Father Gery Meehan, O. Praem.
|(This article is reprinted from the Norbertines Profiles website - http://www.norbertines.org/gery_meehan.html)|
Father Gery Meehan advocates mutuality and the "absolute fundamental things"
A native of Philadelphia, Father Gery Meehan joined the Norbertines long before Daylesford Abbey came into being. So when he decided to join the Order, his dad asked where he would have to go. Wisconsin? "There are two things I can tell you: the weather is like Alaska and they have a good football team."
That was in 1952. Father Gery was ordained in 1960 when the Norbertines in De Pere counted.300 or more members. He spent many of the years since at the former Abbot Pennings High School in De Pere, including eleven in the classroom and eleven as principal. He might still be there had the Order not closed the school in 1990.
Weekends found Father Gery engaged in parish work and for 23 years he assisted at St. Mary's in De Pere. He also worked in the Cursillo Movement, conducted other weekend and week-long retreats and, for several years, coordinated the youth retreat program.
Juggling the demands of ministry and community in that era created "enormous" tension. The day started at 4:45 a.m. for two hours of prayer; breakfast was at 7:20; and teachers left for school about 8. Five o'clock prayer was followed by recreation and dinner, then prayer again at seven and nine. "I used to function on four hours and forty-five minutes of sleep for years and years, and the funny part was that I was happy enough because I didn't question." A sense of ministry and community prevailed in an atmosphere he found enriching.
In those days, Father Gery had little input into his teaching schedule. One year he taught Latin I, Latin II, French I, French II, and religion; the next year might present a totally different agenda. If individuality sometimes was submerged, there was a strong sense of community. "Then the pendulum swung and suddenly our individuality became more important. In the process, 'I' came first; community came second. There has to be a mutuality. Your individuality doesn’t always come first."
If discovering new possibilities is important to the Order's
future so also must the "absolute fundamental things" be
rediscovered - "a sense of belonging, a sense of self giving, a
sense of teamwork." The spiritual aspects - prayer, the Eucharist
and spiritual reading - are also among the essentials. Change? "What
we do ministerially we can change as the needs of the church change,
yet what we are as a community is rooted in scripture and tradition,
in Jesus, Norbert and Augustine. We need to rediscover some of those
things. Sharing is very important -
The activity - ministry - dimension that Norbert introduced to the Order sets it apart from other religious orders. Norbertine ministries allow members to share their talents and abilities while also sharing a common life. "What the church and the world are calling the Order to also needs redefining. Is it more Hispanic ministry? Is it returning to education? Is it working with the poor? I think our community should really address for itself the dangers of materialism and should also educate the culture against that. When things take on a value and a significance beyond their ability to care for me as an individual, or their ability to enrich me as a human being," this needs to be examined. It is the Norbertines' role and responsibility "to discern what it is that our culture needs, to be a voice to speak on behalf of others, and to be a beacon or direction so that our apostolates can change as the needs of society change."
What drew him to the Order fifty years ago is Father Gery's hope for the future. Yes, there is dissatisfaction, but "it doesn't lead me to think about leaving. What it does is make me concerned that we remain faithful to what we are as community." The community's stories, hard work, vitality and "an enormous number of very awesome people in the Order" inspired him as a young initiate. "The best of the minds of the young people seemed to be in the Order. That (initial) image is still in my head. And often I think to myself, 'what was before, can be again.' We need to be called and challenged as a community. What is that challenge I'm not sure. But it has something to do with becoming authentic. The material dimension and this exaggerated sense of self is what we need to re-think."
Such issues aside, there is much within the Order to attract young people today. "I think, first of all, young people are searching for a sense of spirituality. They are also looking for a sense of community because they recognize that in society we are becoming more and more impersonal. So when they see us together, doing things, it gives them a sense, 'Hey, these guys have found something that they are sharing with one another.'"
As the hope of the Order's future, the young recruits come to give but they also receive. "The young people may be a blessing to us, but we may be a blessing to them. What we offer to them should be the substantial things. Are we praying together? Are we living together? Do we seem to be actively involved in the needs of the church? The young men are God’s gift to us, and we are God's gift to them." They are important, but "we are also important; there has to be a mutuality. They have needs; we have needs. They have gifts; we have gifts."
Father Gery's own vocational call came as a high school student. Various high school teachers influenced him but it was a Norbertine he had during his senior year, "a superbly organized English teacher," who tipped the scale. "I think what he did was awaken me from a slumber that 1 had been in academically for about three years." A paper he wrote on vocations brought things to a head. "And before 1 knew it 1 was on a train from Philadelphia to Wisconsin."
The opportunities and experiences of his years as a Norbertine exceeded any fantasies he might have harbored when he entered. A quiet and shy youngster, Father Gery never thought of himself as a teacher, let alone of foreign language. It never occurred to him that his call to the religious life might involve getting up in front of people to preach or teach. His introduction to the classroom came abruptly and without warning or preparation. "I was sitting in my room one day and someone knocked on my door. 'Father So-and-So is sick; you have been assigned to teach English class; you will start tomorrow morning. Here is the book; (the class) is on the fourth floor of Boyle Hall.' 1 was a senior in college and all of a sudden 1 am teaching this class of thirty-seven boys." A philosophy major with minors in Latin and education, he hardly knew where to begin. He discovered that writing assignments offered a way to communicate with the students individually. Eventually teaching became Father Gery's niche. Twenty-seven years of summer school included seven summers in Canada, four or five in Germany, studies in Spain, travel to Israel, and advanced studies in philosophy and theology in several American universities.
And what of his other ministries? "I can honestly say 1 probably enjoyed whatever 1 was doing at the time 1 was doing it." A term as the abbey's house superior admittedly was not his most satisfying post. "Then, the biggest surprise came when 1 was placed in charge of the seminarians at the abbey for a year. That was kind of scary. It was at such a turbulent time, during the sixties and seventies. I was dealing with probably about seven to ten young guys. Can you imagine in 1960 there were 100 seminarians? There were so many that we had to put chairs in front of the choir stalls." He remembers thinking as he looked down from the lofty view of one about to be ordained, "I have never been in a room filled with so much idealism, intelligence, and talent. Everyone of them was different than everyone else in terms of what they had to offer.”
When Pennings closed, he was devastated. A year of study in Germany helped him regroup. When he returned, St. Norbert College invited him to teach French. Two years later the college named him campus pastor, a post he held for eight years. Although he loved the college, the work, and being around the students, it was time to move on.
The transition brought him to his current ministry to the Hispanic people. He participated in a language program in Spain for three months and when he returned, took more Spanish language classes at St. Norbert and engaged a tutor to help with conversational Spanish. Meanwhile, he assists at St. Willebrord parish where he says Mass and hears confessions several days a week.
Reflecting on his life as a Norbertine, Father Gery thanks his
mother, "the kindest and most authentic Catholic he has ever known."
And, "the inspiration of Abbot Pennings, Father Vanden Elzen, Father
Basil Reuss, Father Michael McKeough and other Norbertines will
never be forgotten. I feel humble in the face of the Norbertines'
acceptance of me."
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