Pittsburgh's Joe Healy: A Man Of Hope Gunned Down
Youthful hope and a shared commitment make strong bonds of friendship, and then they make grief especially pointed. But the grief requires a recovery of the hope and a new commitment. Let me explain.
When I was ordained to the Catholic priesthood 31 years ago, I was brought into the company of men who wanted to do the impossible. The Second Vatican Council had launched a breathtaking reform of the church. The civil rights movement, spurred by Selma 35 years ago today, had redefined the ministry. The war in Vietnam had set young against old, and many of us in university chaplaincies found ourselves on squares for which we felt in no way prepared. Contradictions defined the life. How to be gentle and strong? Prayerful and socially engaged? Respectful of tradition and attuned to the revolution? As a young Catholic priest in a time of upheaval, I was sorely lacking in role models, and then I met Joe Healy.
He was a chaplain at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. More than a decade older than I, he was at ease as a priest, and it showed in the remarkable community he had gathered. During several visits to Pittsburgh in the early 1970s, I attended the Masses he celebrated in the crowded chapel on the hilltop campus and was struck by the rare esprit that brought together many different kinds of people. There were students but also a cross-section of city residents who had little in common beyong an inability to resist the simply goodness of Father Joe Healy.
At 6 foot 3, he was a lanky priest whose face fell into a ready smile. To pray with him was to be consoled but also to feel the tug of responsibility. Out of those gatherings grew one of the milestone peace-and-justice organizations of the era - Pittsburgh's Thomas Merton Center, which remains a national model and still honors the memory of its namesake, a Trappist monk who combined contemplation and a social conscience. One of the Merton Center's founders, a protege of Joe Healy's, was Larry Kessler, who later moved to Boston, carrying on the Healy tradition as founder and longtime director of the AIDS Action Committee.
''Joe Healy was a contemporary saint,'' Larry said to me over the weekend. ''He was the inspiration, the motivation for many of us.... It was an angry time, but Joe taught us another way to think. He showed us how to channel that anger and make it into something constructive.''
How odd, then, that Joe Healy, of all people, should fall before someone else's unchanneled anger. Last Wednesday, while sitting over coffee in a Burger King, Joe was shot in the head by the berserk gunman who stormed into the restaurant out of an insane collapsing world, the stresses of which were known to him alone. The gunman shot five people, three mortally. Joe Healy died at Mercy Hospital less than two hours later.
I heard of the rampage, like most Americans, on the evening news, along with the story of the 6-year-old child who had shot dead 6-year-old Kayla Rolland in Michigan on Tuesday. I felt the jolt of a visceral rage at guns and at all who make guns ubiquitous in this country. I detest especially gun-protecting politicians, the accomplices to every one of these slaughters. Such anger was all too familiar. But the next day, with a call from Larry, I learned that Joe was one of those who had died. An intensely personal shock and sadness replaced the anger. Like me, Joe had left the priesthood long ago, and we had lost touch, but I had never forgotten him or what he'd meant to so many.
As I thought of Joe I realized that a far more appropriate response to his death than rage would be a redoubled effort of practical organization aimed both at reducing the threat from guns and rebuilding the systems of support for the mentally ill. A political season is in full swing, that rare time when politicians turn to us. What if they were confronted at every stop with a citizens' manifesto? What if every question put to us by pollsters and journalists provoked the same demands: Uncontrolled guns have no place in America. The tattered social safety net is a scandal. Can this be a new civil rights movement - the right to not be shot? Can it be a new peace movement - peace in Burger Kings and classrooms? Can we bring about a world in which no child can get a gun or die from one? A world in which, when a mentally ill man snaps, there are protections in place for others and for him?
In answer to such impossible questions I hear Joe Healy saying quietly that, yes, such a world can be created. It will require savvy organizing and long-haul commitment, which is why the effort must begin today. And must be renewed tomorrow.
Joe Healy inspired such responses in his lifetime, enabling thousands to ''make something constructive'' out of the anguish of life. It is doubly sad that he did not have the chance to offer such help to the man who killed him. No one who knew Joe doubts that, gently and bravely, he would have tried.
God bless Joe Healy and Kayla Rolland and all victims of gun violence. May they rest in peace.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company