When his uncle, Monsignor Tom Wells, was brutally murdered in his rectory in 2000 former sports writer, Kevin Wells, turned to writing to pour out his grief. His first article devoted to his beloved uncle appeared in the Washington Post just before his family celebrated their first Christmas without “Tommy”.
For many years, our family attended the beautiful parish in which Monsignor Wells was buried. As you exit the historic chapel on the hill, you cannot help but notice his gravestone, but it was the impact he made as a priest in our diocese that really made his presence palpable, even to folks like us who never had the blessing of meeting him.
Spurred by the scandals rocking the priesthood and the Church, Kevin recently published his second book, The Priests We Need to Save the Church. I had the privilege of interviewing Kevin about his uncle and his book via Skype for Catholic Sistas. It was a lively and extremely enjoyable exchange which lasted an hour. The following are excerpts from our conversation.
Catholic Sistas: You started your career as a sports writer and I was curious to know how you began writing about your uncle, Monsignor Wells, and the faith in general?
Kevin: As far as writing about the faith when I was a sports writer I was given the nickname of “Monsignor” by my agnostic co-workers. Kind of like Flannery O’Conner who would not necessarily write about the Catholic faith, she would imbue it into her beautiful writing, not that I’m a beautiful sports writer but that I would always try to get a Catholic angle into my stories or find some way to take a moralistic or theological outlook in my writing. The first real Catholic or faith centered article I wrote was published, believe it or not, by the Washington Post in the aftermath of my uncle’s murder. He was a giant around Christmas time. There’d be 70 people in a room and he’d hand out the presents. It was a tradition for many years. He was hilarious and charming and witty and that first Christmas after he died, I remember, it was a tremendous void that he wasn’t going to be handing out the presents under the tree and I decided I needed to write about that void. It got quite a lot of feed back after it was published. So I said to myself if I can do this and touch people’s hearts that aren’t Catholic or don’t have any sort of relationship with Christ then I’m going to keep doing it. So I started writing for the Catholic Standard and the Catholic Review in Baltimore.
CS: How did you come to write this particular book?
Kevin: In my home parish for many years I just sensed, as Father Duesterhaus says, that the treasure of our Catholic faith was just being buried in the ground and our Church seemed to me to be becoming almost protestant. The preaching was muted and contracepted. Nobody was ever at confession. Something’s wrong here and over the years I kept thinking, “If the pastor was a father and was intentional and had the fire in his eyes, I guarantee you this parish would begin to convert and start to understand the faith.” But I kept pushing that thought aside because what is a member of the laity going to tell a priest about how to be a priest? I would talk to the priest and encourage him. But finally, about 2 years ago I decided I’m not going to live with this anymore. I’ve been living with this thought for years and instead of dying, it’s growing stronger. So I told my brothers,”I need to go on a sabbatical. I want to write a book about what I thirst for from our pastor.” That’s how this book came about.
CS: It’s a really tough, touchy subject that you tackled and you talked a little bit about the hesitation you had about “Who am I to say something to priests about how they should live.” How has it been received?
Kevin: Believe it or not, very well. I can only really say from who I hear from.Priests from all over the country really, have contacted me. Some have said they’ve cried reading it. Some have said it has re-engineered their priesthood. One priest said, “I’m really mad at Wells. I’m only doing 2 of the 8 characteristics and now he has me going for 3,4,5,6.” Tom Monahan, the founder of Ave Maria University, bought 50 books and gave them to priests at a function a couple weeks ago. I do think though that even if you handed out free Christmas books to every priest in America I bet 85 percent of the priests would not touch it. I do think there is a reluctancy, if you are a priest, to touch my book for many reasons. I think there is an ideology out there and some priests are so set in their ways that they would prefer not to step into the valley of the exceptionalism of Saint John Vianney and Maximillian Kolbe and anything that could challenge them to be heroic, to become a martyr. It’s like you as a mom or me as a dad if someone wise set us down and told us, you’re doing okay, but here’s what you’re not doing and bam, bam, bam down the line and they’re right. What that demands out of you and me is that we need to cowboy up and rise to the challenge. So, unfortunately, I do not believe this book will be cracked by the majority of Catholic priests.
CS: I imagine disseminating the book in the seminaries would be the place to start. Wouldn’t you say?
Kevin: My publisher, Sophia, has started a campaign. They are really trying to get the book into the hands of every priest and seminarian in America. A lot of benefactors have bought cases of books with the intention of getting them into seminaries. Saint Charles Borromeo in Philadelphia just asked for 100 books to hand out to seminarians. I don’t blame seminary rectors for this but I think there is a hesitancy to bring another new book into the curriculum or even to suggest it for pleasure reading. Janet Smith has read the book and has really been moved by it. She’s trying to get into every seminary in America. Mgsr. John Essef is trying to do the same. There are people out there who are really trying to disseminate it. I would love it to be in every seminary but it’s kind of hard to crack that code.
CS: Your intended audience was obviously priests and seminarians. The book has really impacted me personally and many of the lay-folk I’ve talked to. It’s inspiring us to adopt some of the same characteristics. So many of these characteristics are qualities we should all have. Did you imagine that there would be cross-over to the laity?
Kevin: That was the hope. I sensed that many priests would not be open to reading the book and the hope was that the laity would and they would see through the 8 characteristics, through the blueprint whether these characteristics were or were not being lived out by their pastor as their shepherd. Then they, as a lay Catholic, might take up some of these practices like spending more time in adoration, or taking a cold shower, or skipping a meal because it brings me closer to Christ and brings me closer to the beauty of the faith. If I’m going to do this and I’m not sensing the same in my pastor then I’m going to encourage him. When Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “Who’s going to save the Church? Not our bishops, not our priests. It’s up to you laity to remind bishops how to be bishops and priests to be priests.” That’s kind of a head scratcher, but what I think what he was saying was: Laity, if you love the faith, if you’re praying the rosary, it you’re dying to yourself in certain ways. It’s incumbent upon you. You owe it to God. You owe it to yourself. You owe it to your priest to ask him why he’s straight-jacketing his role, his duty to become Jesus Christ, in persona Christi, as a priest. I was hoping the laity would be encouraged in their own lives to dwell on those 8 characteristics, but once we’re living them out to the best of our ability and then we go to mass and we’re being sucked down rather than lifted up, then we need to have a talk with Father.
CS: In addition to getting this book into the hands of our priests, what else can we do to rescue the priesthood right now?
Kevin: Well, obviously you know the one thing you can do is pray for your priest everyday. It’s also incumbent upon us to reach out and say Father can I mow your lawn? Hey Father, can I lead a pre-Cana class? Hey, Father, can I help out with the CCD? Because we want to help Father. If you’re a good priest you’re going to draw parishioners from other parishes because they aren’t being fed by the priest there and good priests are going to be overworked. They need help from intentional members of the laity. I think it’s just reaching out to them and saying, Father come over for dinner. We’re gonna make you a steak and break open a bottle of wine, but we want to pick your brain about how we can help you. I think it’s being a friend and also practically helping them around the parish with things they need help with.
CS: You address and discourage “bachelor priests” in your book and what really struck me was that we’ve had a couple really wonderful sacrificial priests in our lives who often or always give up their scheduled day off to offer more masses and services to their parishioners which makes me worry that they are doing too much and that they’ll burnout. How do we prevent burnout in our priests? How do we help them recharge?
Kevin: I know three priests personally who work 7 days a week and that is my concern too, but I think it’s built into their DNA. They’re workers. They’re grinders and they’re sort of lost if they are not close to the Eucharist in some way or close to their identification as a shepherd in some way. To a certain extent I think they gain their energy from their ministry. To answer your question regarding the potential for burn-out, the good hard working priests simply have to spend some down time with other hard working priests. They need to feed off of them. Laugh with them. Commiserate with them. Share a meal with them. Go on a weekend hunting trip with them, whatever. Because that priest loves having dinner with Maurisa and her husband and celebrating Mass but I think he’s got to be around good priests because the other priests will say, “Father, you’re working too much. You’ve gotta dial it back.” They can sense in better ways than you and me how they can dial back a colleague in a priesthood. I just think that priests need to be around other priests that work hard and they can sort of put the kibosh on too much work. At the end of the day, only he can decided how he’s going to do his ministry. I think a daily holy hour is key. The priests that work hard, that holy hour charges them in a way that it does not charge up the priests who do not make a daily holy hour. They gain energy, sustenance, and grace from that holy hour that compels them to work harder than the rest.
CS: Our two youngest are boys and both have at one time or another mentioned they might be interested in the priesthood. As a mom and knowing what I know has gone on in many seminaries that makes me very, very nervous. What can we do? How do we encourage their vocations and not worry so much about the garbage that’s going on?
Kevin: I think it’s easy. I think now we need to think very practically. I have a 17 year old son and if he told me that he was discerning a vocation and the process started and let’s say he decided on Mount Saint Mary’s or Theological College or John Paul II. What I’d do on day one is I’d sit down with my wife and the rector and it’s a closed door meeting and my son’s not there and I put it on him. I ask pointed questions. I am the father of my son and I need to get him to heaven and I’m about to release him to you, but before I do I have questions for you and I just go bam, bam, bam—is there any hint of homosexuality in this seminary? If you sense it, what are you going to do? Are you going to reprimand? Are you going to discipline? Or are you going to throw them out? Once it’s clear there, I just give it to God as long as I have the sense this rector is good and faithful and a true shepherd then I release my son. I don’t worry so much about all the stuff going on out there and I think you know, now these rectors are back on their heels. They know they need to get things done correctly. I think the seminaries are better now. They’re aren’t great but they are better because they know if something happens and I get word or you get word we’re gonna go to town and they are going to be in trouble.
CS: What’s next for you?
Kevin: Right now I’ve been asked to give a lot of talks and write articles and travel a little bit with the talks. So I’ve told myself that just until the end of the year I’m going to stay on sabbatical and promote the message of challenge found in this book. I’m going to continue to press and press and press in my talks and writings and whatever the Holy Spirit compels me to do, and obviously it’s not me. It’s through adoration, through rosaries, through the Holy Spirit, and a little bit of zeal on my part because I was around my uncle and I saw what he did. I’m continuing to discern right now during this little hiatus what to do next. For the next three months I’ll write and I’ll speak.
Before our interview, I read The Priests We Need to Save the Church. It is a fantastic and impactful book filled with memorable stories about the heroic priesthood of Monsignor Wells and interviews with men whose priesthoods have been impacted by his example as well as interviews with admirable and holy priests who embrace the sacrificial aspects of priestly fatherhood. What struck me most deeply was how much this book inspired me to embrace more fully some of the sacrificial characteristics Kevin puts forward–more time spent in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, a deeper devotion to our Blessed Mother, a more devout prayer life, and stricter, reparative penances.
Because I believe so deeply in the need for this book and Kevin’s message to priests, we at Catholic Sistas are hosting a giveaway. One sista will win two copies of The Priests We Need to Save the Church–one to read and one to give away to a bishop, priest, seminarian, or friend. To enter just leave a comment in the combox.
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