Cardinal Baum: a new record-holder

Something quite remarkable happened recently: Cardinal William Wakefield Baum—emeritus Archbishop of Washington, emeritus Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, emeritus Major Penitentiary of the Catholic Church—passed the late Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore (who died in 1921) to become the longest-serving American cardinal in history. It’s an astonishing record that drew little public attention. Yet that’s just the way Cardinal Baum, who exemplifies evangelical modesty and genuine Christian humility, would want it.

William Wakefield Baum was born on Nov. 21, 1926, in Dallas, Texas: a biographical fact that has always struck me as more than a little ironic, given that there are few people on the planet less “Texas” and less “Big D” than this gentle scholar and pastor. Ordained a priest for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Father Baum became an ecumenical pioneer, an advisor at Vatican II, and the first director of the U.S. bishops’ committee on ecumenical affairs before being ordained bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo., on April 6, 1970.

Three years later, Bishop Baum was appointed Archbishop of Washington as successor to the legendary Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle (who was, de facto if not de iure, the first archbishop of the nation’s capital). Created cardinal in the consistory of May 1976 and given the church of Santa Croce in Flaminia as his Roman parish (or “title”), Cardinal Baum participated in the two dramatic conclaves of 1978, the “year of three popes;” indeed, in the conclave of 2005, cardinal Baum, along with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was the only cardinal-elector who had been in conclave before.

John Paul II appointed Cardinal Baum as Prefect of the Congregation of Catholic Education in March 1980, a post he held for 10 years until his appointment as head of the Apostolic Penitentiary—the man overseeing the Church’s penitential life or, as Cardinal Baum put it, the servant of “the Lord’s mercy.” He retired from that position after 11 years, thus preventing any further confusion in my office when I would send letters to the cardinal and some of my evangelical brethren would say, “I didn’t know they had a prison in the Vatican.”

Cardinal Baum remained active on various curial congregations until his 80th birthday in 2006, and exercised a quiet, but often important, influence in the deliberations of the Congregation for Bishops, responsible for episcopal appointments in the developed world. Of the many Americans who worked in the Holy See over the past 20 years, he was held in a unique respect by his colleagues, including the locals: he spoke excellent Italian, he was not edgy, he was an old-school gentleman, he was deeply learned and manifestly holy. And so, despite never making it onto the media radar screen, he was a genuine “player” in Vatican affairs.

He was a gracious host in one of the Vatican’s great apartments: just above St. Peter’s square, looking straight at the basilica. The apartment was lined with bookcases, overflowing with volumes of history and biography as well as theology. He always remembered his time in Maryland with affection, and kept prints of the “Ark” and the “Dove,” the two ships that brought Lord Baltimore’s Catholic colonists to the new world in 1634, in his living room.

Like John Paul II, whom he revered, Cardinal Baum has borne great suffering with even greater patience and nobility. Macular degeneration has rendered the pleasure of reading difficult for this great reader; a variety of other ailments have left him in serious pain for months on end. Yet in the 23 years I’ve been privileged to know him and call him a friend, I’ve never heard a word of complaint from Cardinal Baum. Again like John Paul II, he’s always much more interested in finding out how you and your family are doing than in cataloguing his own ailments and sufferings.

A deeply patriotic American, the cardinal was often saddened in recent years by the encroachments of the culture of death across the land. Yet he always urged others to continue the fight for the right things. His courage gave, and gives, us courage.

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.”