Mary Ann Cejka ’81 M.Div. on Fr. Bill McCarthy, on being a Catholic woman at YDS

Editor’s Note:  Mary Ann Cejka ’81 M.Div., a writer and psychologist living in New York’s Hudson Valley, writes poignantly about Fr. Bill McCarthy, a Maryknoll priest and former research scholar at YDS, and about being a Catholic woman student at YDS in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  An earlier version of this article appeared in the June-July 2010 issue of The Catholic Worker.

WILLIAM D. MCCARTHY, M.M.  1930-2009
Mary Ann Cejka

“Mary Ann! Want a ride in a Third World car?” The pale, smiling face peering out the window of the fearsome old clunker that had roared up to the curb seemed incongruous. Approaching hesitantly, I recognized its driver as Father Bill McCarthy - the Maryknoll priest who had been offering Mass on weekday evenings in the downstairs chapel at Yale Divinity School. To open the door on the passenger side, he had to push from within as I pulled from without. The door opened suddenly and I fought for balance before climbing onto the lumpy passenger seat. We joked and laughed above the clamor of the engine, and before the ride through New Haven was over, I sensed that I was in the presence of someone whose goodness was remarkably uncomplicated.

McCarthyBill, as it turned out, was a respected priest-scholar who taught church history at the Maryknoll School of Theology; when I met him in 1978, he was at Yale on sabbatical.  I was part of a large group of Catholic students in attendance, lured to YDS by a Catholic faculty presence that included Henri Nouwen, Margaret Farley, Aidan Kavanaugh, and Luke Timothy Johnson. For me – as a sheltered young woman who had worked her way through college by making salads at Disneyland – New Haven in the late 1970s was an exciting place to be. Gritty, crime-ridden neighborhoods abutted genteel, tree-lined streets. On any given day, one might brush shoulders with actors and activists, Nobel Laureates, sanitation workers on strike, high society undergrads, and long-suffering Italian shopkeepers. There were nights when my classmates and I drank beer for fifty cents a mug in smoke-filled working class bars; there were afternoons when we sipped cream sherry out of cordial glasses while faculty clad in smoking jackets regaled us with gossipy tales of church and academia. Some of my friends went to jail for doing civil disobedience at the nuclear submarine base in Groton; others joined “Nader’s Raiders” in an earnest quest for corporate accountability. Catholic women students like me were dipping our toes into the women’s ordination controversy; we were alternately scolded by our “post Christian” feminist colleagues for being insufficiently radical, and urged on by many of our fellow students, young women and men who were preparing for ordination in Protestant churches. But during those years when the theatre of my young life was populated with luminaries, prima donnas, pedants, and self-proclaimed prophets, Bill McCarthy stood apart.

Ironically, what set him apart was that he was not trying to be noticed. All around him were people doing that feverishly. When aloofness and clamor for attention are typical, what stands out is humility, and Bill’s was extraordinary. Despite his erudition and accomplishments – and despite the scary car he was driving around New Haven - Bill’s presence was quiet, friendly, and unassuming.

I was part of a large group of Catholic students in attendance, lured to YDS by a Catholic faculty presence that included Henri Nouwen, Margaret Farley, Aidan Kavanaugh, and Luke Timothy Johnson.

Though Bill was at YDS as a research fellow, not as a professor, he had a profound influence upon Catholic and Protestant students alike. Many of us first heard the term “liberation theology” not in our formal classes – where it might have been disparaged as “theology with a small t” – but from Bill McCarthy. Coming from a soft-spoken white-haired man whose blue eyes were framed by horn-rimmed glasses, the concept of liberation theology was more surprising, and likely more powerful, than it would have been had we heard it from a younger, angrier or more flamboyant source.

The ease and magnitude of Bill’s generosity came as a surprise as well. Once, when he was behind me in line to make a purchase at a bookstore, he stepped forward and, before I realized what was happening, had paid for my book. I was doing an internship with Catholic Family Services that year and had been charged with organizing a retreat for young adult Catholics, so I asked Bill to serve on the retreat team. Immediately he said yes, without so much as consulting his calendar or reminding me of his busy schedule. When Bill was invited to dinner at the Willow Street house, where I lived with Catholic Worker-destined Michael Vincent and other divinity students, the self-effacing missionary priest arrived with a jolly and extravagant offering: two large jugs of wine.

After his sabbatical year at Yale, Bill was assigned to serve in Peru. As a farewell gift, I remember presenting him with a tin of home-baked raisin cookies that he pronounced “dandy.” Much of Latin America was in turmoil at the time, and I assumed, without wanting to give it a lot of thought, that I would never see Bill again. He flew off to Bolivia to attend the Maryknoll Language Institute in Cochabamba, and learned, in his early fifties, to speak a fluent and grammatically very correct Spanish – though he never lost his hilariously gringo-ish accent.

The next years in Bill’s life were his happiest. He lived in a dusty squatter’s village called Andahuaylas on the outskirts of Lima, most of whose inhabitants worked as walking vendors in the market place. Andahuaylas had no electricity or running water. The latter was a precious commodity; it was brought into the area on a truck, at unpredictable hours. To get water for drinking, cooking, and bathing, Bill and his neighbors would run out to the truck with empty jugs and fill them up, hoping the supply would last them until the truck came again. In this environment, Bill worked as part of a pastoral team helping to develop small Christian communities.

In PeruAfter two years at Andahuaylas, Bill was elected regional superior for Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers in Peru. He served in this position during the harrowing years of Shining Path’s violent campaigns which were met by the Peruvian military’s brutal tactics of repression. After six years in leadership, Bill accepted an invitation to teach church history at Guadalupe Seminary in Peru’s altiplano region – a ministry that he carried out joyfully until Maryknoll’s General Council asked him to head the newly opened Center for Mission Research & Study at Maryknoll (CMRSM), New York.

That was in 1995.  When I joined the staff of CMRSM and learned that Bill McCarthy would be at the helm, I thought I was dreaming – until I saw him. When he met me at the airport in White Plains, he looked just the same as he had seventeen years earlier. Still the white hair. Still the no-nonsense glasses.  He was driving a quieter car, but it was déjà vu on the drive to Maryknoll, in Ossining; his laughter came easily, and the solid, transparent goodness that I remembered him for was more than ever evident.  Soon we were working together at CMRSM, and all of us on the staff were to experience his thoughtfulness and generosity many times over.

After moving to Ossining, it did not take me long to discover that New York City was an easy train ride away, and that it held for me an irresistible attraction. Since I frequently went into the city alone, and lived alone, Bill worried about my safety, so we worked out an arrangement whereby I would call him to let him know that I had returned from the city safely. “Call no matter how late it is,” he had insisted, explaining that he would not be able to sleep until he knew that I was home.

Catholic women students like me were dipping our toes into the women’s ordination controversy; we were alternately scolded by our “post Christian” feminist colleagues for being insufficiently radical...

This arrangement worked fine until December of 2001, when Cathy Breen invited me down to Maryhouse to help her make gingerbread houses for the children of Catholic Worker families and friends. I had told Bill that I would leave on Friday night and be back on Sunday afternoon – but either he didn’t hear the part about my Sunday return, or I hadn’t been sufficiently clear about my plans.

On Sunday morning, as I was happily eating Jane Sammon’s incomparable pancakes, the phone rang at Maryhouse. Cathy called me to the phone. An exhausted but relieved Bill explained that he became concerned when I hadn’t returned the afternoon before. There was no trace of reproach in his voice, and I had to coax the rest of the story out of him: When I didn’t call him by Saturday night, he began to try to call me at home. When I didn’t answer, he drove to the place where I’d been house-sitting to see if my car was perchance in the driveway. Not finding it, Bill drove down to the Ossining train station, where he found my car, but no sign of me. Beginning to fear the worst, Bill stayed up all night wondering what to do, and whether it was too soon to file a Missing Person Report. He caught the first train into Manhattan on Sunday morning, and headed right to Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers’ house on 39th Street. From there, he began his detective work by calling Maryhouse, where he found me – safe, well-rested, and enjoying a good breakfast.

CejkaEven today, I feel guilty about this incident, though it says less about me than about the way Bill cared for the people in his life. Maryknoll Lay Missioners who served in Peru while Bill was there have stories about Bill’s selflessness that have passed into Maryknoll legend. But the all-nighter that Bill put in for my sake, and his lack of anger when he found me, demonstrate another remarkable trait of Bill’s: He was extremely reluctant to pass judgment on another human being. On those few occasions when I did hear him speak a critical word about somebody else, all the snow melted for miles around, and it was safe to assume that his criticism had some justification.

I confess that sometimes, I reacted to Bill’s refusal to say anything negative about anyone by lashing out in exasperation. “Why can’t you call a spade a spade?” I fumed. Later, I would apologize, but even before the words were out of my mouth, I would receive his ready forgiveness. These exchanges reminded me of something Dorothy Day wrote about Peter Maurin, who, with her, founded the Catholic Worker movement 77 years ago. In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she recounts that some people thought Peter was “holier than thou,” to which she responded, “Yes, he was ‘holier than thou,’ holier than anyone we ever knew.”

I wish that Bill were around today to tell me which of the medieval Christian mystics wrote: “Do you want to be a saint?  Be kind. Be kind. Be kind.” This quotation played often in my head when I was in Bill’s presence. He was conscientious to a fault, and he believed that the poor have primary claim upon our consciences. He subscribed with all his heart to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. He hungered and thirsted for justice, both in the world and within the Church, but he chose to fight his good fight with gentleness and mercy. The first and last word I must use to describe Bill is “kind,” and if we go by the kindness criterion for sainthood, then at 1:27 on the afternoon of April 30, 2009, Bill’s spirit soared from the mournful company of those of us gathered around his hospital bed, straight into the company of heaven’s greatest saints.

Many of us first heard the term “liberation theology” not in our formal classes – where it might have been disparaged as “theology with a small t” – but from Bill McCarthy.

His death was sudden; he had sustained massive brain injuries from a fall, and never regained consciousness. Yet, not for a moment had he left us behind. The joy of the saints does not consist in their separation, born of their triumph, from their loved ones still on earth, but in the knowledge that we and they are together in heart of God, where, with Christ, they continue to pour themselves out in love for us. Bill, like Peter Maurin as Dorothy Day described him, was not “holier than thou” in the sense that the phrase is typically employed. But I can tell you that he was holier than me, holier than all the ranks of the pious and the scholarly and the heroic and the righteous people I have encountered in my 54 years of life.  He was, indeed, holier than anyone I ever knew.