A new take on modern Catholic history

When did modern Catholicism begin? The conventional wisdom says, “At Vatican II.” A sophisticated version of the conventional wisdom says, “With the mid-20th-century Catholic reform movements that shaped Vatican II.” In Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (Basic Books), I suggest that even the sophisticated form of the conventional wisdom doesn’t open the lens widely enough.

The gestation of the Church being born today—the Church of the New Evangelization—began in 1878, when Pope Leo XIII was elected. Leo quietly interred Pope Pius IX’s rejectionist strategy toward all aspects of modernity and began to explore the possibility of a new Catholic engagement with modern intellectual, cultural and political life. Leo XIII only planted the seeds. But the seeds he sowed—in Catholic biblical studies, in the renewal of Catholic philosophy and theology studies, in creating the social doctrine of the Church and opening the Church to modern historical studies—eventually bore fruit.

It wasn’t easy. There was considerable resistance to the Leonine reform and its development. But the mid-20th-century renaissance of Catholic theology that produced giants like Joseph Ratzinger and that shaped the deliberations of Vatican II was made possible in part by Leo XIII. If John XXIII was the father of Vatican II and Pius XII the Council’s grandfather, then Leo XIII (in whose pontificate John XXIII was born) was a kind of great-grandfather of the most important Catholic event since the 16th-century Council of Trent.

Which brings us to another point: From the vantage point of the 21st century, and the call of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI for the Church to embrace the New Evangelization, we can see more clearly that what Leo XIII set in motion was the end of Counter-Reformation Catholicism—the Catholicism defined by the Council of Trent; the Catholicism that anyone under 50 today grew up in.

Counter-Reformation Catholicism had many accomplishments. It energized great missionary endeavors, notably in the newly-discovered Western Hemisphere. It successfully resisted the bloody-minded French Revolution and the radical secularism that struck 19th-century Europe like a tsunami, driving half the German episcopate to prison during Bismarck’s Kulturkampf and destroying the Papal States in the Italian Risorgimento (the latter, in hindsight, a blessing in disguise). It was the Catholicism that began the evangelization of sub-Saharan Africa, and the Catholicism that refused to truckle to communism, the greatest persecutor of the Church in history. It set the institutional framework for the reform movements that were the foundation of Vatican II.

But its time has now passed. As the New Testament Church gave way to the Church of the Fathers, and that Church gave way to medieval Catholicism, which in turn gave way to Counter-Reformation Catholicism, so the Church shaped by Trent is now giving way to the Church of the third millennium—Evangelical Catholicism. And just in time.

Counter-Reformation Catholicism “worked,” as recently as the 1950s in America, because the ambient public culture helped transmit the faith, especially in intensely Catholic environments like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee and so forth. But those days are long gone. The 21st-century cultural air is toxic, anti-biblical, Christophobic. It teaches the soul-withering notion that to do things “my way” is the summit of human aspiration and the very definition of maturity. And it regards those who hold firm to biblical religion and its moral teachings as idiots at best, irrational bigots at worst.

In this atmosphere, which is the air we breathe, Counter-Reformation Catholicism doesn’t work. What is needed—to live the faith, to pass on the faith and to convert the world—is a robustly evangelical Catholicism: a Catholicism of radical conversion to friendship with Jesus Christ, which is understood to confer a missionary vocation on everyone. And so John Paul II concluded the Great Jubilee of 2000 by challenging the entire Church to leave the shallow waters of institutional maintenance (Counter-Reformation Catholicism) and, like the disciples on the Sea of Galilee, to put out “into the deep” and convert the world.

That’s Evangelical Catholicism.

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.”