‘42’ and us

Baseball and movies don’t often play well together. William Bendix as a Marine who dies happy in “Guadalcanal Diary” because he’s just heard that the Dodgers have won is an icon of 1940s Americana; the same William Bendix as the Bambino in “The Babe Ruth Story” is a sad business, to be consigned to the (bad) memory bank. “The Natural” and “Bull Durham” have their moments, but when push comes to shove, they’re both, finally, about something other than baseball. “61*,” Billy Crystal’s made-for-HBO flick about Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and the chase for Ruth’s single-season home-run is a terrific story of male friendship (and gave this lifelong Yankees-deplorer a soft spot for the 1961 Bronx Bombers); but computer-graphic reconstructions of old ballparks being what they were when it was made in 2001—i.e., not that persuasive—“61*” just misses being a great baseball movie.

Now comes “42,” the long-awaited cinematic telling of the Jackie Robinson story, which I recently saw on a snowy April Sunday afternoon in the Twin Cities. I wouldn’t call it a great movie (like, for example, “The King’s Speech”); but it’s a very, very good movie, and an entirely plausible challenger to “61*” as the best baseball movie ever made. Chadwick Boseman captures some of the fierce intensity, and a lot of the raw courage, of the man who broke baseball’s color line. It wasn’t easy to imagine Han Solo, Indiana Jones, or President James Marshall (“Air Force One”) as Branch Rickey, the cigar-chomping, ultra-Methodist general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers whose Christian decency and shrewd business sense led him to take on the entire baseball establishment by signing Jackie Robinson; but Harrison Ford pulls off that role with aplomb. Kudos, too, to Nicole Beharie for capturing the steely grace, beauty and guts of Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife, who put up with all the racism that her husband endured and who, with him, embodied for millions of Americans the meaning of the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”

Columnist George F. Will once wrote that Jackie Robinson was second—a “very close second”—to Martin Luther King Jr. in the pantheon of African Americans who reversed a nation’s racial attitudes and helped create what is, today, the most racially egalitarian society in history. “42”is a useful reminder of just how much those men, and others, had to overcome: Robinson’s teammates are, to put it gently, unenthusiastic about his presence among them; the Phillies’ race-baiting manager, Ben Chapman, mercilessly harasses Number 42 when he comes up to the plate; the Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter deliberately spikes Robinson on a routine play at first base; Pirates’ pitcher Fritz Ostermueller throws a killer pitch that smashes into Robinson’s temple (in the days before batting helmets); potty-mouthed fans remind us just how foul American racial epithets could be—and how children were taught to imitate the sins of their parents.

And through it all, Jackie Robinson, in that first, crucial season, stuck to the promise he had made Branch Rickey: he would have the courage not to fight back, save in playing some of the most electrifying baseball ever seen, especially on the basepaths.

Branch Rickey was dubbed “the Mahatma” by a Brooklyn sportswriter who thought the Dodger g.m.’s style akin to of Mohandas K. Ghandi, whom John Gunther once described as “an incredible combination of Jesus Christ, Tammany Hall and your father.”  And to the credit of screenwriter Brian Helgeland, “42” doesn’t gloss over Rickey’s Christian faith, or Jackie Robinson’s, and the role that Christian conviction played in forging their relationship and their ultimate victory. Still, when the packed crowd in that Minneapolis theatre burst into applause at the end of the movie a few weeks ago, I didn’t read it as an endorsement of Methodist theology or piety.

Rather, it seemed to me welcome evidence that, amidst vast cultural and political confusions, Americans still believe in moral truths, moral absolutes, and moral courage—and yearn for opportunities to celebrate them. There’s an important lesson in that for the country’s religious and political leaders.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”