When a kid named Jack Egan graduated from Chicago’s Quigley Preparatory Seminary in the 1930s, it didn’t look as if he would ever be ordained. Latin and Greek were simply too hard. Only through the kindness of a professor who remembered Jack from his altar boy days at Our Lady of Lourdes parish did Jack go on to the major seminary.
"Egan, you didn’t quite make it," Father George Beemsterboer told the graduating student. "But I’m shading your grades a few points because we need priests who are kind more than we need priests who know Latin."
The seminary rector was less sanguine. "We’re letting you go to Mundelein [the major seminary]," he told Jack, "but we don’t think you’ll make it."
When Monsignor John Egan died just a year ago, his teacher was proved right. Monsignor Egan was kind. More than that, he had spent a lifetime in Chicago enfranchising lay people, women, blacks, Jews, Muslims, the poor, and the homeless. The Chicago Sun Times called him a hero for our times who never lost his passion for doing good, "a tireless advocate for the disadvantaged and champion of civil rights."
Egan enfranchised my husband and me about five minutes after we were married, as I used to tell the story. This unfamiliar priest appeared at our door with a bottle of wine and a request that we edit the monthly newsletter for the Cana Conferences, of which he was the first director. (My husband was a reporter for the Chicago Daily News.)
Egan told us, "I won’t interfere. It will be all yours. You’ll need to report on what the Cana Conference is doing and provide some inspirational stuff." Good as his word, he gave us a free rein, although he never grew to like the word "kids" in headlines.
Products (collectively) of twenty-eight years of parochial schooling, my husband and I found his attitude astounding. Fifty years ago, Catholics prayed and paid. They didn’t make editorial decisions or, for that matter, any decisions in the church.
That’s how Egan operated across the city of Chicago. He innovated and empowered, and used his Roman collar when it could be helpful. But he trusted leadership roles to blacks to fight for their share of urban renewal money, to Cana people "to make changes" at their weekend marriage preparation sessions, to residents who’d bought homes on contract to get fair mortgages, to neighborhoods to organize themselves in the face of racial change.
In the year since Monsignor Egan died, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking of the irony that Chicago might never have had a Monsignor John Egan if his old teacher, Father Beemsterboer, had played the seminary game by the numbers. It’s a lesson, perhaps, for us-thinking about the priest crisis today-to keep our eyes out for new Jack Egans, new heroes of passionate involvement, new believers in the people.