Tzaddiks, fathers, and sons

On a recent day off occasioned by some evil thing fastening upon me and laying me temporarily low, I re-read Chaim Potok’s two wonderful novels, The Chosen and The Promise, the pleasures of which happily compensated for my indisposition.

The Chosen is a modern classic, a brilliant story of fathers-and-sons evocatively set in a distinctive slice of Americana: Brooklyn orthodox Jewry during and immediately after the Second World War. It’s one of the few really good novels that isn’t completely ruined by the movie made from it, but the book is far more richly textured than the film, and much more sensitive to the nuances and tensions in the encounter between biblical religion and the modern world.

The Chosen revolves around an unexpected friendship between two boys, Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders: the first, the brilliant, pious, assimilated son of a Talmud scholar, a widower who embodies wise paternity; the second, an intellectual phenomenon who memorizes entire pages of the Talmud in minutes even as he chafes under the burden of a closed future — the elder son of Reb Isaac Saunders, head of a large Hasidic congregation, he will inherit his father’s role as rabbi, judge, and community leader. Fearful that his son’s matchless intellect will not be complemented by a compassionate soul — essential in a tzaddik, a Hasidic sage — Reb Saunders decides to raise Danny in silence: aside from the hours they spend studying Talmud together, there is no conversation between father and son. Danny is struggling, intellectually and emotionally, in this claustrophobic environment when a chance meeting in the public library leads him to David Malter and then to his son, Reuven.

These two remarkable sons of equally remarkable fathers grow through their high school and college years amidst stirring times: the end of the war, the revelation of the Nazi extermination camps, the founding of the State of Israel. In the debates that ensure — How could God allow the Holocaust to happen? Can there be a Jewish state that is not founded by the Messiah? – the tensions between orthodox biblical faith and modernity define the fault lines within families, between classmates, and across communities. Yet the beauty of The Chosen is that it always brings us back to the inner world, the spiritual world. In Reuven’s and Danny’s struggles to mature, we confront time and again the issue that Reb Saunders faces in raising his genius son: How is brilliance refined into wisdom? How does a man stand firmly, yet with compassion, within a religious tradition he believes to bear eternal truths?

The Promise picks up the story of these sons and fathers in the early Fifties. Danny, with his father’s permission, is doing doctoral work in psychology, rather than inheriting Reb Saunders’ position; Reuven is pursuing rabbinic ordination and graduate studies in philosophy, while both he and his father struggle to convince the hardened, brilliant scholars who have come to Brooklyn’s Jewish seminaries from the horrors of the concentration camps that modern methods of Talmud study do not threaten traditional faith. Another fathers-and-sons motif is the dramatic centerpiece of The Promise, as both Reuven and Danny become involved with the deeply troubled son of a Jewish scholar who is a controversial theological modernist. In the resolution of that conflict, we see that Danny Saunders has become what his father hoped he would be: a tzaddik, a compassionate healer, for the world. At the same, time, Reuven and his father, who have seemed throughout both novels to enjoy a perfect paternal/filial relationship, discover even greater depths of mystery in the age-old business of fathers-and-sons. The Promise can get a bit too Freudian for some tastes; but, as in The Chosen, it is effective compassion, if in the form of very tough love, that makes the final difference.

There are many thing Catholics can learn about their Christian faith from an encounter with vibrant Judaism — which is, I suppose, another story of fathers-and-sons. Think of The Chosen and The Promise, then, as good Easter reading.

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.”