An eminent distortion of history

As the world marked the silver anniversary of the Polish elections of June 1989, which eventually brought to power the first non-communist Polish prime minister since the Second World War, a conference met at the Vatican to consider “The Church in the Moment of Change in 1980-1989 in East Central Europe.” (The habit of devising succinct, punchy titles is not overly-developed in Rome.) There were moving testimonies, by former Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa and from Ukrainians who are living a similar drama today. And then there was an address by the former cardinal secretary of state (and current dean of the College of Cardinals), Angelo Sodano.

The burden of Cardinal Sodano’s remarks was that John Paul II’s achievements in central and eastern Europe in the 1980s had been “prepared” by the Vatican’s Ostpolitik in the 1970s, as conducted by Pope Paul VI, his chief diplomatic agent, Archbishop Agostino Casaroli, and Casaroli’s principal deputy, Msgr. Achille Silvestrini (both of whom became cardinals). Cardinal Sodano laid particular emphasis on Paul VI’s 1977 meeting with Polish communist party leader Edward Gierek and the Casaroli/Silvestrini conversations with Polish politburo member Stefan Olszowski. All of this, Sodano concluded, was like John the Baptist preparing the way for the Lord.

Outside certain Italian circles, it would be difficult to find a knowledgeable historian who believes that any of that analysis is sustainable.

The Ostpolitik of Paul VI (who worried that he was not conducting a “policy of glory”) was based on the premise that the Cold War division of Europe would be a feature of the international landscape for decades, if not centuries; that the Church had to “save what could be saved” while making whatever deals it could with communist governments; and that Catholic criticism of the human rights violations of communist regimes should be muted. The results of this strategy included the effective destruction of the Church in Hungary, whose leadership became a subsidiary of the Hungarian communist party; the thorough penetration of the Vatican by Warsaw Pact intelligence agencies (to the benefit of communist negotiators); and the undercutting of Catholic leaders in Poland and in what was then Czechoslovakia.

John Paul II’s approach to east central Europe was based on different premises: that the post-war division of Europe was immoral and historically artificial; that communist violations of basic human rights had to be named for what they were; and that the “captive nations” could eventually find tools of resistance that communism could not match, if they reclaimed the religious, moral, and cultural truth about themselves and lived those truths without fear. John Paul shrewdly let the Casaroli/Silvestrini diplomacy continue. But behind that clever façade—“See, nothing has changed!”—the Polish pope led a morally-driven campaign of resistance to communism that was vindicated in the Revolution of 1989: a complex historical event, to be sure, but one for which the Vatican Ostpolitik of the 1970s can credibly claim no credit.

The refusal of Italian curial diplomats like Cardinal Sodano to recognize the truth of the Ostpolitik’s sad effects on the security and integrity of the Holy See itself is especially unfortunate. The deep penetration of the Vatican by Soviet-bloc intelligence agencies has been documented in numerous scholarly studies, many of which are cited in the second volume of my John Paul II biography, “The End and the Beginning”(which has been available in a fine Italian translation for two years). When intelligent men like Cardinal Sodano—who is not alone among his countrymen in defending the Ostpolitk—fail to reckon with the ample documentary evidence of what was in fact going on in the 1970s, between the Vatican and communist governments in east central Europe, one has to assume that something other than concern for the historical record is afoot.

What is going on, I suggest, is an untoward national hubris married to the defense of an outdated model of the Church’s role in world affairs: a model that worked reasonably well at the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna but that came close to causing disaster in the 1970s.

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.”