Anything but routine
Fr. Joseph N. Moody was one of the great priests of the Archdiocese of New York in the last six or seven decades. Tall, athletic, and handsome, he was first encountered by most of us as a professor of modern history at Cathedral College, the minor seminary of the Archdiocese of New York. We knew him to be the nearly polar opposite, physically and ideologically, of another great character on the faculty there, Florence D. Cohalan. Fr. Moody was a passionate teacher who could come close to tears in describing a particularly dramatic moment in history. He took a great deal of interest in his students and actually sought their views on historical personages. He was also the only teacher whose language in the classroom occasionally betrayed his experience in the navy.
We were eventually to learn that Fr. Moody was an acknowledged expert on nineteenth-century French history, was a participant in the National Council of Christians and Jews, a vigorous defender of the rights of labor, and a champion of efforts on behalf of Negroes (as the word was then). He edited a 914-page volume, Church and Society. Catholic Social and Political Thought and Movements, 1789-1950 (New York: Arts,. Inc. 1953), many of whose chapters, including especially his on France, are still worth reading. He served as pastor in two parishes in the suburbs of New York City. He also taught at the College of New Rochelle and at The Catholic University of America. (Upon his death in 1993, a lovely appreciation of him was published by in the American Historical Association.)
During World War II, Fr. Moody served as a navy chaplain, and would receive citations for his service on the USS Massachusetts and the USS Yorktown.. While at sea, he arranged for $50.00 to be sent to Commonweal every month so that its editors could send books from current reading lists. He sent a letter of thanks to the Editors which included this encomium:
The Commonweal is more valuable to me than ever before, for it keeps me informed, better than any other vehicle, in those areas that are of deepest significance. Each week, after reading my copy, I place it in the officers’ wardroom, and I have found that it is the only bridge we possess to reach the secularized American mind. Recently when our officers drew up a list of magazines they wished to obtain, they included The Commonweal, a striking testimony of its power to reach a segment of our reading public that would otherwise be untouched by things Catholic.
In March 1944, Commonweal published an article by Fr. Moody, “Routine: Days in the Life of a Navy Chaplain,” which recounts with his typical combination of down-to-earth realism and hearty optimism the challenges, griefs, and joys of his work with the men at sea. The whole piece is worth reading, but I draw attention to two of his final paragraphs, which can usefully go into any account or appreciation of pre-conciliar Catholicism:
A census showed that the great proportion of Catholics aboard were more active in the practice of religion than they had been at home. The explanation is obvious: the intimacy with which the priest lives with them and his opportunity to influence their personal lives; the activity of lay apostles; the increased occasion for reflection that came in lives freed from all distraction. In practically all cases where a radical change for the better occurred, it was necessary to buttress it with a full course of instructions, for lack of religious training is the prime defect in our adult Catholic. Rarely was fear an important element, as modern naval war-fare is too impersonal to inspire terror, and men’s mental habits are too firmly grooved to be deeply affected thereby. The conviction was always present that although the spiritual results were gratifying, they could have been achieved by intensive missionary activity on Main Street, almost as well as aboard a man-o’-war.
The chaplain’s greatest help in bringing his men to God is the liturgy. The use of Father Stedman’s missal is universal among them, and the regularity of their attendance is increased by their growing appreciation of the beauty of the Sacrifice. They frequently aver that they had no concept of its meaning until they had learned to follow it intelligently. The numbers at daily Mass tripled once the “Missa Recitata” [jak: the "Dialogue Mass"] was introduced, and the response on Sunday was almost as noteworthy. There is little doubt that they were being prepared for a real interest in liturgical participation, which gives one hope that some abiding spiritual result may have been obtained from their experience aboard ship. At least in their religious life, the influence of routine was diminished. Coupled with the aid furnished by the Confraternity Home Study Courses and pamphlets, it was felt that a firm basis was afforded for their further religious development.