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Voices in the Church

A devout attorney in search of the sacred. A gay activist battling for equality. An immigrant seeking refuge. A nun pursuing peace at any cost. A gathering of the faithful.

(page 1 of 3)

Rev. Tom Mulcrone
Chaplain, Chicago Fire Department

For about 25 years, Father Tom Mulcrone has been chasing fires as a chaplain to the city’s firefighters and paramedics. “What they’re doing is God’s work,” he says. “They always say, ‘I was just doing my job,’ so I remind them that what they do is sacred.”

Mulcrone is one of the three clergymen (there is a Protestant minister and a rabbi) attached to the fire department, tending Chicago’s bravest in the firehouse, at the hospital, in their homes, and on the scene of all sorts of calls. The son of a Chicago police officer, Mulcrone, 53, says that as a kid he had a fascination with the fire department. “I grew up two blocks from the firehouse,” he says. “I knew early on that I wanted to be a priest, but I always enjoyed being around firemen-they’re a different breed.”

He provides all the services a parish priest would-wakes, weddings, baptisms, and funerals-but he also regularly responds to major disasters, donning his CFD coat and helmet and reporting his arrival over the radio. “When you’re at a parish you get close to a lot of families,” he says. “But me? I’ve got 100 firehouses I can go to anytime I want and there’s always coffee on and always someone awake to greet you. And that’s an incredible feeling.”

-A. H.

Rev. Donald Senior
President /professor of New Testament studies, Catholic Theological Union

As a teacher, Don Senior keeps an open mind. As a priest, he encourages tolerance. Which explains why Senior is so saddened by the tone of much of the discourse going on within the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.

To start with, Senior-a Passionist priest since 1967 and president of the Theological Union for the past 18 years-understands that even serious Catholics have questions about their faith. “There are, in the Catholic tradition, perennial truths,” he says. “Each generation has to try to understand those core truths in the light of its own experience and culture. Each generation is looking for its own way.”

Senior, 65, acknowledges that any discussions about the nature of truth must be conducted within the framework of Catholic doctrine-he is running the country’s largest Catholic graduate school of theology and ministry, after all. But it grieves him that the national debate over the future of the church has turned so bitterly antagonistic, particularly at the fringes. “Reactionaries on the right side are very rigid,” he says. “On the far left, there are people who see no boundaries and are too accommodating to our own culture. We can’t afford those extremes. We must be able to mingle, to meet not in confrontation or disdain. We need a more civil discourse.”

Senior, one of the nation’s leading experts in New Testament studies, also wants to extend the conversation to people of other faiths, and his school familiarizes students with Judaism and Islam. “We are a theology school and certain truths are taught and emphasized, but the membrane [between faiths] should be very permeable,” he says. “The future of humanity is at stake.”

-G. J.

Sister Rosemary Connelly
Executive director, Misericordia

“People think I should be retired, but there’s so much to do.”

Sister Rosemary Connelly vividly remembers when she first reported to work at Chicago’s Misericordia Home, a private residence for children under six with mental and physical disabilities. “I didn’t exactly know what my mission here was,” she says now, “but I understood that God had given me a challenge. I wanted to get these kids out of bed.” That was in 1969, and Connelly, of the Sisters of Mercy, had just been appointed Misericordia’s new executive director.  

Connelly’s programming ideas were considered radical at the time. “Society’s attitude toward the disabled was ‘Poor things, keep them comfortable,’” she recalls. “Behind my back, I’d hear the staff say, ‘Does she think these children will become lawyers and doctors?’ But I wouldn’t give up.”

A Chicago native, Connelly, now 74, was sensitized to the problems of the disabled by the experience of her nephew, Brian, now 45, who suffered brain damage shortly after birth. She saw her sister and brother-in-law’s frustration with trying to meet Brian’s needs-plus those of their six other children. An accidental pioneer, Connelly entered the convent at 18, became a social sciences teacher, and later earned two advanced degrees. When the Sisters of Mercy tapped her to run Misericordia, she was a psychiatric social worker. “I had no experience working with the disabled,” she says. “I just had common sense and compassion.”

Today, as Misericordia marks its 85th anniversary, its large campus on the city’s Far North Side hums with activity. The facility serves more than 550 developmentally challenged individuals, and recreation abounds, from bowling to basketball to singing and dancing-all activities that require getting out of bed.

-A. H.

Joseph Scheidler
Pro-Life Action League

“Morality isn’t relative.”

When Joseph Scheidler read the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973, an activist was born. At the time, Scheidler, a former seminarian, was an account executive for a Chicago public relations firm. “But I knew then that people were going to have to fight this fight full-time,” says Scheidler, 77.

Through the past three decades, and a number of organizations, Scheidler has been taking on what he calls “the culture of death.” In 1980, he started the Pro-Life Action League with himself as president. Today, with more than 10,000 members, the league is one of the largest pro-life advocacy groups. Scheidler’s involvement with the Operation Rescue/Summer of Mercy campaigns at abortion clinics (prayer vigils, sit-ins, sidewalk counseling) earned him a racketeering conviction in 1989 (which was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003).

Today he is fighting “the euthanasia of the elderly and the sick” and battling over the semantics of his cause. “Stem cell research,” he says, “should be called ‘people cell research.’” And he is also keeping his eye on the Catholic hierarchy. “There’s not enough leadership against abortion from the leadership of the church,” he says. “It’s getting better, but this is a black-and-white fight.”

-M. F. C.       

Dan Cheely
Supernumerary, Opus Dei

On a typical workday, Dan Cheely attends one of the early morning masses at Queen of All Saints Church near his home in the Sauganash neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest Side. He then commutes downtown by train to his civil litigation law firm, Cheely, O’Flaherty, and Ayres, spending most of the trip in silent prayer. While walking to and from court, he will pray the rosary, and often stop in to St. Peter’s Church near his office to take Communion. He’ll pray again on his commute home and, before bed, spend some time reading the Bible and books on spirituality.

This schedule is Cheely’s way of observing the Norms of Piety, the daily spiritual regimen practiced by members of Opus Dei. The organization-which has its own bishop in Rome-tries to help lay people find holiness in their everyday activities. Like 80 percent of Opus Dei’s 86,000 members worldwide, Cheely is a “supernumerary"-that is, a working person who may be married and have a family. Other levels of membership, for men and women, require practicing celibacy and living in a group home.

A 55-year-old father of nine children, Cheely earned degrees from Princeton and Harvard Law School but still has the self-described “rough-hewn” demeanor that reflects his upbringing in an Italian American family in Melrose Park. A pamphlet about Opus Dei in a church pew caught his eye when he was in high school; at age 21, he met with a member for the first time. “I liked the idea that you could go the whole hog with Christianity without being a priest or nun, just because you love God,” he says. He joined in 1972.

The best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code portrays Opus Dei as an organization of villainous Vatican henchmen-a depiction members denounce as false, though some critics have accused the organization of cult-like practices, including limiting communication between members and their families. Opus Dei in the Chicago area, 570 members strong, runs preparatory schools in Niles and Des Plaines; Lexington College, a downtown hospitality management school for women; and, on the South Side, the Midtown Educational Foundation, which runs programs for inner-city children.

For Cheely, Opus Dei’s spiritual program-"If you look at it under normal circumstances, it’s a real pain in the you-know-what,” he says-is a small price to pay for the deep sense of spirituality it provides. “What I get out of it is incalculable,” he says. “The sense of closeness to God is like seeing a light. You never feel alone.”

-K. M.

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