California dreamin’, missin’ the real deal

Ah, the summer of 1967. A gangly young Australian priest named George Pell turned up at my Baltimore parish and became a family friend; none of us imagined him the Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney four decades hence, but there it is — and we’re still friends. Two weeks in Chicago introduced me to Hyde Park, the Michigan dunes, the dubious pleasures of shoveling dead alewives off the beach, outdoor Shakespeare at the University of Chicago, Jerry and Dolores Freese, a remarkable family named Daly, and a first romance. Frank Robinson got hit in the head trying to break up a double-play, couldn’t see straight for months, and the World Champion Baltimore Orioles (not so puzzling a phrase then) tanked, a year after sweeping the Dodgers, Sandy Koufax, and Don Drysdale in the Series. Father Bechtel assigned Paul Horgan’s classic Things As They Are as one of the novels my class was to read over the summer; thirty-eight years later, I’d write the introduction to a reprint edition. Gory Ohio State Highway Patrol movies were an integral part of drivers’ ed, and Jane Fonda led Robert Redford barefoot through the park.

And there was the music. A lot of my Sixties memories have to do with the music, and the summer of ‘67 was no exception. The Association’s “Windy” features prominently in my Lake Michigan beach memories. The 5th Dimension were heading “Up, Up, and Away,” while over in Motown, Aretha Franklin was demanding “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” Lulu serenaded “Sir” with love; the Beatles traipsed down Penny Lane, while Lucy was in the sky with diamonds; Billy Joe McAlister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

They didn’t have a No. 1 hit that summer, but the Mamas and the Papas were very much in business, with the autobiographical “Creeque Alley” hitting No. 5 on the U.S. charts and both “Twelve Thirty” and “My Girl” brightening summer 1967’s rock’n’roll scene. And brightening it was, because for tight harmony among beautifully matched voices, there never was anything like the Mamas and the Papas: John and Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty, and Cass Elliot. Their songs still give me pleasure, which is more than I can say for other artifacts and memories of the Sixties.

It was all a huge mess, of course, and in ways this naive 16-year-old couldn’t have imagined (even if I thought I’d figured out some of the “Creeque Alley” references). One pop historian, quoted by Mark Steyn, summed up the Mamas’ and Papas’ mess like this: “Before they hit the big time, the group dropped acid, smoked dope, and drank. After they hit the big time, the group dropped acid, smoked dope, and drank.” As Steyn notes, respectfully if ironically, “to achieve that pure and translucent and cleanly harmonized a sound on that much hash, heroin, LSD, mescaline, and Black Beauties is quite an achievement.”

The craziness eventually killed a way-too-young Cass Elliot, who died of a heart attack in 1974. But Mama Cass’s heart had been broken before, when she fell in love with Papa Denny and he didn’t reciprocate. (In fact, Denny had a torrid affair with Michelle Phillips that just about wrecked the group, even if it did produce a memorable song, “I Saw Her Again.”) Cass Elliot was, of course, the fat one, the antithesis of sleek, blonde Michelle Phillips. But by all accounts, and even in her drug-addled condition, Cass really loved Denny Doherty. And as Steyn wrote in a fine obituary of Denny that appeared in The Atlantic a few months ago, “in his final years, widowed, weathered, balding, and paunchy, [Denny’d] concede that turning her down was the great mistake of his life.”

Why ponder all this, save for nostalgia’s sake? Because the self-absorption of Sixties pop culture was its most soul-withering feature — more, in fact, than the drugs, the booze, the promiscuity, and the faux radicalism: all of which, on reflection, were either by-products or expressions of that fascination with Me. In the case of Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot, self-absorption was one big reason why the self-giving that makes real love possible was, well, impossible.

California dreamin’ never made it to reality. And that’s a sadness.

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.”