Saturday, July 23, 2011

A friendship in e-mail: How Msgr. Francis Meehan kept me sane, Catholic and writing

When I first started at the Catholic Standard & Times newspaper I spent a lot of time wondering whether God was playing a joke on me or on the paper. I had been away from the faith a long time, and not more than four years after my first step of return -- here I was, working at the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s official newspaper. (In case you haven’t guessed it already, I was hired for my newspaper skills not my evangelical zeal or my profound grasp of theology.)

But in one of those twists that are never coincidence but providence, while I was still finding my footing, I struck up an unlikely friendship with one of the newspaper’s columnists -- Msgr. Francis Meehan, who died July 22. A moral theologian and beloved Seminary faculty member, I knew him only as a columnist I edited with a light touch because his pieces were always impeccable.

It might have remained a cordial but impersonal association if he hadn’t written a column about torture. It was at the beginning of the national debate about interrogation techniques but well before waterboarding became a familiar term. Msgr. Meehan’s column for the CS&T swept right past the parsing of words and straight into the moral heart of the issue. Now, having grown up in Guatemala during that nation’s undeclared civil war, torture has long been one of my bailiwicks.

I was so moved and impressed by the piece that I wrote him an e-mail telling him so. I never expected get more than a gracious acknowledgement. What I got, instead, was the first of many humble, encouraging and engaging emails I came to look forward to receiving for the next seven years.

Almost every post I wrote for my blog brought me a Msgr. Meehan e-mail.

After my 2009 memorial day post titled Band of Fathers: “Thanks, Sabrina -- it was a perfect reading for today. I had the thought myself -- that even though I basically am a peacenik -- though not as pure as Dorothy Day -- still I must recognize how the tremendous hardship and sacrifice of soldier -- even now of those around the world -- even in unjust wars -- still individually participate in the sufferings of Christ for the world and invite us all into that spirit of generosity -- even in those times when generosity seems to be forced upon us through sickness and any suffering.”

After another 2009 post, this one about immigration (another bailiwick of mine): “I enjoyed every bit of it -- the process and the substance. Two instances […] a daily communicant and friend approaches me: presumes that I would be on his side -- so anti-immigrant. I finally, in a hurry, have to just put my hand on his shoulder, and tell him we were on very different pages. I think he was truly surprised. It was a lesson for me. [...] I always kid Msgr Joe Shields […] He sends out note, sometime about 2006: ‘would love to be invited to parishes to speak about the Latino people.’ I, being an old friend and in empathy, say -- ‘Come, Joe!’ Joe speaks -- I thought, moderately and persuasively. Then, because people felt good toward me said nothing. I only find out for the next two years what rumblings and grumblings were in the air. Oh, my -- we have such work to do.”

First in 2009 and later in 2010 he floored me with some of his emails about my blog posts: “I preached along the lines of your Pentecost reflection. I should have read your words first” was one; “I so much was helped by this reflection on your own asking” another.

What? I remember thinking, completely abashed. How could someone so spiritually profound get anything from my heartfelt but basic reflections? And the truth is there was nothing extraordinary in my blog posts -- the extraordinary resided in the genuinely humble and unbelievably generous priest who was reading them.

I’ve buried the lede by waiting until now to tell you I never met Msgr. Meehan in person. It was a friendship built entirely on epistolary exchanges -- and virtual ones at that since it all took place via e-mail. We talked about meeting in real life -- the last time agreeing to get together for coffee and conversation about how to collect his columns and see them published in book form.

When I heard he had died, I went back through our emails.

“I really hope and pray that one day I get to meet you in person,” I wrote to him in November of 2009.

“I know we will meet someday!” he answered.

But I was always busy and he was struggling with illness and a slow, long decline in mobility that sent him first to a walker, and later further curtailed motion.

Such sadness to know I will now never get to meet this great priest, this valued friend. And yet, as ever during these years of our improbable friendship, Msgr. Meehan is still guiding and teaching me.

I run across an e-mail he sent me in 2009, days after his brother had died after a long illness” “We, as a family, are at peace. We had a long vigil. The vigil and his dying turn out to be -- as I sense it -- a blessing from the Lord,” and in reading it anew, I come to understand that the words are true of Monsignor’s death as well.

And then there is this response when, not knowing just how impaired his mobility was, I enjoined him to go with a bunch of us to Washington D.C. to march and advocate for justice for immigrants: “I wish I could walk with you. I promise a prayer as a spiritual step or two.”

The thing is, through his e-mails, he did walk with me. He took more than a spiritual step or two with me on my path. Others knew him longer and better, but I knew the priest who took seriously the edict to make welcome the stranger and through his kindness and generosity of spirit turned this stranger into a friend.

Once, after I wrote a piece about life in Guatemala, he wrote to me asking, “Does anyone reading the S & T have an idea of such a background?” So, I’m compelled to draw from my background in closing this reflection on the death of a friend. In Guatemala, it is customary at gatherings to toast those loved ones who have died by calling out their name followed by the word “presente” -- which means present. Still here. Remembered always.

Msgr. Francis Meehan ¡presente!


  1. I did get to meet him -- once. And his emails to me were a source of grace I cannot begin to measure.

  2. That's beautiful, Sabrina. Even I had heard of him. What a wonderful friendship. So many exchanges to look back on and remember, and so many reasons to be joyous, and grateful. Grateful as it appears, from your quotes, that he was for you.

  3. And people say technology hinders relationships...Enjoyed reading this piece very much.

  4. I'm sure he loomed much larger in my life than I did in his, Elizabeth. But it was part of his warm nature that he made everyone feel special. =)


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