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A bishop who relies too much on Jesus

NCR Staff

It’s a late night in an empty church, a pitifully poor inner-city parish with a lonely priest. The sort of priest who’s scrubbed floors and washed windows to turn an old parish convent into the first Catholic homeless shelter for women in Washington -- where prostitutes sometimes find a night’s safety, too. He keeps the Blessed Sacrament exposed in a tiny room in the dingy rectory.

As priests go, he’s regularly accused of relying too much on Jesus Christ to get through the day -- broke, but signing an $832 funeral bill for a person too poor to pay, signing chits for overnights in homeless shelters, finding the bill for bread for the homeless feeding program under his coffee cup -- and locating money for it somewhere.

This night, the “late show” Mass was over at St. Mary’s in Chinatown. Fr. William Curlin locked the front doors, watched the people drive away from the abandoned site used as a parking lot.

“I felt very lonely,” he said. “Suddenly I heard a noise and went back in. A little boy running down the aisle with his hands out to be picked up. ‘I’ve locked this child in the church,’ I thought. Then I heard laughter, the mother and father over at the side, at a little shrine praying. So I reached out, picked up the boy and swung him around. The parents came down, and we laughed and joked. When they left they waved goodbye. ‘See you next Sunday, Father. God bless you,’ they said.

“I locked the doors to the church, and as I got to the altar -- it’s an old Gothic church -- as I genuflected, it hit me what happened. I had been unhappy and lonely. I said, ‘Jesus, thanks for the kid.’ ”

They still tell the tale in Washington about Curlin, the inner-city pastor, working with a young priest with loads of troubles. Curlin and the priest struggled with the young man’s problems for months. Things turned around.

On the last night, Curlin said, “Why didn’t you come to me sooner?”

The young priest said, “Father, I wanted to. But I talked to my pastor and the pastor said, ‘Oh, no, don’t go to Curlin. All he talks about is Jesus Christ.’ ”

Fast forward two decades.

Curlin these days is a gem among bishops and men -- he still does windows.

As bishop of Charlotte, N.C., he and his priest secretary, Fr. Anthony Marcaccio, also do the cooking, laundry and floors. And chase after two puppies.

A regular retreat-giver to priests and bishops, Curlin -- ordained in 1957 -- is regularly told he is naive in his dependence on Jesus.

He tells priests, “When you put your hand out to pick up a crying child or feed a hungry man, your hand is the hand of Christ. I believe that.

“Sometimes it’s the body of Christ. Sometimes it’s a sandwich. Sometimes it’s absolution. Sometimes it’s a hug. Sometimes it’s giving them money at the door and sometimes it’s taking money to help somebody else.

“I keep saying to the priests, ‘Maybe God is saying something to us.’ There might not be that many priests, but maybe God is saying, ‘You’re a priest at the altar but more, a priest in the world.’

“Ministry to me is -- and I honest to God believe this, with all my weaknesses and my past sins -- that God is willing to get up in me and through me, my voice, my eyes, my hand, touch someone with his love. I think that’s my ministry.

“I remember a priest on a retreat once -- the Dakotas or somewhere. He stood right up and said, ‘That sounds great. But I wouldn’t want to say that.’ I said, ‘You wouldn’t?’ He said, ‘No, that’s like saying don’t let me live tomorrow unless I live totally for you. And I don’t know whether I’m ready to do that.’

I said, “ ‘Then why are you a priest? What’s your security? Is it your bank account or the fact that you’ve got a beautiful church and filling up the place on Sunday? Is that your security?’

“See, I never had a full church. Never saw a full church unless [there was] a funeral or something. So I couldn’t measure my ministry by money coming in. I saw poverty day and night. I’m up at night wrapping sandwiches to give at the door the next day because I lived alone most of the time. I’d say to myself, ‘Why am I happy?’

“My happiness was my belief that God was at that door with me handing out the sandwiches and God was the one [along side] some poor person dying. Or paying for a funeral I didn’t have money for.”

Curlin’s “problem” is that he brushed up against a couple of Christ-dependent saints himself: raspy-voiced Jesuit Fr. Horace McKenna and quietly canny Sr. Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu.

Washingtonians above a certain age know that McKenna stormed the nation’s capital on behalf of poor people, built So Others Might Eat -- SOME -- into a dining room for the homeless and is memorialized in McKenna’s Wagon, a circulating food truck staffed by Gonzaga High School students.

It was McKenna who left the bread bill under Curlin’s cup. He also challenged Curlin, suggested that he wouldn’t know what it was to be homeless until he tried it.

So Curlin wrote himself a chit -- as John Jones, guaranteed room and board to be paid for by Fr. Curlin -- and was admitted to the men’s shelter.

“In the morning they got us up. We had oatmeal. Bread and coffee they gave us and, I think, a half an orange. I said ‘It’s sleeting outside, where will I go?’ The guy said, ‘I don’t know, buddy. You got to get out of here and come back tonight at 7. Get out. Try Union Station or one of the museums. Or go to that church on the corner. They let anybody in.’ ”

Curlin replied, “They’d better. I’m the pastor.”

“Horace said, ‘Now you know what it is. You feel totally unloved. Give them bread and also love.’

“Then, with the sandwich, I would stop, as Horace told me to do, and I’d say, ‘Where are you going tonight? Are you passing through Washington? Do you have any family? What can I do to help you?’ You suddenly gave them more than a sandwich or a bowl of soup. Horace changed my life.”

Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu was something else.

In the early 1970s, retired Washington Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle told Curlin, “There’s a nun coming I want you to meet.” Curlin agreed. “She showed up one Sunday,” Curlin said. “I had a Mass, and she stayed for the evening Mass. We spent all afternoon talking and became friends. I didn’t know who Mother Teresa was. Few did.”

Later, with Curlin scrubbing floors, Mother Teresa and her sisters opened a house for the poor and, a decade after that, for people living with AIDS. “I was appointed chaplain. And cook,” said Curlin. He sat through many a long night at the facility after the meals were done.

He and Mother Teresa remained pen-pals. He was in Calcutta for her funeral.

Curlin, a Washington auxiliary bishop by 1988, knows about illness, the fear of death.

As a 9-year-old he lost his sight and was in a coma for three weeks. When he came around he couldn’t walk for many months. As a priest, he’s had seven operations for cancer. In 1994, he was just home from the hospital after an operation when the telephone rang.

He’d been named bishop of Charlotte.

“I said, ‘I just got home from cancer surgery.’ ‘That’s all right,’ they said. ‘The doctor said you’re good for another 25 or 30 years. You’re going.’ ”

Bible-belt Charlotte, 4 percent Catholic.

“I came. As the new bishop, they took me into a room -- all the reporters were there -- and introduced me. The first reporter said, ‘What about pedophilia?’ I said, ‘It’s horrible, indescribable.’ I said, ‘My God, they tell me there’s Boy Scout leaders, doctors and lawyers, news media, even clergy. What is this world coming to?’

“The reporter said, ‘You play dirty pool.’ I said, ‘I’m being realistic.’ ”

His diocese is 46 counties, 20,000 and some square miles. Seven hours driving from east to west and three hours from north to south.

“As bishop I see myself as a pastor. I have a bigger parish. So I take sick calls. I tell people if you see my light on at night, come in if you’ve got a problem.”

The Sisters of Mercy operate an AIDS outreach; Curlin held a healing Mass. “Thirty-three of my priests showed up, which just made me so happy.” It’s an ecumenical event. Bishops attending kneel to be healed, too.

Every parish has a priest; Curlin has just ordained four priests. He turned away 33 men as seminary candidates, entered five. “Only take a man who is matured, well-balanced,” Curlin said.

His chancellor/vicar general -- known to all as “Father Mo” -- is an African-American, Fr. Mauricio West.

Curlin helps out at parishes on weekends; Mauricio takes emergency assignments.

Curlin tells his stories, preaches Jesus and teaches priests the prayer Mother Teresa taught him.

“Good night, dear Lord. If you wake me up in the morning, I will wake you up in my life.” In the morning, I say, “Good morning, Jesus. Come, now walk the earth with me today” -- and try not to stop him.

Curlin’s dad was a reporter who died young. His stepfather, not a Catholic, was an Army colonel and a fine man, said the bishop fondly. And he’s off on another tale: the time he had the governor of Maryland ankle deep in mud over lovely shoes and a smart suit on the dirt road where Curlin had first seen a half dozen little black children with buckets trudging along to a well. Two of them barefoot, on ice.

The community got its water piped in.

And finally, that $832 dollar funeral bill Curlin promised to pay for the man whose family had no money.

One evening it’s getting dark, the government workers had headed home. Streets deserted. The doorbell rang. A man with white hair wearing a dark blue suit under a heavy coat hands Curlin an envelope, “For your poor,” he says, and walks away. He turns and smiles.

“That night when I emptied my pockets,” said Curlin, “out came the envelope -- $832 in cash. Nobody but me could have known that.”

And maybe his stepfather who, after his death, Curlin learned had been giving half his military pension away every month to assist poor people.

“Maybe he was stuffing my mail box.”

God knows.

National Catholic Reporter, November 20, 1998