Msgr. Callaghan’s leadership rooted in working-class Pennsylvania, gold-leafed Rome

| Christina Capecchi | July 5, 2018 | 0 Comments

Msgr. Aloysius Callaghan shares a laugh with Archbishop Bernard Hebda during the annual Rector’s Council Dinner April 18 at Town and Country Club in St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Step into Msgr. Aloysius Callaghan’s office, and the first thing you see is an homage to his hometown — line art of Heckscherville, Pennsylvania, originally known as The Irish Valley, “just a little patch in the coal-mining region,” he said.

One framed drawing shows St. Kieran’s Church, named after the Irish patron saint of coal miners, its narrow windows and faded stones set against barren trees. “The parish,” said Msgr. Callaghan, his eyes shining, “that was your life.”

Another drawing lays out a snug row of faith formation: the convent and rectory nestled between the little church and school. “The nuns took the place of your folks when you were with them,” he said. “The community was so tight-knit. Everyone knew you so you couldn’t get away with anything.”

A third drawing captures the town’s skyline, a coal breaker towering above the school, coal miners like his grandfather toiling in overalls and hard hats with lamps.

They tell Msgr. Callaghan’s origin story, a map of his 1950s childhood — hundreds of lines etched into his mind just as surely as the creases on the palm of his hand — the place that first directed a bright-eyed altar boy to the priesthood.

But the story does not end there. The next chapter is also on prominent display. Throughout his office, images of the Rome years recur: reminders of his seminary days, his ordination at St. Peter’s Basilica and his service to the Vatican; tributes to Mother Teresa, a close friendship forged in Italy; his framed canon law degree. Beginning in his early 20s, these were formative years that turned the Pennsylvania boy into a Roman man, fluent in Italian, finger on the pulse of the throbbing universal Church.

Only then does one have a complete understanding of the rector of one of the nation’s top seminaries since 2005. Earlier this month, Msgr. Callaghan, 71, transitioned to a new role as rector emeritus as the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul prepares to announce his successor. He is assisting in seminary advancement and community relations, and supporting the archdiocesan ongoing clergy support initiative, while continuing to model priesthood for the men the seminary forms.

Blue-collar and gold leaf

The blue-collar coal-mining town and gold-leafed Eternal City are the twin strands that animate Msgr. Callaghan, uniquely preparing him for leadership and lending an unusual range: Street smarts and book smarts. Grit and elegance.

Both strands are steeped in Catholicism, and woven together, they form a priestly identity so strong that, nearly half a century after ordination, a childlike zeal for his vocation remains, making him the ideal man to inspire the next generation of priests.

“He is a priest from his head to his foot,” said Archbishop Emeritus Harry Flynn, a close friend, “and that is the greatest compliment that could be attributed to anyone.”

The two strands inform all that Msgr. Callaghan does. One tempers the other; other times, they work in tandem.

His devotion to the Blessed Mother, for instance, was first cultivated in Heckscherville, where he prayed the rosary with the nuns at school, on his grandma’s lap and piled into the family’s 1946 Dodge, each member leading a decade. At the annual May procession, the town’s Marian devotion perfumed the air just as sweetly as the cherry blossoms.

That devotion deepened in Rome — at chapels dedicated to Mary, in the heart of a maturing priest far from home, in conversation with Mother Teresa, who urged Msgr. Callaghan to be “pure and humble like Mary so as to be holy like Jesus.”

It was the coal miners whose example made Msgr. Callaghan industrious, a doctoral student poring over canon law and later a rector whose office light illuminated the courtyard until 9 or 10 at night.

“I learned discipline from him,” said Father Matthew Quail, parochial vicar of St. Stephen in Anoka and a St. Paul Seminary graduate ordained in 2017. “You work until it’s done.”

It compelled Msgr. Callaghan on Monday mornings to join the seminarians at the Binz Refectory on campus for coffee. “He would always be full of life, even when you could see he was tired,” recalled Father Jayson Miller, a fellow 2017 graduate and a priest of the Diocese of Fargo. “He would say, ‘Gentlemen, it’s the best day of the week!’ He had a love of Mondays.”

It’s why he prepares for every appointment, prefers an advance agenda and begrudges pointless meetings. “He wants to be useful,” said Julie Sullivan, University of St. Thomas president. “He has a desire to serve — that’s what fulfills him most.”

He never complained last year when pressure on his sciatic nerve caused hip pain and forced him to use a cane. At a wedding reception, when Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” was played, he got up and danced, using his cane to tremendous effect and delighting the guests.

Genuine example

Of course, Irish mirth was also learned in Heckscherville, where families found levity amid poverty. It was often expressed in song, uniting and uplifting, and it explains why Msgr. Callaghan called on the seminarians to pipe up at Mass. “Men, you need to be singing in the Communion line!” he’d say.

In his hometown, fraternity was the glue among the coal miners and the teachers, who chose to work one school year with no pay. Years later it was reinforced in Rome, from the close-knit seminarians in black to the College of Cardinals, a sea of red.

Cultivating fraternity at the St. Paul Seminary was a priority for Msgr. Callaghan, who encouraged community meals, now a Monday-night tradition among the men. It is also fostered in communal prayer, which has become the heartbeat of the seminary: 6 a.m. Holy Hour, 7 a.m. morning prayer, 11:35 a.m. Mass, 5 p.m. evening prayer and 8:45 p.m. rosary.

Msgr. Callaghan leads by example: He is in eucharistic adoration every morning at 6. “That’s what I needed to see,” Father Quail said. “It all starts there.”

Life can be messy, and the ruptures that played out in Heckscherville helped prepare him to do sensitive, insightful work for the Allentown diocese as secretary to the diocesan tribunal in the early 70s, as adjutant judicial vicar in the late 70s and then as judicial vicar beginning in 1984. It also enabled him to appreciate the sacrifice demanded of the military, equipping him for his tenure as vicar general of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, a position that felt like meaningful service to both God and country.

It was in Pennsylvania, too, that Msgr. Callaghan learned to be direct, “to call a spade a spade.” It set him up to be an effective decision maker, bringing an East Coast clarity to a boardroom of polite Midwesterners.

This was refined in Rome, where he developed the skill set for diplomacy: to listen well, to learn the person behind the issue, to build consensus.

Msgr. Callaghan joins this year’s group of ordinands in the sacristy of the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul May 26 before the priest ordination Mass. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Combined, St. Paul Seminary had a rector who could get things done — as evidenced by his governance of the remodel of the seminary chapel. “It had been discussed over and over and over,” Archbishop Flynn recalled, “and so finally he took care of it, and he did it in a New York second, as they say, and he did it very well.”

Msgr. Callaghan was at once respectful and decisive, Archbishop Flynn said: “a steel hand in a velvet glove” — Heckscherville and Rome.

The latter was a major influence, inspiring Msgr. Callaghan to add color to St. Mary’s white-washed space, to return the tabernacle from the side chapel to the main chapel, to establish a central crucifix and to commission statues made by Italian sculptors to fill the empty alcoves. The goal was to transport the beauty of the universal Church in Rome to St. Paul. “There’s a vibrancy to that,” he said. “It’s something you can bring with you.”

He also signaled the seminarians’ return to wearing clerics, a move that strengthened their sense of identity and their visibility in the community.

All the while, there were two fixed points in his mind: little St. Kiernan’s in the valley, St. Peter’s Basilica on the hill.

“He strikes a balance between practicality and alluring people with the beauty of our Church,” Father Quail said. “Our rituals are exceptional. Yet you can’t be so rigid in all things, so he’s going to show you the beauty of the rituals but also say, ‘Boys, you probably won’t have this in your parish, to this extent, but what can you take back to your church?’”

Gentle, effective leader

The rector has both an attention to detail — using italics in a document, adjusting a crooked wall hanging — and a sense of humanity, of the grand scheme of things. Are these men healthy? Are they getting enough sleep? He alternately challenges the seminarians, spelling out his high expectations, and advocates for them, occasionally calling for a three-day weekend because they get so few breaks.

As a member of St. Thomas president’s cabinet and through his monthly sit-downs to report on the seminary, Msgr. Callaghan’s diplomacy impressed Sullivan. He deftly navigated tasks that were fraught with strong opinions, such as reconfiguring the curriculum and re-examining the calendar.

“He has a lot of wisdom and a way of putting things in perspective to help people not react too emotionally and minimize the personality differences,” she said.

She has witnessed both the steel hand and the velvet glove. “He finds a way to get things done, but he doesn’t create unnecessary waves or conflicts,” she said. “He maneuvers in a way, a gentle, empathetic way, to minimize disruption.”

And he does it all with good cheer, which inspired Sullivan, the university’s first non-priest president. “My visits with him were always fun, even if we had to talk about difficult things,” she said. “He has a bright spirit, a twinkle in his eyes. I just love his joyfulness. You can’t let all the swirl suck you down. You have to rise above it. You have to exude the joyfulness, and focus on the bigger picture.”

The effect has been remarkable: As rector, Msgr. Callaghan boosted the seminary’s stature and scope, elevating it to a position of national renown. When he arrived in 2005, there were 59 seminarians and 70-some students in the lay program. Now there are more than 800 people in a variety of formation programs for lay and ordained any given year.

The surging quality preceded the quantity. Msgr. Callaghan had a vision for the seminary, making an important distinction between the lay and clergy formation, making the case for its acclaimed study abroad program and projecting confidence in prospective donors to help make it all a reality.

He was “master sergeant” of the “I Will Give You Shepherds” capital campaign from 2004 to 2011 that surpassed its $22 million goal by $3 million, said longtime board member Bill Reiling, chairman of Sunrise Community Banks.

“Instead of just being an in-house administrator, he saw his role as reaching out to the region and beyond, to the bishops and the vocations directors,” Reiling said. “He had a broader vision of things, and it set the table for what’s going to come in the future.”

Msgr. Callaghan won over bishops across the country. “A lot of it boils down to trust in the rector,” said Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who was a new seminarian when he first met Msgr. Callaghan in Rome.

“He was a model priest,” Archbishop Hebda recalled. “He was so affirming of seminarians even at that point. He had such a positive attitude about everything in the Church.”

Knack for relationship

That positivity stems from his certainty of God’s love, an unequivocal embrace of Church teaching and a steadfast prayer life that has always helped him discern the next step, always putting others’ needs ahead of his own.

It is a positivity enriched by a lifetime of friendships, the kind of rich, layered social network that the Irish Catholics of Heckscherville seemed so well suited to build.

“Msgr. Callaghan has this charm about him,” said Tom Ryan, vice president for institutional advancement at the seminary. “It’s the Monsignor  ‘pixie dust.’ It works internationally.”

Earlier this year, Ryan recalled, Msgr. Callaghan recognized a waiter at a restaurant in Rome — a waiter who had begun serving there in 1966, Msgr. Callaghan’s first year as a seminarian. The reunion was joyful.

“There are not many people like him anymore,” Ryan said. “He’s old-school Church with many formalities. But at heart, he’s a blue-collar, hardworking guy from the coal mines of Pennsylvania. It’s a great blend.”

And if you bring up the Rectors’ Bowl, that hotly contested annual football game between seminarians of the St. Paul Seminary and the archdiocesan minor seminary, St. John Vianney, he’s likely to pull out his iPhone and show you a picture of himself at the latest showdown, hoisted on the men’s shoulders after scoring an end-of-game touchdown.

That knack for relationships manifests itself wherever Msgr. Callaghan goes — making the rounds through the hallways, bringing a personal touch to each staff member, stopping to visit with seminarians, seizing a bus ride on a seminary pilgrimage to inquire about their vocation stories.

In this highly regarded rector, you can still see the altar boy who was awed by his front-row seat to the consecration, who clamored to hold the Communion plate at St. Kieran’s and who, years later, lay prostrate in St. Peter’s Basilica to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1971.

He chuckles to think how his path kept returning to vocations work: being chosen for a newly formed vocations committee in Allentown, serving as adjunct spiritual director for Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, culminating with his leadership in the Heartland.

“I guess God never wanted me to get out of the seminary,” he said.

Being rector, as he sees it, is a profound joy and solemn responsibility.

“You’re like the father of the family,” he said. “You have to lead, with all of your flaws. The seminarians look to you. If you don’t try to model [priesthood], you’re not going to succeed. I was always aware that I owed it to them and to the Church to not mess it up. That energizes you when you’re with young people. I see the young men come in each year. It reminds you what you felt like the first time, it renews you. You might not be able to run as fast as they do, but you can keep up.”

The gift of his priestly vocation has never diminished. Each opportunity to celebrate Mass, he said, is a marvel and a miracle, “that God would allow you to act in his person and be Christ for others. It’s the summit and source of all we do. If you do it with all your heart, you know that you keep people close to the Lord.”

Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the April edition of “The Oracle,” magazine of the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity.


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