Thursday, July 20, 2006

Another Legend Gone

So your narrator may not be a clericalist, but I've gotta admit that I have a real place in my heart for the priests of the old school: the humble, hardworking lot whose silent labors and mammoth legacies defined an age in the life of the church, a group which imbued priesthood with dignity and whose precious example is being slowly lost as, one by one, its members pass to their eternal reward.

Whenever one of these is lost, it's a loss for us all. And the latest of these greats to take his leave is Msgr Andrew McGowan of the clergy of Scranton, who died yesterday at 80. The Times-Leader and Times-Tribune each have lengthy tributes, and a handful of Joe McGowan's proteges have been sending me words of their own. It's becoming clear to me that it's with good reason that McGowan "was a giant" in his part of the world.

One priest tells me that "It was the hope of a great many of our Priests that Msgr. would someday become our Bishop." McGowan served on a series of national boards and committees, so many that at one point the late cleric "was chairman of the Boards of eleven different institutions nationwide," in addition to serving as the onetime chair at Mount Saint Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg and head of the National Organization of Vocation Directors.

In the '70s and early '80s, McGowan was Rector of St Pius X, the Scranton seminary. One of his alums tells me that "He always told us, 'Men, I know I am responsible for forming pastors for the year 2000.' And no one did it better." Msgr McGowan's brother, Bill, was the founder of MCI, the telephone giant. At his funeral, Bill McGowan's prayer card read ""The meek shall inherit the earth... But they will never increase profit shares."

McGowan told friends that his happiness and fulfillment as a priest didn't come until he was able to put his youthful ambitions behind him and stopped thinking about becoming a bishop. "He was known as the Toast Master General of the [Scranton] Diocese," one of its clergy writes, "and traveled the country attending religious and business affairs as the toaster master and powerhouse. I will remember him as the the Man who should have been Bishop. I will remember his laughter and sense of the humor of life. But most of all, I will remember him as the man who saved my Priesthood."

Some tidbits from the papers:

His work with charities and community groups made him the recipient of numerous awards for and earned him honorary degrees from the University of Scranton, Wilkes University, King’s College and College Misericordia. Despite his many honors, McGowan would typically downplay his role and praise the group giving him accolades.

“He was one of the most brilliant men I have ever known, and his intelligence was tempered with an unparalleled wit and deep love of people,” said U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski in one of many public eulogies issued in the hours after McGowan’s death....

In addition to his deep involvement in the community, McGowan was widely known for his famous sense of humor. Mooney recalled one event he covered at the Ramada Inn in the 1980s as a reporter where McGowan was on the program. “He sent the room into gales of laughter with a tale of a bunch of hippie-types shaking their heads at the sight of him and his fellow priests in clerical garb and commenting ‘all the nuts are out tonight.’”

* * *

[As toastmaster, h]is presence on a dais would become legendary....

He once spoke at 19 formal dinners in 21 days and averaged about 15 to 20 speaking engagements a month, both here and throughout the country.

"I'm convinced in Scranton we have 200 people who don't have a kitchen," he told the Times in 1986. "They represent the banks and various civic and social groups. It seems like they're at all the dinners. If they stayed home, my job would be easy."...

The barbs flew his way in September 1978, when Monsignor McGowan subjected himself to a public roasting to kick off the United Way's $1.8 million campaign drive that year. More than 700 people showed up at St. Mary's Center to poke and prod the monsignor, who was working his 18th United Way drive.

During the roast, the Rev. William Byron, S.J., then president of the University of Scranton, said Monsignor McGowan, in community service circles, was known for doing the work of two men - "It's just a question of whether it's Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello."

After dozens of good-natured potshots, Monsignor McGowan addressed the crowd.

"Nonsense and laughter are very important to a community. Lord, preserve us from being too solemn, or severe or pretentious. Humor is the sign of the best of our humanity. You don't find any laughter in prejudice, no joy in intolerance. Where there is a rigid and closed mind, there is no smile. Humor kind of blushes us with a touch of humility that we need."

Four years later, in March 1982, the B'Nai B'Rith honored the monsignor with its 13th annual Americanism award. He was the first cleric of any denomination to receive the award.

"Monsignor, I understand the committee signaled your selection with a puff of white smoke," Gov. Dick Thornburgh said at the dinner....

Part of his legacy includes the Andrew J. McGowan Institute for Community Health Initiatives, which has raised millions of dollars for residents in need of medical care. An arm of the Mercy Healthcare Foundation, the institute formed when Monsignor McGowan marked his five decades as a Roman Catholic priest.

In lieu of gifts, visitors and well-wishers donated more than $400,000 in his honor to kick-start the health-care initiative. The tremendous outpouring coalesced at his giant 50th Jubilee bash at the Woodlands Inn & Resort in Plains Township in June 1999.

The final tally was $100,000 higher than the anticipated goal.
As a testament to his commitment to the community and health care, McGowan was an organ donor. So, not only in a figurative way, he'll be living on in others.

Now more than ever, it's that spirit of life-giving which makes priesthood great.