised Father by being able to recite from memory passages of one of his essays. Jack Kennedy came to several lectures and was always gracious and respectful towards Father, who once told him, “Maybe someday you will be the first Catholic president!”
Bobby Kennedy came once as well. However, he was arrogant and confrontational. Father suffered him patiently, until he flippantly sniped, “I know more Protestants who are going to heaven than Catholics!” “That’s not the way to talk to a priest,” Father retorted, and directed the young Kennedy to the door.
A bank official raved about St. Benedict Center to Mrs. Clarke: “This work is glorious!” Even His Holiness, Pope Pius XII, had read, apparently with keen interest, an account about the Center sent to him by one of its friends. Later, when this same friend told Pope Pius in an audience that he was from Boston, His Holiness surprised him, saying, “Ah yes! And you have a foundation in Cambridge, St. Benedict Center. I have read your account of it, and I send St. Benedict Center my blessing.”
A scholar in her own right, the Center’s foundress provided the dynamic drive and organizational leadership behind its cohesiveness. But it was clearly Father Feeney’s sanctity, his charisma and, most importantly, his ponderous knowledge of Catholic teachings that accounted for the Center’s popular success. (John J. McEleny, S.J., Father’s Jesuit Provincial, described Leonard Feeney as “the greatest theologian we have in the United States, by far.” Cardinal John Wright in early years went even further, calling him “the greatest theologian in the Catholic Church today.”) Two hundred conversions to the Catholic Faith and more than 100 vocations to religious life – many of them from the ranks of Harvard’s student body — were the fruits of the combined labors of Father Feeney and St. Benedict Center during their first decade together.
Theirs, however, was a symbiotic relationship. As great as was the inspiration and spiritual wisdom that Father brought to the Center, so also did its students repay him in equal measure with love for, and dedication to, the Faith. At last he was not merely esteemed by an impersonal public as the “priest poet.” Now he was cherished by a devoted following as a spiritual father. And little this side of heaven could please his priestly heart more.
Birth of a Crusade
Nothing breeds success like success. Benedict Center was a success, in terms of Catholic purpose, beyond anything one could imagine in a place like Harvard Square, and in an age such as ours. If the purpose for which Our Lord established His Church is the salvation of souls, then Father Feeney in the 1940s was fulfilling that purpose in a manner unknown anywhere else in modern times.
As He ascended into heaven, Christ commanded His apostles: Go ye into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be condemned. (Luke 16:15-16.) Yet Leonard Feeney, as he toiled in the vineyard of academic Cambridge, seemed to be almost a singular exception in carrying out Our Lord’s commission to His Church.
So well regarded was Father’s accomplishments at St. Benedict Center by his Jesuit superiors and the Archdiocesan authorities that he was assigned as its spiritual director full time. To Father that meant devoting himself full time to the salvation of souls. The more successful he was at it, however, the more he reflected on the sudden neglect in the 20th Century of other Catholics, lay and religious, in their duty to do likewise. For he did not believe one had to be a learned theologian or a dynamic preacher to win souls, but simply to love Our Lord and Our Lady sincerely, and to share Their desire for men’s salvation. “When piety is genuine,” he said, “it is always attractive.”
By example, his own apostolic methods, in fact, were disarmingly simple, direct and irresistible. If you met him on the street as a stranger, his first question would be: “Are you a Catholic?” If you were not, he would invite you to become one. If you were unresponsive, he would try to get you to recite the Hail Mary with him. (Father routinely used to drive to the home of Dr. Paul Dudley White, the eminent heart specialist who treated President Eisenhower, just to have the physician recite the Hail Mary with him. Dr. White came into the Church before his death.)
If, on the other hand, you answered that you were a Catholic, Father would next inquire if you attend Mass and receive the sacraments regularly. Should you answer that you don’t, he would likely take you aside to hear your confession on the spot. The sight of Father hearing someone’s confession in a doorway along some city street was not an unusual one.
Never in my life have I known, or ever heard of, a priest challenging total strangers so directly, and yet so paternally. My own first meeting with Father Feeney will never be forgotten. I was one of a dozen guests being entertained, one Sunday afternoon, by Brother Francis on the lawn at St. Benedict Center’s Still River Monastery. Father by then was old, and the dulling effects of Parkinson’s Disease to his mind were immediately recognizable. Yet, when he came among us, his first words to us were: “Did you all go to Mass today?” With a collective voice, the group answered, “Yes, Father.” His next question, “And did you all receive Holy Communion?” likewise received an affirmative group reply. But the dear priest wouldn’t settle for group reply this time. So great was his love of the Blessed Sacrament, and so essential to the life of every soul did he hold It, that he polled each and every one of us in that group to make absolutely certain all had received our Eucharistic Lord.
If I may be allowed another digression to show the lovingly simple heart of this endearing priest, I’ll mention a charming encounter that Brother Robert Mary, the member of our Third Order who authored Father Feeney and the Truth About Salvation, had with our founder about three years after my own just mentioned one. I’ve known him as Bob for 35 years now, so I’ll address him by that name here.
Bob was then working for a non-profit educational organization in a Boston suburb, but had moved near Still River so he could attend lectures at the Center. His youngest son was also a student in the Center’ high school at the time. Bob attended Mass at every opportunity. But this was a weekday morning, and he was already late for work, some 30 miles hence, when he was dropping his son off for school at St. Anne’s House.
As he began to pull away in his car, he saw our aged priest, escorted by another Religious, coming down the drive. Respectfully, Bob stopped to bid him “good morning.” Father, taking the man to be a stranger, asked if he were coming to Mass. Bob explained his situation, telling Father Leonard (as he was familiarly and affectionately known among us) that he was on his way to work and, unfortunately, could not attend that morning. Disappointment unmistakably evident on the old priest’s face, he inquired where this “stranger” worked. When Bob told him the name of his organization, Father in innocent simplicity responded, “And what do they think of Our Lady?”
Why, I have often asked myself, are there no other priests today with the same passion for winning souls to the True Faith? Father Feeney was asking himself the same question back in the 1940s at St. Benedict Center. What had happened to quench the apostolic vigor and vitality of the Catholic Church that was still so much in evidence throughout the world only a hundred years earlier, producing great numbers of saints? What had so widely and so completely chilled the fiery zeal for souls? What had diluted the Church’s sound apologetics into sniveling apologies, her triumphalism into timidity? Were Freud’s spiritless psychology, or Darwin’s faithless evolutionism, or Marx’s godless communism to blame? In part, yes. But Leonard Feeney sensed some larger, some less conspicuous, some more universal force at play. And he was restless, once again, to identify it.
After long and reflective thought, he one day called Dr. Maluf and Mrs. Clarke to his office, and in a somber tone announced, “I have put my finger” on the cancer on the Mystical Body of Christ. “No salvation outside the Church. That’s the thing that’s not being taught.”
Lighting a Long Fuse
The definitive point at which Father Feeney’s contest with the Church hierarchy began, was when the Center’s new publication, FROM THE HOUSETOPS, carried an article in its September, 1947 issue by Professor Maluf, entitled “Sentimental Theology.” By presenting a compelling defense of the dogma, extra ecclesiam nulla salus, he chastened liberal Catholics who were super-imposing the vagueries of sentimental reasoning, in matters of salvation, upon the infallible certitudes of the Deposit of Faith. Dr. Maluf wrote:
Sentimental thinking about religious matters is very much with us today. A great deal of what is being said by Catholics today sounds in very sharp contrast with the accent of the authentic voice of the Church, teaching, warning, and defining. The sharp weapons of Christ are being blunted, and the strong, virile doctrines of the Church are being put aside in a conspiracy of silence . . . . The Catholic Church does not proclaim the exclusive salvation of one race of people, but invites every man to the great joy of being united with Christ in the communion of Saints. The Catholic truth is not a sad story for which we need to apologize; it is a proclamation of the greatest good news that could ever be told. No matter how sternly its message is phrased, it is still the one and only hope in the world. Only love and security can afford to be severe. When we say that outside of the Church there is no salvation, we are also and at the same time announcing that inside the Church there is salvation . . . . This is not a story which can be taught with the subdued and hesitant voice of sentimental theology.
No noticeable repercussion was immediately felt at the Center. After all, earlier issues of the magazine had carried articles attacking Catholic liberalism, followed only by the expected reaction from critics of the Center.
In fact, the month after “Sentimental Theology” appeared, Archbishop Cushing, who himself had contributed two articles to the HOUSETOPS, made an official visit to the Center. On that occasion, as mentioned in our booklet Architects of Confusion, His Excellency lavished “praise on the work of Father Feeney and his associates. Citing the many conversions and, even more, the many religious vocations credited to Saint Benedict Center, Archbishop Cushing declared several times that the Center had the official sanction and gratitude of the Archdiocese.” In further fact, Archbishop Cushing, seven months later, on May 2, 1948, hosted 1200 members of the Center who had come in procession with Father Feeney to his Brighton residence to honor the Infant of Prague.
It stunned Father, therefore, to learn that the Archbishop soon after had attended a dinner at Harvard’s Lowell House, at which he was asked: “Do you approve of St. Benedict Center?” The Archbishop’s reply was: “I don’t know anything about them. . . . I am not sure that I approve of their method. I will have to look into that.” Then was raised the issue of students dropping out of Harvard because of what they learned at the Center. “Well, we’ve been getting all kinds of complaints from the parents of these boys,” the prelate replied. “Something is going to be done about it.”
Ominous words! Reports already were circulating that the Center would be closed down, which prompted several of its students to call on Archbishop Cushing and inquire if there were any substance to them. The prelate received them cordially, but gave evasive answers to their inquiry. Making a grand attempt to change the subject, he complained about the failure of Boston College and other Catholic schools to teach religion. “Why doesn’t Father Feeney,” said His Excellency, “go over to Boston College and do something about that?”
Indeed, it was at the Jesuits’ Boston College that pressure began to bear on several faculty members for their association with Father Feeney and the doctrine of no salvation outside the Church, and it was becoming clear that their positions on the faculty were in jeopardy. Professor Maluf, author of “Sentimental Theology,” was among them.
On August 25, 1948, Father Feeney received a letter from his Jesuit Provincial, Father McEleny, informing him that he was being transferred from St. Benedict Center to Holy Cross College, outside the Boston diocese, some fifty miles away. When Father contacted the Provincial to inquire about the reasons for his transfer, he was answered: “Higher authorities.”
Father McEleny would not specify what “higher authorities,” but at length did acknowledge to Father Feeney that it was objection to “your doctrine” that motivated the decision.
“Higher authorities” and “your doctrine” defined the issue succinctly. It is a universal law of all ordered society that an inferior authority cannot supercede a superior authority. The supreme Authority, of course, is God Himself. Every man has a duty to obey His laws, which are supreme to all other laws, civic or religious. By the same consideration, Church discipline is inferior to law, Church or Divine. (A bishop, even a pope, for an extreme example, could not lawfully command the worship of an idol, for such an act would violate the First Commandment.) Moreover, as stated before, every Catholic is duty-bound to profess and to defend all truths taught by Our Lord to His apostles, and preserved in the Solemn Magisterium of the Church. No authority can justly prevent the exercise of that duty.
Here is St. Thomas Aquinas on the matter: “[I]t is written (Acts 5:29): ‘We ought to obey God rather than men.’ Now sometimes the things commanded by a superior are against God. Therefore superiors are not to be obeyed in all things.”
Had the Provincial given any practical reason for the decision to transfer Father Feeney out of the Center, he would have stood on solid authority. But by naming Father’s “doctrine” as the reason, Father McEleny now had brought entirely different implications of conscience to the matter.
For, were Father Feeney teaching false or flawed doctrine, his superiors would have had not merely the right, but the duty to take disciplinary or remedial action against him. By the same token, he would nonetheless be entitled, under Canon Law, to a hearing in his own defense.
If, instead, Father were being transferred to silence him and St. Benedict Center precisely because they were faithfully teaching and defending a doctrine as it had been infallibly defined by three popes and an ecumenical council of the Church, then he not only had the right, but a duty before God to request a hearing on the matter.
And he did so – repeatedly — to his Jesuit superiors, to Archbishop Cushing, and to Auxiliary Bishop John Wright, who had been intimately involved with Father Feeney and the Center. Members of St. Benedict Center did likewise. And each attempt was summarily ignored!
Also to be considered is the fact that Father, as spiritual director of the Center, had a pastoral duty to its members and students – to the four teachers and their families, and to hundreds of its other students. Many of these had quit Harvard and other prestigious colleges in protest to their anti-Catholic teachings, many had converted to Catholicism under Father’s guidance, and some had done both. More often than not, these young men and women were repudiated by family and friends for their courageous acts, and their only spiritual haven was St. Benedict Center, under Father Feeney’s paternal care. It was fully evident that once Father were removed, the diocese would close the Center and that would be the end of the matter, so far as the Archdiocese was concerned. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter!” What, then, would become of these pious men and women and their souls?
No Religious ever surpassed Leonard Feeney, however, in his sense of obedience to superiors. On Our Lady’s Birthday, September 8, 1949, his two bags were packed, and he was ready to depart for Holy Cross. That same morning, his faithful friends and disciples from the Center made one last attempt for a hearing of their own with the Jesuit Provincial, but were rudely and contemptuously snubbed. He would not even talk to them.
Now, after having stormed heaven with prayers, their last recourse was to implore Father Feeney himself as his spiritual children. All well understood the gravity of obedience in religious life. But clearly this was a matter of an authority commanding obedience to itself in defiance of a higher authority — the highest Authority. Father’s greater duty, they insisted, now was to Our Lord Jesus Christ – to teach and defend His divine truth. His removal from the Center indisputably was being enforced in contempt of a Church doctrine and of Our Lord’s command to teach all peoples “to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:20.)
Make no mistake. Father Feeney had weighed this matter long and carefully and prayerfully. He agonized over it. He would continue to do so in all the coming months, each time he was faced with having to choose between obedience to superiors and obedience to God. And each time he conformed his decision with what he believed in his heart was his duty to God.
The following morning, a letter was sent to the Jesuit Provincial respectfully advising him that, as a matter of conscience, Father Feeney would remain at St. Benedict Center until a fair hearing were given the matter.
This time, the Provincial did respond. Immediately! In a brief but officious letter, he urged Father “to follow the order given,” under obedience. By reply, Father wrote:
Reverend and dear Father Provincial,
In one last letter, I am asking you solemnly in the Sacrament of my Priesthood and the sanctity of my vow, to desist at once from endeavouring to remove me from St. Benedict Center . . . .
If as you told me, my removal is not of your doing but that of a higher authority, I demand that it be brought to the attention of that higher authority at once the nature of my protest as a priest. . . .
I shall prepare a full and detailed report of my serious conscience difficulties and the reasons why, for the glory of God, the good of the Society, and the salvation of hundreds of souls who are depending upon me in this terrible emergency in a heretical university in which I am placed, at this moment I cannot in conscience leave until I can do so with dignity and as their Father; — and I shall present this report to every one of my major superiors whom it may concern.
Sincerely yours in the Society of Jesus
(signed) Leonard Feeney, S.J.
Father McEleny’s next response was again immediate, but it totally evaded the issues of conscience and of a hearing in the proper forum. It simply restated more harshly his demand for obedience to the original order.
On December 6th, with the appearance in the HOUSETOPS entitled “Liberal Theology and Salvation,” another letter arrived from the Provincial repeating the same instructions with regard to Father’s transfer to Holy Cross. In answer to which, Father reiterated that his “unwillingness to leave St. Benedict Center . . . is a matter of conscience, the details of which you are not willing to receive.”
But this only provoked yet another missive from Father McEleny, on December 29th, threatening termination of priestly faculties and expulsion from the Society of Jesus. This automatically escalated the matter to one all the more clearly entitling the beleaguered priest to a hearing. But still a hearing was denied.
On January 17, 1949, Monsignor Augustine Hickey came to the Center to serve notice verbally to Father Feeney that, by order of the Chancery and the Archbishop, permission to publish From the Housetops was suspended — the Center was ordered to cease its publication. The Monsignor was advised that the Center desired to have the order in writing, but no written order was ever provided.
In the meantime, the Center had been keeping its collective ear to the ground and almost daily was receiving reports of inside goings on within the Archdiocesan offices, the Society’s provincial office, and in even higher levels. The picture becoming increasingly and chillingly clear was that nowhere in those quarters did there exist any theological approval of, much less support for, the Center’s doctrinal stand. Rather, both the Jesuits and the Archdiocese, were embarrassed by it, and were determined to eliminate the source of that embarrassment by any means.
Father Leonard Feeney and St. Benedict Center – and the doctrine No Salvation Outside the Church – now were under full siege.
Saint Louis Marie de Montfort, in his Treatise on True Devotion to Mary, prophesied that the devil, in the last days before the Antichrist, “will presently raise up cruel persecutions, and will put terrible snares before the faithful and true children of Mary . . . . But the power of Mary over all the devils will especially shine forth in the latter times, when Satan will lay his snares against her heel: that is to say, her humble slaves and her poor children, whom she will raise up to make war against him. They shall be little and poor in the world’s esteem, and abased before all, like the heel, trodden underfoot and persecuted as the heel is by the other members of the body. But in return for this, they shall be rich in the grace of God, which Mary shall distribute them abundantly. They shall . . . crush the head of the devil and cause Jesus Christ to triumph.”
Father Feeney and his devoted followers held no delusions of being saints. But they surely wanted to become saints. And they were determined to continue to teach and defend the doctrine on salvation at any cost to themselves, and against whatever forces. In the midst of the mounting siege, therefore, on January 1st, they joined in a formal resolution to bind themselves together as a religious institution “dedicated to the glory of God and the protection of the doctrines of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church.”
And, on January 17, 1949, Father Leonard Feeney, Catherine Goddard Clarke, Fakhri Maluf and 53 other members of St. Benedict Center professed themselves by solemn vows in a new religious order, under the name of Mancipia Immaculati Cordis Mariae — The Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Saint Louis Marie de Montfort was adopted as patron of their new order.
Other behind-the-scenes machinations of the Jesuits began to come to the fore. An expert on canon law at Weston, Father John Crowley, drew up a summary of regulations for teaching in a Jesuit institution, specifically stating that religion in colleges must be taught by priests: “This applies equally to a lay professor who wishes to expound theological topics. Unless he . . . has had a systematic training in theology, he is not allowed to ‘teach’ theology.” Father Crowley delivered his summary to Dean O’Connell at Boston College on March 5th, saying, “If I run into any other pertinent regulations, I will pass them on. Happy hunting!”
On April 13th, Dr. Maluf and two other professors from the Center were dismissed from the faculty of Boston College. These were young men with young families who were now without means of support. When word of the dismissals reached the Boston Globe, a reporter called Boston College for confirmation. At that point, the College contacted every newspaper in Boston trying to quash the story. All complied, with the exception of the Boston Post which headlined it the next day; and it was featured on the front page of the New York Times the day following. In no time it was being carried by wire services across the globe.
With the story now public, William J. Kelleher, S.J., President of Boston College explained the reason for dismissing the professors to the press in this way: “They continued to speak in class and out of class on matters contrary to the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church, ideas leading to bigotry and intolerance.” (Emphasis added.)
As the controversy escalated over the coming weeks, the whole world was hearing the doctrine No Salvation Outside the Church, was and following the story of a single Boston priest who stood against his Church’s hierarchy to defend it. But the hierarchy struck back. On April 18th, Archbishop Cushing published a formal edict forbidding Catholics to attend the Center or to take part in any of its activities.
Clare Booth Luce, a highly influential woman who knew Pope Pius XII personally, was a friend and strong supporter of Father’s. She called him after learning of the censure: “Is there anything I can do?” she asked. “No, Dear,” he replied. “Just pray.”
John Farrow, a Hollywood figure, also offered to assist. As did Spyros Skouras, President of Twentieth Century Fox. But Father didn’t want the kind of help they could offer. This was a doctrinal fight. He sought to be vindicated by the Church, not protected by friends with influence.
Late in October, Father received a registered, special-delivery letter. Even before reading it, he knew its Latin contents. “My dear boys and girls,” he announced to his spiritual family, holding the unopened letter, “I have been dismissed from the Jesuit Order.” He was correct.
St. Benedict Center was a legally authorized school in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, making its students who were veterans eligible for funding under the G. I. Bill. In June, 1950, the Board of Collegiate Authority refused to renew state approval. Father Feeney, with three others from the Center, went to the State House to appeal the matter directly to Governor Paul Dever. “The Governor is not available. He’s not here,” Father was told by the receptionist.
“My dear,” Father said, “it’s a very bad thing for a Catholic girl to lie, especially to a priest. We can wait.” The girl began to cry. And at length, Dever agreed to see them. Noticeably nervous and at one point pausing to take some pills, he insisted he could do nothing for them. With that, Father rose and said, “I think I will take my case to the people.”
The following Sunday, on July 23rd, Father Feeney, with an entourage from the Center and a wooden platform, arrived on Boston Common, across from the State House, and he began to preach the Catholic Faith. He would do so every Sunday, at 3:00 p.m., rain or shine, summer and winter, for the next eight years.
It was unmistakably certain to the Archdiocese that Father Feeney and the salvation doctrine were not going to go away quietly.
Father Feeney contra Mundum
After Father realized his case had no hope of receiving a fair and proper hearing from the Jesuit Society, the Boston Archdiocese, or the Church hierarchy in general, he clung to the singular hope that Pope Pius XII, the Holy Father and Protector of all Christendom, would come to the defense of his doctrinal cause. On August 8, 1949, Rome issued an official letter to the Archbishop of Boston concerning the Boston Heresy case, signed by Cardinal Marchetti-Selvaggiani, Secretary of the Holy Office. In stark contrast to all the accusations of heresy against Father Feeney widely published by the Jesuits and the Archdiocese, it stated that “among those things which the Church has always preached and will never cease to preach is contained also that infallible statement by which we are taught that there is no salvation outside the Church.”
It further stated that “we are commanded to be incorporated by baptism into the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church, and to remain united to Christ and His Vicar, through whom He Himself in a visible manner governs the Church on earth . . . . Not only did the Saviour command that all nations should enter the Church, but He also decreed the Church to be a means of salvation without which no one can enter the kingdom of eternal glory.”
“However,” it continued, “this dogma must be understood in the sense in which the Church herself understands it.” And “it is not always required that [a person] be incorporated into the Church actually as a member, but it is necessary that he at least be united to her by desire and longing.” This is in contradiction to the three infallible papal definitions reprinted on the inside back cover of this magazine, and to the Syllabus of Errors promulgated in the last century by Pope Pius IX. Father Feeney and St. Benedict Center had always understood this dogma in the very sense and only in the precise words by which it was defined, by three Supreme Pontiffs and a General Council of the Church. Nowhere in those infallible definitions is any mention made of belonging to the Church “by desire and longing.”
The Holy Office, accusing Father Feeney by name, charged, “he does not hesitate to attack the catechetical instruction proposed by lawful authorities, and has not even feared to incur grave sanctions threatened by the sacred canons.”
Long after the death of Pope Pius XII, Cardinal John Wright, a former friend of Father’s who had been the architect of his terrible persecution, claimed Pope Pius personally edited this letter for the Holy Office with then-Bishop Wright’s assistance. It was a self-serving claim on the face of it, and, some believe, a specious one. For, at the urging of Cardinal Segura of Spain, who shared Father’s doctrinal position, Pope Pius XII had later chastised “those who would reduce to a meaningless formula the necessity of belonging to the One True Church,” in his Encyclical Humani Generis. He surely was not speaking of Father Feeney! It is far more probable that Wright drafted the letter.
Archbishop Cushing, on September 4, 1952, wrote to Father: “By direction of the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, with the complete approval of His Holiness, Pope Pius XII, I am ordered to invite you to come to me and to make an explicit profession of your submission both to the local Ordinary and to the Apostolic See. . . .” And “you are also warned to desist immediately from your activities as leader of the St. Benedict Center movement . . . .” The Archbishop added: “The Holy Office, with full approval of the Holy Father, has placed St. Benedict Center under local interdict and yourself under personal interdict.” The Archbishop had the letter published in the Archdiocesan newspaper, The Pilot.
Father did appear before the Archbishop and asked him if he agreed with what was said concerning salvation in the Vatican’s earlier letter. “All I know, Leonard, is what the Church tells me to believe,” the prelate answered.
“Does your Excellency mean to say,” Father countered, “that you didn’t know what the Catholic Faith was, antecedent to receiving this letter from Cardinal Marchetti-Selvaggiani?”” The Archbishop was silent.
Then arrived a letter signed by the new Secretary of the Holy Office, Cardinal Joseph Pizzardo, summoning Father Feeney to Rome for a hearing. At last! Father had long been pleading for a hearing at which he could present his arguments of being silenced by the Archdiocese and the Jesuit Order for defending the dogma. He intended to honor the summons, and had the encouragement of several of his Religious in that decision. Others, however, feared it was a trap – that he would not be allowed to return. It was plain from the summons, after all, that Father was to appear not as the accuser, but as the accused. And, judging by all previous positions taken by the Holy Office in this case, it was predictable that an unfavorable decision would be rendered, thus allowing even greater scandal to the dogma before the eyes of the world.
In such matters Church law provides: “The accused shall be informed of the charges preferred against him, that an opportunity may be given him of defending himself. His accusers shall be made known to him, and he himself shall have a hearing before his judges.”
Father thus modified his decision, qualifying his appearance in Rome. His written response to Cardinal Pizzardo stated: “This is the first official notification of a cause, judicially cognizable, in which I am an interested party. Your letter not only informs me that such a cause exists, but also that there is to be a hearing for its disposition. A hearing or trial presupposes some formal complaint or accusation which serves as a legal basis for the proceedings and which also informs the accused of the charge against him so that he can prepare to defend himself. Before I can participate in a trial I would like to know with more adequate particularity what I am to be tried for.”
Cardinal Pizzardo, by response, accused our priest of “evading the issue,” and ordered: “You are to come to Rome immediately where you will be informed of the charges lodged against you.” There it was. Father indeed was being charged. But he was not being informed what he was charged with, as was his right.
Respectfully but firmly, Father in his reply restated his position and cited canon laws that rendered the summons “fatally defective” in the absence of state charges.
On February 16th, the official organ of the Vatican, Acta Apostolicae Sedis, published a decree from the Holy Office:
Since the priest Leonard Feeney, a resident of Boston (Saint Benedict Center), who for a long time has been suspended from his priestly duties on account of grave disobedience of Church Authority, being unmoved by repeated warnings and threats of incurring excommunication ipso facto, has not submitted, the Most Eminent and Reverend Fathers, charged with safeguarding matters of faith and morals, in a Plenary Session held Wednesday, 4 February 1953, declared him excommunicated, with all the effects of the law.
On Thursday, 12 February 1953, Our Most Holy Lord Pius XII, by Divine Providence Pope, approved and confirmed the decree of the Most Eminent Fathers, and ordered that it be made [a matter] of public law.
Given at Rome, at the Headquarters of the Holy Office, 13 February 1953
(Signed) Marius Crovini, Notary
By appeal, a Complaint of Nullity was submitted by the Center to the Pro-Secretary of State for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, citing various legal defects in the decree, including: “It is not signed by a judge of the tribunal. The Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office is a tribunal composed of several Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church. Not one of these Cardinals has signed his name to this decree. For validity, the judgment of a Court must be over the signature of one of its judges.”
The only signature, in fact, was that of the Notary, whose signature only serves to attest as witness to the signing of a legal document. But no other signature appeared to which he could have been witness! Furthermore, the decree also lacked an official seal.
There has been no response to the appeal.
From the Common to the Country
Father bravely continued to fight the good fight uncompromisingly in defense of a solemn dogma of the Catholic Faith. Even with all the legal defects that rendered it invalid, however, he was nonetheless crushed by the decree of excommunication. His reputation was utterly destroyed beyond redemption. His family was made to share his shame. His spiritual children, the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, had become social lepers with him. His own Church, to which he had devoted his life, had disowned him.But worst of all, the Holy Father, Pope Pius XII, to whom he had rendered filial devotion and obedience, and for whom he held the greatest love, had failed to protect him.
His spiritual father in the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius of Loyola, likewise had once been accused by the Holy Office. A Doctor of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila, at one time had been under Church censure for her teachings. St. Athanasius had been excommunicated no less than five times for defending the Faith. St. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake as a heretic by Church authorities. And Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself was beheld as a “scandal” to His own people. But these precedents did little to ease the poor priest’s suffering.
Life for Father Feeney and his religious community in succeeding months and years was effectively summed up by Catherine Clark – called Sister Catherine as a Religious — in a single phrase: “the catacombs.” They lived in several houses forming something of a compound in Cambridge near the Center, where they were subjected to verbal and even physical abuse. Fakhri Maluf (now taking the name of Brother Francis as a Religious), owing to his Arab origins, seemed to be singled out for especial hatred. Thugs once attacked him on the street kicking him, until a passing truck driver came to his defense. Another time, someone held a lit cigarette to his clothing till it burned through to his flesh. Rocks were hurled at the homes as well as through the Center’s plate glass window.
The constant threat of such menace as well as Father’s poor health led the community in 1958 to purchase the Willard estate, situated in that part of the town of Harvard called Still River, about an hour’s drive from Boston. It was an expansive estate, dating back to the Revolutionary War era, in a bucolic countryside setting overlooking the Nashoba Valley. The tranquil serenity of their new home, far removed from the tense, embattled life that was their lot in Cambridge, was an ideal bromide for Father’s health, and afforded a peaceful environment in which to practise a more suitable monastic lifestyle of prayer and study. By no means were the Slaves of Mary’s Immaculate Heart abandoning their crusade for a contemplative life. On the contrary, they continued publishing books and other printed materials, which they distributed throughout the entire country as an apostolate they simply called “book-selling” – small teams of Brothers or Sisters sent across the country, calling on business establishments and asking for donations for their printed wares. By this means every single city and town in the United States was visited in the years following, and millions of souls were reached with the salvific message of the Faith.
The move, however, did present one hazard to the crusade: After years of living under continued abuse and persecution in Cambridge, “battle fatigue” had to have been an element that made life in peaceful Still River so much more appealing to these longsuffering Religious. All worked hard at the new St. Benedict Center. But it was healthy and fulfilling work – not as taxing or humiliating as having to withstand the abusive insult which they so often confronted on book-selling trips. As one who spent five years working 14 hours daily at the Center, I personally saw close up how much this was becoming factor, and how, by degrees, the appeal of monastic lifestyle for some began to overshadow the community’s apostolic vocation.
Father Feeney was the spirit of the Center, and despite what would happen in the future, let it be said that all his spiritual children in the community loved him with filial devotion. But, as all of them would agree, he was not a leader – not in the organizational sense of the word. That was Sister Catherine’s outstanding contribution and talent. Without officially adopting the title, she was a Mother Superior to the Slaves. In 1968, she succumbed after a heroic battle with cancer. Father called her a saint and said he somehow drew new strength with her death.
Yet the day-to-day affairs of managing a religious community and its activities, all knew, was something not to be expected or asked of him. Others would have to try to fill that void.
Fortes in Fide
One morning after the community had first taken up quarters in Still River, one of the Brothers whose cubicle was next to Father’s bedroom anxiously had informed Sister Catherine that he heard their Founder vomiting in the middle of the night. “Didn’t you know, Dear?” she responded with no sign of alarm, “Father is sick every night.” She explained to the worried Brother that Father Leonard, while a seminarian, had had half his stomach removed, and how that had left him with a lifelong affliction. One can only imagine how much this condition must have been aggravated by all his tribulations with the Jesuits and the hierarchy, and by the barrages of vulgarities and blasphemies shrieked at him those many Sundays on Boston Common.
Father was now old. Adding to his physical difficulties, he had Parkinson’s Disease, which severely impaired short-term memory and, to a lesser degree, his mental processes — though one still could not engage him in conversation for more than thirty seconds before he would bring Our Lord and Our Lady into the discussion! He was bent over with age, and his hand would go into tremors when at rest.
During a period in which Brother Francis had to take a leave of absence for personal matters, differences began to arise among the community, unfortunately, and these led to a division. (It was not a development without precedent. Something remarkably comparable afflicted the Redemptorist Congregation after its founder, St. Alphonsus, had grown infirm.) One of the factions, which included a majority of Religious, had grown apprehensive of their future as a religious community, knowing the founder could not have much time left. Being under official censure by Rome, what would they do when Father Leonard died? How would they receive the Sacraments?
It was under these circumstances that some from the larger faction began negotiating with the Archdiocese, hoping to have the censures imposed on St. Benedict Center lifted. That was something expressly forbidden by Father, who believed any contact with Church authorities on that level would be viewed as compromising the Center’s unshakable stand on the doctrine. It marked a weakness in faith that Our Lady somehow would provide for them, as She always had. And it was wrong. But in charity, especially appreciating all these Religious had sacrificed for the Faith in earlier years, one can at least be sympathetic to their plight.
In any event, as pre-conditional to lifting the Center’s censures, and without Father Feeney having any realization about what was really happening, Auxiliary Bishop Lawrence Riley of Boston quietly arrived at the Center on August 23, 1972. A number of Religious were gathered with Father when it was suggested that everyone sing the Athanasian Creed. Bishop Riley accepted that as a profession of faith by Father just that innocently – a profession sufficient to remove any bans of excommunication and interdict that had been imposed on him.
However uncanonically, those censures had been imposed because of Father’s strict adherence to, and unyielding defense of, the doctrine No Salvation Outside the Church. Ironically, the Athanasian Creed chanted feebly in Latin by Father as a profession of faith before Bishop Riley, contains these words: “Whosoever wishes to be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt shall perish everlastingly . . . .”
In a storm of persecution and punishing humiliation twenty years earlier, Church authorities had decreed the excommunication of Father Leonard Feeney before the whole world. Now, before an informal gathering of his some of his Religious, the Church very quietly embraced him again as a priest in good standing. And he did not even know it!
In the meantime, after the dogma No Salvation Outside the Church had become universally repudiated within the Church, an Ecumenical Council had been convened. It opened the era of so-called “ecumenism” – reaching out to schismatic, Protestant, and even non-Christian religions, in a spirit of brotherhood and unity of purpose — without any unity of faith. And it would suppress the Divine Liturgy of the Roman Rite, replacing it with one admitted to be perfectly consonant with a Lutheran service. Pope Paul VI safeguarded the Supreme Magisterium by affirming that Vatican II was a “pastoral” council, not a doctrinal one whose proclamations would be binding on the Faith, and he would later lament that “the smoke of Satan has entered the Church” since Vatican II.
Throughout that turbulent era, meanwhile, Father Leonard Feeney continued to celebrate the traditional Latin Liturgy, the so-called Tridentine Mass. He continued to preach lovingly on Our Lady and the Blessed Sacrament. He continued to hold fast to the infallible teachings of the Church. And he especially continued to maintain his defense of the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus without any compromise whatsoever. Even Cardinal Medeiros of Boston once had admitted, “in some of his concerns he was right. He could probably foresee some of the things that have happened in the Church.” In point of fact, Father Feeney had clearly predicted the disastrous state to which the Church has fallen, precisely because the doctrine of salvation had been so completely repudiated.
As each year passed, and as Father Leonard grew older — and his mind and body more weakened by his afflictions – I saw less and less of him. But even when I could only glimpse him at a distance, I still saw within his bent and aged frame a heart still filled with unquenchable love for his “little Mary,” his Blessed Mother. And I know it never stopped repeating that rhythmic phrase which was so much a part of his priestly career: “No Salvation Outside the Catholic Church.”
Winter came on, and Father Leonard, now eighty, had grown too ill to be cared for adequately at his Still River monastery. He was taken to Nashoba County Hospital, in Ayer, a few miles from the Center.
In a small hospital room, on January 30, 1978, the feast of the virgin martyr St. Martina, the voice of the 20th Century that had resounded across the globe with the message of salvation fell silent. Leonard Feeney had quietly passed away. And his soul in that moment, I believe, was embraced in the arms of his beloved “little Mary.” I believe this because Our Lord promised: Blessed are ye when men reproach you, and persecute you, and, speaking falsely, say all manner of evil against you, for my sake: Rejoice and exult, because your reward in heaven is great. (Matt. 5:11-12)
A poem Father wrote many years earlier begins with these lines which seem befitting of the heroic sacrifice he had made with no regrets:
I burned my bridges when I had crossed.
I never brooded on what I lost,
Nor ruined with rapine my holocaust.
Though his voice is now still forevermore, the thunder of his doctrinal message yet reverberates. For fifty years, his faithful spiritual children, the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, have continued to defend and proclaim the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus, by both word and print. Greater numbers of priests and even bishops today are coming to realize, as Father did half a century ago, that it is the denial of this dogma which has brought the Church to its present state of spiritual disorder and “auto-demolition,” as Pope Paul VI described it.
One day, the world will know and embrace the One True Faith. We know this because Our Lord assured us. And when it does, it will thank Father Feeney for showing us that only in and by that Faith can there be true unity of peace.
In the meantime, for bringing me back to the sacraments, for enabling me to discover and to love my Faith in its fullness, I personally thank you, Father Leonard. God rest your blessed soul.