Personal History

May 29: Opening Doors & Celebrating Fifty Years

As I mark fifty years of ordination on May 29th, let me share my story in three acts: Open Doors, Make Preaching Better, and Apostolic Courage.

In August of 2013, only months after his election, Pope Francis met with Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J., for a series of interviews that gave the first insightful glance into the pope’s vision and personality. (“A Big Heart Open to God: An Interview with Pope Francis,” America, September 30, 2013)

In the interview, Francis talked for the first time about how mercy is the central theme of his papacy. At the time, he employed an image of the Church that was new to me, namely the idea of the Church as a field hospital, like a MASH Unit. Maybe this Church that I have observed over the past fifty years is perplexing and quirky, a place like a field hospital in the 1970’s TV sitcom with actor Alan Alda in the role of the brash Army surgeon Hawkeye Pierce.

More to the point, the pope said: “I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to hear his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”

Later he added: “The Church sometimes has locked itself up in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.”

Francis concluded: “Let us also try to be a church that finds news road, that can step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”

What’s most distinctive about Pope Francis? Since his earliest days as a Jesuit priest, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has remained an activist and intent upon furthering the aggiornamento of Pope John 23rd and the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Act One: Open Doors!

My work as a priest in this “field hospital” began long ago, fifty years ago, in a large urban parish, Saint Aedan’s was on Bergen Avenue in Jersey City, New Jersey.

As I arose for the 6:30 AM Mass and walked to the Church sacristy, on most mornings, I could smell the aroma of roasting coffee, not from our kitchen but the Maxwell House coffee factory nearby.

It was a vacuum-packed neighborhood of working-class people whose lives deeply pressed in on one another.

As the “rookie priest” on the staff, I was “on duty” once a month, covering the sprawling and even daunting Jersey City Medical Center. It gave the chaplain, Father Tom, a day off.

At a major trauma center, you see first-hand the daily grind of nurses, staff, and hospitalists confronted with the sick and dying.

My covering the hospital was a chore, and I was not especially good at it; so many patients, the random encounters, those sudden emergencies on the edge of sadness.

One Sunday afternoon in the hot summer, after all the Masses, I had fallen asleep watching a Yankee game. Then, the telephone kept ringing until I finally picked up the receiver.

Could it be the hospital calling?

Instead, the caller was a polite man who asked that I open the Church since he had guests that wished to have a moment of silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.

I explained that for security reasons, we kept the doors locked between Masses.

Not listening to my excuses, he insisted: “Father, open the Church, and if need be, I’ll play security guard!” His no-nonsense tone of voice got my attention. I put on my priest’s collar with a bit of reluctance and went downstairs with the Church’s keys.

Outside on the Church’s steps, I saw them: a man with a group of women, six or so, dressed in the Sisters of Missionary Charity’s distinctive white and blue saris of Mother Teresa’s community.

They had come from their convent in Brooklyn. I asked one of the sisters what brought you to Jersey City?

She told me that most Sundays, the sisters ministered to the sick at the Jersey City Medical Center. It was their custom to pray in thanksgiving for their day’s work and for the intentions of the people they met that day in the hospital.

How ironic the Missionary Sisters did my work on their day off. After all, I was “on duty,” or so I thought?

Fifty years later, I recall their kindness and compassion. One of the sisters told me they would pray for me since I opened the Church’s doors that afternoon.

Open doors, well, that’s what we do. Isn’t it?

Open the doors for others, that each might minister in Christ’s name.

Act Two: Make Preaching Better!

Decades ago, I met Jack Trout at the offices of Trout & Reis, then a small public relations agency located in the tight space of an office tower in Rockefeller Center.

At the time, I was the Communications Director of Newark, N.J. Archdiocese, and long before the scandals that plague the Roman Catholic Church today, there were severe issues back then.

In the late 1970s, the archdiocese was in the midst of a financial meltdown and on the verge of bankruptcy. This situation resulted from years of growth and reckless spending, with little attention paid to modern management and careful bookkeeping.

My task was to attract “good press coverage” to advance the archbishop’s work and the archdiocese. So I thought until I met Jack Trout.

Newly acquired fundraising consultants recommended that outside communication counsel needed to be hired to explain to parishioners how a once financially stable archdiocese fell over the cliff with barrels of their money; and how the people of the archdiocese would have to fork over even more money to address the insolvency. Well, at the time, this is what the consultants thought. Enter Jack Trout, a graduate of Iona College and well attuned to the pitfalls of Catholic organizations such as they are in large and small dioceses, hospitals, colleges, and universities.

He was among our initial consultants and someone who had insight and recommendations worth considering.

Over a luncheon discussion, I reviewed our situation and a case statement concerning the Newark Archdiocese.

Trout replied: “Father, no one is going to get you out of this mess. Who are the people responsible? What makes you think that by giving the archdiocese even more money, you will deal with the root causes? If parishioners have lost your trust, what makes you feel they are going to give even more money to bail out the archdiocese now?”

Bluntly, he added: “I don’t have any magical thinking that might help explain how this situation came about, nor could I find the right words to persuade people to rescue an archdiocese or archbishop.”

“I do have this one idea, however,” he added. “You have something that no commercial product or social cause or political candidate possesses. You have a congregation each Sunday at Mass, make the most of the pulpit, the homily, or sermon. Overall, priests underestimate this powerful forum and how it may help explain the gospel message and forward the pastoral ministry of a parish or diocese.”

Trout told me how he was authoring a program based on his public relations principles and aimed at the priests in the Bridgeport Diocese. The idea would be a careful study of scripture with lay participation that might make the Sunday sermon more effective as an exercise in ministry and leadership.

That day I learned from Jack Trout something central to our role as ministers of the gospel and how we must use the instruments at hand to best effect. Years later, “Sunday to Sunday,” the preaching journey saw its beginning in a conversation about how preaching is the centerpiece for ministry and evangelization.

Over the years, Trout had a celebrated career in strategic communication and offered his services to presidential candidates like Barack Obama and a business tycoon, Donald Trump when attempting to stake out a foothold in Atlantic City Hotels and Casinos.

Trout passed away in June of 2017 at the age of 82. In the New York Times obituary, the writer Richard Sandomir credits the Trout and Reis firm with the concept of “positioning” that to advance products or causes not by creating something new or different, but rather drawing on “what’s already up there in mind, to retie the connections that already exist.”

When I think back to my encounter with Jack Trout, he taught me that my work in communication and media is to harness the power of the gospel itself. He recommended a type of “positioning” of the gospel message rather than wondering how to attract “good press coverage” for an archbishop and a chancery office in a financial crisis or organizational disarray.

Act Three: Apostolic Courage

For almost one year, my office, with its window open to the lawn and courtyard near Sichel Hall, was dark. I had taken a period off, and after a while, I had come back to Saint Mary’s College for January Term.

On the first day of this intensive semester, I was exiting the Men’s Room when a student said:

“Hello, Father Mike, I see you’re back.” I greeted the young man warmly and told him that I was teaching in Jan Term.

He asked if he could speak to me, and of course, I agreed. And told him: “whenever?”

At that point, he told me his name; let me refer to him as Mark.

Mark replied: “How about my talking with you in your office now, and very briefly?”

“Of course, “I said. Then Mark told me: “I want to thank you for all you did for me. I had you for the Comm 2 class, and you gave me some important advice.”

“Really?” I interjected.

“Yes, I was having a problem with substance abuse, drugs, and alcohol. After I had a talk with you about my absences and poor performance in your class, you advised me to see a counselor, and most especially, begin talking with my parents.”

“I did this?” I asked.

And yes, I realized that I had done this small favor two years before. Then, I learned from Mark that he took time off from College, talked honestly with his parents, entered a rehab program, and is now scheduled to graduate this year. I thanked him as he left my bare office, now readied for another occupant.

So much like the man in the gospel who comes back to Christ after being healed so profoundly. Rarely do teachers hear how they have affected the lives of their students? But they do.

The next day, I shared this story with my colleague and friend Ed Tywoniak; and added the one element that says the most about my time at Saint Mary’s College.

See, I had not remembered Mark or his issues until he brought them to my attention. In other words, this is what we do day to day as teachers – yes, these small, almost unnoticed, intimate stories of how we affect others’ lives and make all the difference. Mark’s courage that I admire most and how someone like me can manage a hopeful and healing response to a person in need.

Some 3,500 students of mine are my unofficial count in these many years. I retired from full-time college teaching five years ago. Only to find me back to where I began, namely producing a television series on preaching and drawing on the pope’s idea of taking new roads with a spirit of audacity and courage.

So, placed in particular geography with some uphill climbs, occasional bumps in the road due to rugged terrain, I survived in this community of faith; more so, I thrived as I celebrate these fifty years, thanks to you!

A special thanks for the love and support of my family. Some have passed into the Lord’s hands, my parents, Henrietta & Joe Russo, and my uncle, Ralph D’Ambola. Those cheerleaders of mine so present in my life today, above all my sister Marian, my brother Joe, and their children — my nieces and nephews; and of course, my cousin Sandra. Great love for helping me to the rewards of this day!

Rosary Chapel, Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA.

Here’s a wonderful Town Hall event with Father John Kasper and the parishioners of Saint Perpetua’s, Lafayette, CA, recorded via Zoom on April 28, 2021.

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