Father Rawley Myers

Author: John Janaro

FATHER RAWLEY MYERS by John Janaro Pick up a newspaper or turn on the television these days and there is a good chance that you will hear something controversial about the Catholic Church. The media projects a definite image of the Church-a picture of internal dissension and confusion. In the news one often gets the impression that no one among America's Catholics really knows what to believe, or what to do.

But what is the Church really like here in the United States? Does real faith remain in the hearts and in the homes of the Catholic people, a people who are so often cited as a justification for all manner of unusual theories that, in the final analysis, tend to break down such faith? In the midst of what seems like such a confusing situation, do people still believe in the Church? Do they still trust in God?

Fr. Rawley Myers is convinced that they do. In nearly forty years as a priest of Christ, Fr. Myers has served ordinary good Catholic people from the heartland to the Rockies; hardworking family people who live lives imbued with a sense of value and direction. They are people of faith, and people whose understanding is not complicated by the disturbances of "sophisticated living." Many carry the cross of Christ in obscurity yet with great heroism in their own daily lives, thus testifying to the solidity of the Church's life, the life of the risen Jesus. They are also, however, people who need guidance and direction as they search for the will of the Father in Christ Jesus. "Understand, then, that the Lord, your God, is God indeed, the faithful God who keeps his merciful covenant . . ." (Deut. 7:9).

"I'm all for small towns," says Rawley Myers, reflecting upon the communities he has served, and particularly the place where he grew up. Falls City, Nebraska was everything one would expect a small town to be in 1924, when Mervin and Luella Myers celebrated the birth of their second son. Mervin was a druggist, and the drug store was an absorbing occupation for the whole family. Everyone pitched in, and the operation of the store was a constant source of activity. "My brother says I was born in an ice cream can," Fr. Myers recalls.

Growing up during the depression, Rawley remembers hard times, but also the building of strong family ties. Mom and Dad never talked about money, and consequently he and his brother Jim never knew how poor the family really was. They went to a very small parochial school-one that looked like a big old barn-and worked in the drug store during their spare time. Throughout the difficult years there was a prevailing sense of humor in the family. "I think humor took people through the depression," Fr. Myers observes.

During these years Rawley first thought about the beauty and the responsibility of the priesthood. The Ursuline Sisters who taught in the school often spoke of the priestly vocation. Also, when the sisters would take the children into the church during the day, Rawley remembers always seeing the pastor, Msgr. Healy, kneeling in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Prayer, he thought to himself, must be a very important thing for a priest.

Rawley's high school was particularly small, but it provided an atmosphere of encouragement for him. He found that, because everyone in the school was involved in all school activities, the children had more confidence in any other project they might undertake. Some of Rawley's happiest memories come from his experience as a running-back on the football team: "When you score touchdowns and have the cheerleaders standing on their heads for you, you would never think that teen years were difficult. I've never had people cheering like that for me again in my life."

While in high school, Rawley liked girls and parties as much as any other boys his age. But the depth of the Faith had begun to make its impression on him. In literature class, Sr. Bernadette introduced her students to some of the great twentieth century English Catholic writers, including G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and Ronald Knox. Rawley realized that the Catholic faith was more than just questions and answers in a catechism that needed to be memorized. "The great discovery," he remembers, "was that the Catholic faith is highly intelligent." "O send forth your light and your truth; let these be my guide" (Ps. 43:3).

This intelligence impressed Rawley, and he decided that he wanted to be a teacher. It was this motivation-the desire to express the Faith with all of its intelligence and vigor- that caused Rawley to consider the life of the priesthood.

In 1942 he was accepted by the diocese of Lincoln and began his seminary studies in Denver, Colorado. It seemed to Rawley that the seminary formation at this time was more suited to turning out seminary professors than pastors. The candidate would spend eight years in a very reserved and structured environment, immersed in detailed academic concerns and following a way of life that was highly specified; then suddenly "the day after ordination eighty-year-old women are coming to you in the parish asking you about very personal problems." It could be quite a shock; nevertheless Rawley realized that the seminary system was designed to teach virtue, patience, and penance. It instilled the sense of discipline that a parish priest absolutely must have. "Set, O Lord, a guard over my mouth; keep watch at the door of my lips" (Ps. 141:3).

Meanwhile Rawley found the courses in Scripture particularly dynamic and worthwhile. Fr. William Kenneally, the Scripture professor, recognized Rawley's talents and disposition, and encouraged him to become more involved with writing. Thus Rawley became editor of the seminary magazine, and began to see journalism as a vehicle for expressing the brilliance of the message of Jesus Christ.

As ordination day approached, however, Rawley began to experience some doubts. The priesthood was such a profound reality-the intimate participation in Christ as He offers Himself for the salvation of the world-that Rawley was sure that he could never be worthy of it. Of course he knew that no one is worthy of the priesthood except Jesus Christ. "It is through him that you are believers in God, the God who raised him from the dead and gave him glory" (1 Pt. 1:21). In Christ, God gives the gift of the priestly vocation to certain men. But Rawley wondered if he deserved such a gift.

Nevertheless, this gift is given through the Church; thus when ordination finally came in his home parish in Falls City in 1949, all his worries were lifted. Fr. Rawley Myers now knew for certain that he was called to be a priest.

His first assignment was as assistant pastor at St. Joseph's parish in York, Nebraska, a place that in many ways resembles his home town. Remembering the young assistant priests whose enthusiasm had always inspired him when he was a boy, Fr. Myers delved into the life of the parish school, teaching, attending football games, and being involved in the same kinds of school activities that he had loved so much when he went to high school.

These first two years, however, were not without a certain frustration. Though Nebraska Catholics are good strong family people, they are a distinct minority. Fr. Myers looked for opportunities to share the fullness of Catholic faith with the large populations of "separated brethren" that form the bulk of most midwest communities. Because of social custom, however, there were few openings for fruitful dialogue. Nebraska, he realized, has many "satisfied Protestants."

The bishop of Lincoln knew that Fr. Myers was interested in the printed word; in 1952 he decided that Fr. Myers should be prepared to take a position as an editor for the diocese. Accordingly, he sent him to work for the , one of the largest syndicated Catholic newspapers in the country at that time. After a year at the , the bishop sent Fr. Myers to the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and informed the chancellor that he wanted his young priest to study journalism. When told that there was no journalism department at C.U.A., the bishop said, "Have him study philosophy. Editors need philosophy."

"All wisdom is from the Lord, and it is his own for ever" (Sir 1:1). Therefore Fr. Myers found himself spending the next three years of his priesthood in the midst of the busy life of Washington, D.C. The school of Philosophy, dominated at that time by the impressive figure of Fr. Ignatius Smith, O P., was perhaps a bit overwhelming for the unassuming Fr. Myers. "I have always admired , though I have very little of it myself," Fr. Myers says; indeed the scholarly stature of Fr. Smith was a great source of inspiration to him. And despite his modest assessment of himself, Fr. Myers demonstrated enough intellectual capability to earn his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 1955. He took his degree, put it in a trunk, and headed back to the farms and fields of Nebraska, to the rural people who needed his priestly care.

Upon his return he found himself heading up a new and ambitious project from the bishop, who was determined to hold a mission in every parish in the diocese over the next two years. Fr. Myers travelled to Omaha to meet with the Redemptorist Fathers- who are experts at giving missions-in order to obtain advice and direction for his own diocesan mission team. The Redemptorists told him that 150 missions in two years was impossible. "Well, impossible or not, we have to do it," Fr. Myers replied. And so they did. Fr. Myers himself preached in one third of the missions that he organized during the years of 1956 and 1957, seeking to inspire the people in each parish to conversion of heart, a sense of the presence of God, and a deeper Christian life. ". . . you must consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 6:11).

After the missions were completed, Fr. Myers received a temporary assignment to administer a small town parish. This task, as it turned out, lasted fourteen months, and it gave Fr. Myers a different perspective on the work of parish priests, especially country priests. He found the experience to be a very lonely one, and it gave him a deeper understanding of the basic struggles that many priests in obscure places must face within themselves. Fr. Myers remembers that, during the late 1950's, parish facilities all over America were undergoing rapid development-new buildings, new schools, and renovations. Perhaps this exterior work represented some of the frustration and loneliness that parish priests felt. "A lot of priests were builders because they were bored," he reflects. Nevertheless Fr. Myers did not build; he simply attended to his duties in the parish and waited.

Finally, a permanent pastor was found, and Fr. Myers was able to move on. In 1958 he became assistant editor of the Lincoln diocesan newspaper and, one year later, editor, a position he would hold for nine years. During this time he was also one of the chaplains of the Newman Center at the University of Nebraska (1958-1962), chaplain of the diocesan convent (1963-1967), and an instructor in the CCD teacher training program, which went from parish to parish teaching religion teachers.

One would think that the editor of a diocesan newspaper would have a great deal to say about the events that were happening in Rome during the Second Vatican Council. Nevertheless, although there were regular reports in the paper on the sessions of the Council, Fr. Myers dedicated himself primarily to local events and diocesan activities.

It was not until after the close of the Council that things began to change in Nebraska, and initially Fr. Myers greeted this trend with enthusiasm. The renewal of the Church- and the greater sense of the community life of God's People that it hoped to foster- seemed to be a promising thing, and Fr. Myers was anxious to be involved in it. With this in mind, he took on the pastorate of the parish in York-the same one in which he had first served seventeen years earlier. "The soil has given its harvest, God, our God, has blessed us" (Ps. 67:6).

This interval as a pastor lasted two years. These years were particularly difficult ones for the Church in the United States; an attitude of curious and unfounded innovation was sweeping through churches all over the country; it was a mentality that had little to do with what the Spirit of God had called for at the Council. Fr. Myers realized this, but he also knew the character of his own people. "Farmers aren't going to change very fast," he thought to himself.

At this time, Fr. Myers still had a long-standing desire to be a teacher, and when a position opened at Kennedy College for a philosophy lecturer, he saw his opportunity. Thus, after a year of supplementary study at the University of Notre Dame, he joined the faculty at Kennedy, where he taught Introduction to Philosophy, Ethics, and History of Philosophy. Kennedy was a secular college, and Fr. Myers saw here a chance to expose his students to a glimpse of the intellectual heritage that had developed around a foundation of faith in Jesus Christ. Fr. Myers found that many students, Catholic and non-Catholic, lacked an intellectual formation in religion. This discovery continues to cause him distress to the present day. "Ninety per cent of the kids I know have not read one Catholic book," he laments, remembering the impact of clear and confident writers like GK. Chesterton on his own youth, authors who still hold the most prominent place in his library. "Teach me the demands of your precepts" (Ps. 119:39).

After three years at Kennedy College, Fr. Myers began to experience more serious problems with the arthritis that had long afflicted him. However, when he spent some time helping out in a parish in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he found that the high altitude and dry air significantly improved his condition. Therefore, after twenty-one years of priestly ministry in the diocese of Lincoln-years that were characterized by variety of service yet consistency of dedication-he applied for a transfer to the diocese of Denver.

In 1972, Fr. Myers came to Colorado Springs permanently, as associate pastor of St. Mary's Church. During these years in Colorado, though he devoted himself primarily to pastoral work, he did not by any means neglect his writing. Fr. Myers wrote extensively, drawing from the whole of his experience, and produced several books, most notably the critically acclaimed . He also became a regular contributor to periodical publications, including Fr. Baker's .

As the Journal suggests, however, the parish continued to be central to his ministry. In Colorado, Fr. Myers found himself under a new bishop and in the service of another local manifestation of the Universal Church. That universality was-and still is-apparent to him not only because his church is joined to Christ, but also because of the witness of its people, a testimony that convinces Fr. Myers continually that many of the faithful- whatever contrary reports might say-are truly close to the Lord and aware of the unity of His Body.

This unity involves continuity with all that is perennially valid. In his fourteen years in Colorado Springs, as well as in all his previous service, Fr. Myers has observed that sense of continuity in the faithful, and their love of the Faith. "So much of what the daily papers say about the Church is the idea of the editor," he notes, commenting on the media-created notion that the very core of the Church is in a state of upheaval. He recognizes the fact that the common people, and even some of his fellow parish priests, may be too complacent; and others are all for the implementation of fashionable human trends in parish life, trends that obscure the reality of the Gospel. He does not, however, feel that radical innovations-so often undertaken in the name of "the people"- are truly what real flesh and blood Christian men and women need or want. He comments on the self-appointed experts "who think they know what's best for the people: I wish they'd talk to the people sometimes." "Let the congregation of the faithful sing his praise!" (Ps. 149:1).

These people, Fr. Myers consistently finds, want the sense of the beauty of their faith to be preserved; they seek leadership in living a Christian life-a life founded and sustained by the sacraments; and they want encouragement and guidance in the difficulties of their daily lives. Fr. Myers notes that life has become more difficult for many people because of the confusion of modern society and-an added dimension he has discovered since coming to Colorado Springs-because of the problems of city life. Cities have made life hard for low-income families who feel "cooped up" in a congested urban environment and constantly threatened by high rates of crime.

For the past four years Fr. Myers has been at St. Joseph's parish. About half of this parish is Hispanic, and there are many young families who go to church every Sunday. "We don't have scholars. We just have people who are fighting every day in the struggle for existence." This struggle includes facing certain fears that are built into contemporary life; many people are afraid to go out at night, and parents are afraid to send their children out to play. It also includes moral problems; Fr. Myers is used to hearing that "the kid is on dope or the daughter is getting married outside the Church." Often these trials are occasions that manifest God's power in suffering: "I'm just amazed at what saints we have who are parents."

"And he took pity on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd . . ." (Mk. 6:34). Fr. Myers also recognizes the particular struggles of elderly people. He gives regular retreats for the elderly, and he publishes a monthly magazine of inspiration called for senior citizens or anyone else seeking encouragement. "Old people are very confused about the Church today," he notes, "and they built these churches and they have a right to a little peace and happiness." Fr. Myers finds that a great deal of the work with the elderly simply involves reassuring them that God has not forgotten His people-"telling them that the Church isn't falling to pieces."

By contrast, young people are greatly influenced by the secular world around them. The message of conversion always needs to be preached, but it is difficult to get teenagers to involve themselves in Church life, or even to attend Mass regularly: "They go when they feel like it. That's the new spirit." Fr. Myers observes that young people often have not yet come to understand that they owe to God.

Indeed, it is the sense of the presence of God and responsiveness to His love that will determine the vitality of the Church in the future. What is important is not so much better organizational strategies or pastoral programs but rather a better relationship with God. "One prayer," Fr. Myers says with a grin, "is worth more than ten meetings." Prayer is a fundamental, yet often elusive, aspect of being a Christian. Fr. Myers observes that we will talk about prayer, theorize about it, even invent new ways to pray . . . as long as we don't have to do it. "There are a lot of games people play in religion," he says, "we will do anything not to pray."

Why don't we pray more? In some sense it is because prayer is linked to the Cross of Jesus. " 'Are you not the Christ? . . . save yourself and us as well'" (Lk. 23:39). This was the bad thief's scornful shout at Jesus as they both hung from the cross. Perhaps at times our attitude resembles his; we do not want the cross that prayer often proves to be. Fr. Myers puts it bluntly: prayer is often boring and difficult. "I'd rather dig a ditch from here to Chicago than pray," he says, "its easier." Nevertheless we must pray, and this means we must do more than what Fr. Myers calls "the firehouse approach," namely praying only when we are in trouble and need God to help us out.

He insists that we need a rich and full prayer life. This means that prayer of praise and glory to God is of fundamental importance. We should seek prayer of meditation, an important aspect of which is contained in the reading of the Gospels. Also of particular significance is the Rosary, which is sometimes most effective when its power is least felt. When we say the Rosary and meditate upon the mysteries of our redemption, he points out, we know that our prayer is real.

This last observation points to a particular character of Fr. Myers' priesthood-his devotion to Mary. When he was ordained, he dedicated the service of his priesthood to the Virgin Mother of God, "because He has looked upon His lowly handmaid" (Lk. 1:48). Fr. Myers is convinced that "she has gotten me through everything." In the spirit of Mary, Fr. Myers seeks to attend to his duties in prayer. In addition to his Mass and whatever public devotions the church is sponsoring, he sets aside an hour each day for personal prayer. As a priest, he also recognizes his specific role as a leader of prayer, both the prayer of the parish community and-by way of direction and inspiration-the prayer-lives of his people. Fr. Myers always refers to the striking yet simple example of Msgr. Healy, the pastor of his boyhood parish; the witness to prayer of this holy priest served as a model to his parishioners, including young Rawley Myers.

Thanks to Msgr. Healy, Fr. Myers recognizes the unique value of prayer before the Eucharistic Presence of Jesus. Nevertheless he recognizes that it is difficult for many of his people-busy as they are with work and raising their families-to come to the church every day. "If you can't go to the church where Christ is, invite Christ to your home," he advises. The presence of Christ and the power of his salvation, Fr. Myers knows, will always restore and strengthen God's people in firmness of faith. For this Christ will not let anyone down: "Persevering in prayer is really the answer to everything."

"It will be clear that you are standing firm in unity of spirit and exerting yourselves with one accord for the faith of the gospel" (Phil. 2:27). Fr. Rawley Myers seeks only to serve the faithful of Christ, to look after their needs and to defend their integrity. As the title of one of his books suggests, "Jesus is here," always willing to embrace his people with His redeeming love and waiting only to be called upon. Jesus is hidden, but His power is accessible, and that power is the bond that unites the Catholic people; a bond that has a strength unseen by those who do not seek the light. It is the strength of the Church, the strength of its people, the strength of their Faith-a Faith that shall not fail.

Chapter 8 of Fishers of Men, published by Trinity Communications in 1986.