Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
September 17, 2001
'Fr. Mike' won't stay retired
Former chancellor's priesthood has taken many directions
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON — He was being groomed to be a dentist but he chose the priesthood instead. Father Mike McCaffery was a rebel priest in the1970s, calling publicly for openness in the Church, for optional celibacy for diocesan priests and for the ordination of married men and women.
His views haven't changed and he accuses Rome of being too controlling and still prays for more openness and decentralization.
McCaffery reached local fame in the 1988 when he officiated at the wedding of Wayne and Janet Gretzky at St. Joseph's Basilica. As chancellor of the Edmonton Archdiocese through most of the 1990s he handled sexual abuse cases and began the reorganization of parishes.
He retired in 2000 but now, as he marks 40 years of priesthood, he's come out of retirement with a six-month assignment as administrator of the parish at Beaumont.
"He is a very, very fine priest because he would take his shirt off for anybody and is totally dedicated to serving God's people," said Sister Annata Brockman, a friend of McCaffery since his days as rector of the basilica. "He would always give it all he had and he is always cheerful, never critical."
McCaffery is also known for his ability to bring calm to the eye of the storm, Brockman said. "Wherever he goes he brings peace. He has this calming influence."
Born into a family of six in Brooks, McCaffery moved to Edmonton with his family in 1946 and attended St. John's School, St. Brendan's School and St. Joseph's High. He entered St. Joseph's Seminary in 1954 and was ordained in 1961.
"It's still a mystery why I became a priest," he laughs, although he offered some explanations. Both of his parents came from strong religious backgrounds. His mother, a convert with a Presbyterian background, and his father, a devout Catholic who attended Mass daily at the basilica, encouraged their children to pray daily.
Everybody expected McCaffery to become a dentist like his dad. And they expected McCaffery's younger brother Jim to become a priest. Jim is now a medical doctor.
McCaffery's journey to the priesthood began in the summer of 1954. Father Bill Irwin had just been ordained and was trying to recruit one of McCaffery's closest friends.
"I wasn't too sure what I wanted to do at that time of my life so I decided to give the seminary a try," he recalled.
Soon, McCaffery started to doubt his commitment and took a year off.
He spent the year working in the social action department of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in Ottawa, which helped him to see the Church from a different angle. "There I got a different perspective of the Church and of the mission of the Church, especially in the area of justice and politics," he recalls.
He returned to the seminary and was the last priest ordained in the basement of the basilica.
McCaffery has enjoyed his life as a priest but admits to a few regrets. "I suppose the biggest regrets are that you never had a family, you never had the experience of being a father or a husband," he said. "I've always been a strong proponent of optional celibacy, even in the days when it wasn't popular."
He attributes his line of thought to his ethnic background. "I'm an Irish romantic. You know, an Irish romantic is falling in and out of love all the time."
McCaffery began his priestly career at St. Andrew's Parish, under Msgr. Foran. "He was a great teacher. He gave me the advice that I've tried to follow most of my priesthood: 'Preach for seven minutes with no notes. So I've been known for my brevity, not necessarily the content.'"
Being a priest during the Second Vatican Council was enriching for McCaffery and his peers. "Those were exciting times," he recalled. "There was a whole bunch of us from Western Canada that formed the Western Conference of Priests." The conference, a union-like organization, was designed mainly to give a voice within the Church to priests.
Today things are different. "Rome seems to be clamping down on everything" and "priests are afraid of speaking their minds," he said.
Throughout his career, McCaffery has tried his hand at many things, which, he admits, "has led many people to feel that I've never been able to hold down a job."
Between 1969 and 1972 he completed a master's degree in sociology in New York and worked for a year in that field, first for a large advertising company doing market research and then for the Canadian consulate.
He came back to Canada and spent a year in Vancouver working for the British Columbia Alcohol and Drug Commission doing education and research. He did similar work in Edmonton between 1974 and 1975 before he went to Notre Dame University in Indiana to study pastoral theology and counselling.
He returned to Edmonton in 1976 to become president of Newman Theological College, where he also taught pastoral theology. After six years at the college he returned to parish work as pastor at St. John Bosco Parish.
"I loved it out there," he recalled.
He became rector of St. Joseph's Basilica in 1987 and spent the next six years there. "Those were very challenging years," he said. "Someone said that the average priest experiences more in a week of human behaviour than a lot of people do in their lifetime. I certainly experienced that in the cathedral.
"You get all types of people, needy people, hurting people, wounded people, lonely people, disabled people. You have a real opportunity to reach out to people."
What he remembers most, of course, is being one of the officiators at the Gretzky wedding.
"It was an exciting event. I got a lot of nasty letters about that. But for every nasty letter I got a hundred compliments," he said. Some people were upset that he had officiated at the wedding of somebody important.
"But I've never distinguished between important or not important people," he said.
From the basilica he came to the chancery office. "I went from the frying pan into the fire," he laughed. The job of chancellor was "good" but it was also "very painful" because McCaffery probably spent a third of his time dealing with sexual abuse cases.
"We tried to confront this situation the best that we could but looking back I would do certain things differently. You probably make decisions that you regret later on. But you have to make decisions. It's not the kind of job I wish on too many people."
Being a chancellor is a mixed bag, McCaffery said. While he enjoyed helping people and pastors, he "disliked having to say things you don't want to say and doing things you don't want to. You don't like to call a priest and say somebody is complaining about you."
McCaffery has fully recovered from a heart attack he suffered in 1998 and says he has never enjoyed better health. He runs daily, does all kinds of exercise, golfs and follows a healthy diet.
But what probably helps him the most is his sense of humour. "You have to be able to laugh at yourself," he says. "I laugh at myself at least four times a day."
McCaffery spent the past year on sabbatical, doing a lot of reading and reflecting. He has also helped out in parishes that needed a priest for Sunday Mass. "Contrary to public opinion, I did not play golf all the time, although my game has improved a lot."
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.