MassLive.com, which I praised in this space a couple months back for Ann-Gerard Flynn's thoughtful piece on locals' veneration of a touring relic of St. Anthony, has shown once again that it gets religion, this time with a sensitive and nuanced look at the vocational journey of an African-American Catholic priest.
Reading "African-American priest from Springfield finds his place in Catholicism, on campuses," I was surprised to discover that reporter Dan Warner does not normally cover the religion beat; his articles run the gamut of local topics. Judging by this engaging soft lede, he has a talent for storytelling:
WESTFIELD -- The Italian woman knelt in a front pew, twisting her neck to look at the man in the back of the Catholic church. She leaned to her husband.
"Guarda--look," she whispered in Italian. "Nero" (black).
He must be Baptist, she said. She went back to praying, nervously glancing over her shoulder.
The man in the back row finished praying and stood.
"Buon giorno," he said on his way out of the church.
He walked out the front door, along the side of the church and around back into the sacristy, put on his vestments and walked out to the altar to begin saying mass.
The man is the Rev. Warren Savage. And the moral of this true story, Savage said, is that we don't know people. Too often, people make assumptions based on appearance, and then miss a chance to learn and make a connection with someone else.
They never know what conversation they could have had. They never know that the African-American man in the back pew attended the Pontifical North American College in Rome and speaks Italian.
I like the delicacy with which Warner approaches Savage's experience as a member of a clerical culture in which he has relatively few African-American peers. Another reporter might taken advantage of the race angle to focus on occasions when Savage faced bigotry and prejudice. Warner doesn't shy away from discussion of the outsider aspects of Savage's experience, but he also avoids reducing the priest to a stereotype. Savage comes off as neither a plaster saint, nor a cassocked crusader. He is rather a very human priest, conscious of his own failings as he pursues holiness and serves his flock.
Particularly nice is this observation debunking a popular prejudice that has nothing to do with race:
People sometimes assume that priests must have flunked out of other career paths or were incompetent in other areas, Savage said. Not so. He has a bachelor's degree in psychology and education from Assumption College in Worcester. He's articulate, a powerful storyteller. He's charismatic and funny.
Warner then draws upon statistics to give insight into the sociocultural and religious challenges that Savage faced as he discerned the priesthood:
His decision to become a priest didn't come easy. The Catholic church is only 3 percent African-American today. As of 2012, there were only 250 African-American priests in the U.S. That's out of 40,000 priests, according to the National Catholic Register. This was the mid-1970s, and Savage didn't know how he was going to fit into Catholic culture.
And aside from that, Savage faced a more personal decision. Joining the priesthood meant he would never have a wife and kids. It can be a solitary life. For an extrovert, it can be lonely.
Those challenges don't disappear when you become a priest, Savage said. He carries his challenges to this day, nearly 40 years after being ordained. You don't lose your humanity when you become a priest. You don't stop questioning your decisions or suddenly shed your flaws and insecurities.
"I still need people to love me," Savage said.
That last line is quite powerful. It takes a gifted interviewer to put his subjects so much at ease.
One question I have in reading the story is whether it adequately captures the depth and intensity of Savage's faith. The priest isn't quoted speaking about God. He does say some nice things about faith, but there is nothing particularly Catholic or even particularly Christian about them; they are vague and generalized:
He is a lecturer at Our Lady of the Elms College, and recently was named Catholic chaplain at Westfield State University. He works out of the Ferst Interfaith Center on campus, facilitating conversations and trying to encourage students and faculty of all backgrounds to find common ground, no matter their faith tradition. He seeks out diversity and refuses to shy away from it.
"We have a variety of human trees, and the forest is deep and rich," Savage said. "Sometimes scary, sometimes delightful, sometimes stormy, sometimes tumultuous, but in the midst of it all you've got to hold a ground that says we're all in this together."
He said his goal is that of many universities: Build a space for civil conversation in which to explore the mysteries of life and find a common response to things that really shouldn't divide people.
He tries not to make assumptions about people or judge them, he only wants to make them more accepting of others. And though he's secure in his beliefs, he doesn't want to impose upon anyone or convert people.
Judging from such quotations and paraphrases, it's impossible to tell whether, outside of celebrating the sacraments, Savage speaks to people about God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. It could be that he does, only Warner or his editor chose to focus upon the aspects of his personality that make him more appealing to non-Christian readers. It would be nice to know.
That said, there is one anecdote that suggests Savage at least tries to encourage in confirmation candidates the kind of faith that will lead them to be better Christians:
He tells kids before confirmation that their faith has to come from within and be reflected in their actions.
"You go down the aisle to the bishop a jackass, you come back a jackass," he said. "You're just a holy jackass."