The recent profile by Michael Voris and Church Militant of Fr. Leonard Feeney (at first SJ and latterly MICM) — and certain other developments have resurrected interest in the much maligned native of Lynn, Massachusetts. The tragic tale of how America’s best-selling Catholic author was turned into a pariah over a doctrinal principle has been told and retold in various ways — often according to the slant or prejudice of the teller. He was even assailed as the “hate priest” in one national magazine — an epithet he was forced to share with Fr. Charles Coughlin. To that tale I have not much to add at this present moment, save to say that he was condemned as a heretic by many — although not the Holy See — for teaching what was held universally from the time of the Church Fathers up until at least the 17th century: that Baptism and membership in the Church are necessary for Salvation — or so says Pope Benedict XVI in his historical analysis of the issue. If to believe that the Church is indeed necessary for Salvation puts one outside the Church, then Fr. Feeney was outside the Church. But since folk who believe such are generally persuaded that all that is required for Heaven is sincerity, then Fr. Feeney must be a Saint in their eyes: no one who knows what he suffered for his beliefs — including the afore-mentioned loss of celebrity status — could possibly doubt his sincerity.
In any case, our orthodoxy-shy era inevitably presumes that those who would stand up for dogmatic truth must be hateful, flinty, grand inquisitor types. Now, while I never met Fr. Feeney myself, for three decades I knew and worked with Br. Leonard Mary, MICM (J. Fred Farrell, Jr.), who came to St. Benedict Centre in Cambridge in 1942, and after returning from the army four years later stayed with Father and the Centre — acting as his chauffeur for at least 20 years, and driving with him all over New England. In addition, I have made something of a study of his books — not just his religious ones, but such works as London is a Place and his volumes of poetry and essays.
From his written work — as well as first-hand accounts — leaps his sense of humour and love of puns and wordplay. These, to be fair, are rarely the hallmarks of the bitter and the annoying. Fr. Feeney saw the absurd in the human condition, and that is almost a sure-fire defence against being embittered, even if you are put through what the superiors he had been trained to believe were the voice of God put him through.
Indeed, he loved the very different peoples he found himself among during the course of his career: the Irish-Americans he grew up with; The Welsh around St. Beuno’s, the dons at Oxford, and the sophisticates who came to Farm Street to hear such luminaries as Frs. C.C. Martindale, Martin d’Arcy, and himself; the Jewish cabbies and literary types (like that quintessential New Yorker Arthur Guiterman) whom he met while stationed in Manhattan as literary editor of America magazine; both Boston Brahmins and Old Yankees (to include such as the “Swamp Yankees”); and the Polish, Italian, French-Canadian, and other such ethnics settled around New England whom he could encounter in his daily jaunts. It was the catholicity of interest that allowed him to deal with the multiplicity of ethnic and personality types who clustered around St. Benedict Centre in the beginning — and to preach in front of the police statues on Boston Common.
After the Centre withdrew to the country, his dealing with public became restricted primarily to those whom he would meet on his almost daily excursions around New England. These were primarily directed to shrines and religious houses throughout the region: The Mission Church and St. Clement’s shrine in Boston; St. Anne’s Shrine in Fiskdale; the Divine Mercy shrine in Stockbridge; St. Stanislaus in Chicopee; and many, many more. Fr. Feeney also enjoyed visiting historic spots such as the Wayside Inn and the Old Mill — as well as reading the Old Farmer’s Almanac (with its calendar of Saints’ Days) and Yankee. Unfortunately, stomach surgery had made it difficult for him to enjoy anything more complex culinarily that a toasted cheese sandwich and apple pie ala mode at a local Howard Johnson’s.
But his love of the regions and peoples he found himself among was not simply the antiquarian’s love of the picturesque and bygone. It was a love of people — and so, most particularly of their souls which if they were outside the Church he believed were certainly in great danger, and quite possibly so inside. So it was that on all the travel itineraries Br. Leonard Mary drove him on in the latter years of his life, there were always present — in, with, and under the shrines and museums — there would be stops at various stores, shops, and restaurants to chat with various people for a few minutes about the Faith. Often Father would initiate the conversation by asking “are you Catholic;” regardless of the answer, the chat would frequently end with their saying the Hail Mary with him. Return trips often brought conversions — and thanks to his engaging personality, there were often return trips.
I am reminded of Father Feeney’s conversion of Dr. Paul Dudley White as told to me by Brother Leonard Mary. Dr. White had helped Padre Pio in the establishing of the hospital, La Casa Sollieva dela Sofferenza, in San Giovanni Rotundo. There for the hospital’s grand opening, Dr. White met the saint. This blessed meeting was no doubt the grace that brought the renowned heart specialist into the Catholic Church. The doctor lived near Saint Benedict Center in Harvard, Massachusetts, and in retirement was always happy to be “bothered” by Father Leonard Feeney every day. Brother Leonard Mary would park in front of the White’s house and toot the horn. The retired doctor would humbly come out to the car and pretend he was taking Father Feeney’s pulse. What were they really doing? Saying the Hail Mary.
In Fr. Feeney, love of God was bound up with love of neighbour, and both were expressed by zeal for souls. It was this zeal — and the love which drove it — that led to his dry martyrdom. But much as that by turns hurt and angered him, it forced him to share the Cross bourne by the Great High Priest Himself. In the end he embraced his cross willingly, as any who wish to follow Christ must and should. But to those whom Fr. Feeney brought to the Faith, almost all were left with a deep sense of injustice. As Frank Sheed said in his autobiography, Fr. Feeney was silenced, but never answered. That the motive behind work was love of people and the Truth cannot be doubted by any who saw him working to bring someone to the Faith; it is hard to believe that his persecutors were motivated by the same emotion.