He wasn’t my pastor (only technically)

But that never seemed to matter. Bishop John M. D’Arcy, then the head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend seemed to take every conversation with me as some kind of pastoral encounter, even if it was a professional interview.

The good bishop died yesterday at 80. I am sorry that I hadn’t made it to see him since he retired a couple years ago, if for no other reason than we could talk about the Great Schism and how it seemed to be getting smaller.

I wouldn’t be Orthodox if it wasn’t for that Catholic priest. True story.

In 2002, the Boston Globe was tearing up the Boston Archdiocese and their criminal handling of the rape of children by priests in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Cardinal Bernard Law looked worse with each story and each allegation. John Goeghan went to prison for raping dozens of boys in his parishes and other priests and bishops were shown to be woefully inadequate to the daunting task of “doing the decent thing.”

Except one: Auxiliary Bishop John D’Arcy. Throughout all the documents–thousands of pages of evidence of crimes and concealment, only one name came up as having done anything at all about it: D’Arcy. The son of Irish immigrants, whose sister was a Sister, the new bishop wrote letter after letter to Cardinal Law saying, in effect: “Look dude. You’re handling this wrong. These people need to be turned over to authorities, not moved to different parishes. I don’t think this will end well for anybody.”

The Cardinal’s response? “Get thee to South Bend” and banished D’Arcy to my local diocese.

When I met him I was trying not to be Protestant anymore. I encountered Orthodoxy a few years prior, but wasn’t really doing anything about it. Priests kind of made me nervous, and bishops, well…

When D’Arcy’s name came up in the Globe’s investigations, my bosses sent me for interviews. D’Arcy refused to talk to the national press because he said he owed them no statement. This was his flock–the Irish and Poles in South Bend and the Germans in Fort Wayne. He would talk only to the local press. So for months, I talked to him about sexual abuse, about what makes a good priest, about how grieved he was about what occurred. He never cast aspersions on his former boss, never blamed him for exiling him here, hundreds of miles from his aging parents and the rest of his family. No, he said, it was God’s will.

As I talked with him, my personal discomfort around men in vestments went away. I heard him use the same language of faith I heard from my grandfather, the Baptist minister. My professional curiosity gave way to a personal affection and I took spiritual encouragement from this little Irish priest.

In 2004, I joined the Orthodox Church. (I never was a papist)

When Pope John Paul II died, my bosses sent me off with the bishop again, this time to watch D’Arcy minister and comfort his flock. Inside the rectory at St. Andrews Cathedral in South Bend, after an early morning Mass, D’Arcy and I shared a doughnut and coffee. He asked me how I was doing, if I found answers to my questions. Had I found a home?

I told him about my recent conversion. He grinned, those blue eyes dancing. Oh, this is glorious! But why not Catholic, he asked. I told him, no offense, but I’m not a fan of the whole pope thing. He laughed.

“Why didn’t you ever talk to me more about this,” he said. “I’m a pastor.”

“You’re not my pastor,” I said.

He grinned again. I hadn’t persuaded him.  A few days later, D’Arcy hosted an interChristian memorial service for the Pope at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne. He invited the Orthodox clergy in town and grabbed me afterward, like we were some kind of co-conspirators. Look, he said, Orthodox!

D’Arcy was, in a strange way, my pastor at that time. I know that God used my professional encounters with him to prepare my heart for Orthodoxy. He once gave me a book by an Orthodox priest, in spite of my loud protests about my ethics policy. His secretary told me it was no use, he liked to be inspirational. So I wrote out a check for the amount of the book and donated it to the church. Even-steven. D'Arcy

I don’t know that I ever met a better Christian. I say that seriously. He refused to share the stage with the President over abortion. He protested the Vagina Monologues. He was everything my atheist editor found wrong with conservative faith, but yet the two frequently met for drinks and debates. D’Arcy loved his people, he loved his parishioners, he loved his cities–the poor and rich alike. He kissed babies, hugged adults and laughed well. (the Irish always have great laughs)

His death this weekend makes me truly sad, but I rejoice for him because I know he is where he spent all his time anyway: in the presence of God. I know that I am a better Christian for having known him, a better journalist for having covered him and a better person for having hung out with him over doughnuts and coffee.

Eternal be his memory!