The details of the night of Father’s silencing many of us still are not able to face in our memories. Some day we may be able to recall it all without recoil. The suffering of the long hours we sat together, Father with us, until the cold, grey light of a New England April morning came through the windows, is still too keen to dwell on for long.
Father had been wont to tell us many times in his years at the Center that he never had had any doubt of his vocation. Even when fellow members of his Order had come to tell him of their leaving the Order he never had a question of his own vocation, either to be a priest or a Jesuit. He was completely certain of it. In all of the years since his ordination, he had missed saying his morning Mass only when he was too ill to do so. None of us had ever known a priest to whom his Mass meant so much as it did to Father Leonard Feeney. He sang of the Mass in his poetry, paid reverence to it in his stories, lovingly labored at the mystery of it in his treatises. He said of it, in a poem called “After the Little Elevation”:
O wheat-like, white, little, still-as-death,
Circumferenced Jesus of Nazareth;
My duty, Your beauty to recondite,
To fashion You frangible, frail and light.
You come translucent to hold and handle,
To peer clear through, Dear, and see a candle,
With a tractable trait to elate my heart
Who make You and take You and break You apart:-
Yet sever You never; St. Thomas said,
For wetness to water is not more wed
Than these twin fragments I now expand,
In my left, in my right, in my either hand.
The Saints have gazed at in other guise
This Body, ecstatics with other eyes;
But sinners with semblances rest content:
Its measure and mould as a Sacrament.
So daily at dawn, by the grace of Mary,
With well-worn words in a voice I vary,
I give God God, and at God’s behest,
For whatever may ease her or please her best.
The last thing any priest would ever foresee for himself, Father faced that night as an actuality. And few priests ever had so much to lose; few priests were ever so loved, in the United States, in Ireland, in England. Few men loved their families so tenderly as he loved his, or had the devotion he had to his spiritual children in Jesus Christ.
Never once, however, did Father think of saving himself at the price of the doctrine. With the help of Her, who was the Queen of priests, if this was the price of orthodoxy, Father would pay it, gladly.
I remember reflecting, during that long night, that two of the saints canonized in our time — St. John Eudes by Pius XI in 1926, and St. Grignion de Montfort by Pius XII in 1947 — had incurred the severe censure of bishops. St. Grignion de Montfort was expelled from diocese after diocese in France by Jansenistic bishops. St. Bernadine of Sienna, also, I remembered, was silenced by the Pope, and his followers put under interdict. There finally came a day, however, when St. Bernadine was lifted to the altars of the Church, and pronounced a canonized saint. All the bishops of the East had excommunicated Athanasius. The Pope had signed the excommunication of St. Ignatius of Constantinople, when Ignatius died. The same Pope who had censured St. Alphonsus Ligouri and threatened him with excommunication, lived to present the cause of St. Alphonsus for beatification, nine years after the death of that Doctor of the Church.
I was grateful for the consolation of these thoughts as the boys kept coming in, all through the night, with fresh editions of the newspapers. It seemed as if those enormous black headlines seared. themselves into our brains. They varied little:
“Archbishop Silences Priest”
“Father Feeney Silenced by Abp. Cushing”
“Archbishop Sternly Disciplines Jesuit
in Ruling on B. C. Dispute”
“Catholics Are Barred From St. Benedict’s
Directed by Father Feeney”
“Abp. Cushing Indorses College Action
on Ousted Instructors”
“Prelate Acts Due to Jesuit’s Support
of 3 Fired at B. C.”
“St. Benedict Youth Center Is Under Ban”
Each newspaper gave the entire text of the Archbishops ruling against us, with the decree, which was as follows: (Boston Globe, April 19, 1949)
Text of Decree
on Fr. Feeney
“Rev. Leonard Feeney, S.J., because of grave offense against the laws of the Catholic Church has lost the right to perform any priestly function, including preaching and teaching of religion.
“Any Catholics who frequent St. Benedict’s Center, or who in any way take part in or assist its activities forfeit the right to receive the Sacrament of Penance and Holy Eucharist.
“Given at Boston on the 18th day of April, 1949.
“Richard J. Cushing
“Archbishop of Boston.”
Father Feeney never received a warning that this was going to happen to him, nor did the Archbishop ever communicate it to him in any way other than through the newspapers. It was not officially promulgated until Friday, when it appeared in the official organ of the archdiocese, the newspaper, The Pilot. Canon law prescribes that at least three warnings of such an action be given to the person under censure.
At 6:00 in the morning of our sleepless night, the newspaper reporters came to the Center. They were very sympathetic and kind. One of them, an older reporter, said to Father, seeing how grey and drawn was his face, “None of us likes the personal angle on this this morning, Father. We don’t like it at all. Your hardest time, as we see it, Father, will be the waiting period. You are right, and eventually Rome will back you up. You are saying what the Church has always taught.” Father explained that one of his greatest concerns that moment was for his two priest brothers. The same reporter said, “Give us your statement, Father, and we’ll have it out on the wires in half an hour. It’ll reach everybody you want to reach. This is a personal concern with me.” (We have always been deeply grateful to this reporter. We never saw him again, to thank him for his kind and understanding assurance.)
Father gave his statement to the Press. It read:
“St. Benedict Center
April 19, 1949
“The reason I am being silenced is because I believe there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church and without personal submission to our Holy Father, the Pope, and Archbishop Cushing believes that there is. The reason I am being silenced is because I believe there is no salvation outside the Church or without personal submission to our Holy Father, the Pope, and Bishop John Wright believes that there is.
“The reason I was told to leave the diocese seven months ago is because I believe there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church or without submission to our Holy Father, the Pope, and Archbishop Cushing and Bishop Wright, then in Europe and managing the affair through others to dismiss me, believe that there is. I cabled twice to Bishop Wright in Europe and once to Archbishop Cushing in Europe and asked for a hearing. That hearing I never received. They have not contacted me at St. Benedict Center during these seven painful months when, in the face of all sorts of gossip and misunderstanding, I remained here at the earnest plea of my students until this doctrinal issue was settled. IT WAS AND IS A MATTER OF CONSCIENCE to me in the sanctity of my priesthood, as I openly declared to every superior I could contact.
“I believe my removal in view of the facts is invalid; the taking away of my faculties was invalid; and I believe the present silencing of me is totally invalid. What humiliation my priesthood, and sympathetically the priesthood of my two brothers, will take because of this brutal action, when I sought to protect four brave Catholic boys in a profession of faith similar to my own, Our Blessed Lady alone knows. I also believe the beautiful Catholics of Boston somehow understand.
“I thank God that a copy of From the Housetops was able to reach our Holy Father, every Cardinal in the world, and every Bishop in the United States before Archbishop Cushing and Bishop Wright managed to disgrace me.”
In the many columns of reporting which the papers carried about Father, the one which caught Father’s spirit as a writer most accurately was a story in the Boston Globe, for Tuesday Morning, April 19th. It read:
Widely Read Author, Poet
“Rev. Leonard Feeney, S.J., whose presentation of religious subjects has made him a widely read author and poet, was born in Lynn. He is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas B. Feeney, of 73 Lewis St., Lynn. Mr. Feeney is in the insurance business.
“While still a student at the Jesuit House in Weston in 1928, Fr. Feeney’s works of prose and poetry presaged for him a brilliant future as a writer.
“His book, Fish on Friday, a humorous dissertation why Catholics eat fish on fast days, was acclaimed in the publishing world in 1934. It was gay reading, according to critics.
“Fr. Feeney admits he has fun writing. His books of verse, In Towns and Little Towns and Riddle and Reverie, were done in the same spirit.
“‘That’s the way I like to write — for the joy of it,’ he said.
“Fr. Feeney comes from a family of priests. Two of his brothers are clergymen- Rev. Thomas Butler Feeney, S.J., a professor of English and French at Boston College, and Rev. John Feeney, who is assigned to a Keene, N.H. parish.
“Fr. Feeney taught English in the graduate school at Boston College in the early ’30s, after his return from Oxford…
“Fr. Feeney’s literary works reflected his interests in everyday occurrences of the ordinary people around him. His sense of humor attracted many friends in all walks of life. One of his staunchest friends was the late Gov. Alfred E. Smith of New York, whose Presidential candidacy was considerably enlivened in the nation’s press by a letter written by Fr. Feeney concerning Smith’s famous brown derby.
“The priest was for many years an editor of America, the Jesuit weekly publication, and one of its most prolific contributors.
When Fr. Feeney’s Fish on Friday won public acclaim for its witticisms, he commented:
“‘So many people have the utterly false impression that religious writers or writers on religious subjects must have a long face and a solemn, sorrowful approach. That’s not the Catholic conception of religion at all.’
“This same Father Feeney who, even while he had lured the Catholics of America to laughter with his humor and had shared with them his joy, had also led them to love God and His Mother, was now forced to listen, through the seemingly endless day of April 19th, to radio announcers proclaiming the withdrawal of his priestly functions, and the banning of his Center.”
At least”, Father said in the late afternoon, “the doctrine gets out each time. Maybe that is what Our Lady wants. And though it is made to look as if I am the only priest in the world who holds it, it is the truth, and the Holy Ghost can fructify it. Many souls will remember it before they die, and many may be saved. We can thank God for that.”
At some time during the day, Father’s superior, Father Louis Gallagher, S.J., telephoned to say that this whole thing must be lifted right away. All Father had to do was to go to Holy Cross College at once, and all the censure would be removed. Father was amazed. Going to Holy Cross now would be even more of an admission to the world that the doctrine for which he had fought so hard was wrong. And he would be abandoning now, more than ever, his people who in conscience held the same doctrine.
Center friends dropped in throughout the day. Toward the end of the afternoon, Father requested all who were not registered in the Center School to abide by the ruling of the Archbishop, and not come to the Center any more. He assured them that we would hold them in our hearts and our prayers always. The Center as such was to be closed. Only the School would remain open.