Thursday, August 16, 2007

The "Plaything" of the Show Girls: Fr. John Reynolds

OR What it Means to Be A Star in the Priesthood

It was the custom, in the “old days” of seminary formation, for the incoming new students to needle or roast the revered upper classmen in a kind of Vaudeville revue called a “Slop” show. It not only gave the entire academic community an idea what they were getting in the new crop but it also gave the “kids” a chance to let off some nervous steam and to test their wings as “clerics in training.” I, as an incoming Paulist student, a dirty necked kid from Manhattan’s West side with a limited show biz background,, was given the favored task of mimicking the Big Man on campus, a guy they called “Handsome Jack” or more simply Jax.

He was a tall fellow who demurely described himself as six feet one of bronzed, indolent charm. He had worked at the New York World’s Fair lecturing on Sidereal Time giving a memorized speech written by some one else. He reports that he had no notion of what he was saying. But he said it so well he dazzled his listeners including the show girls [1] of Billy Rose’s famous show, Aquacade. He had an aura of the Great Athlete since he had played Varsity basketball at some obscure college in New York City called Manhattan college. He had also played under an assumed name in the Wall Street league where he had been a messenger for a Brokerage form and had broken all records for points scored, in any one game, up to that time.

He was easy to mimic since he held himself very tall, walking erectly as if he owned any fortunate Boulevard he confidently traveled. He was famous for his withering, lightening fast wit and gift of extraordinary repartee. He admits that this gift is “pre-cognitive” (author’s extrapolation) and that his speedy verbalizing comes from somewhere unknown within him and often operates without his calling it forth. He was the Fastest Verbal Gun around which, of course, attracted brash minor types to fruitlessly take him on. It was somewhat like the great John L. Sullivan, the Irish Brawler and Heavyweight Champion, who always shouted that he could beat any man in the house. Many a imprudent bar fly nursed a swollen jaw and a fierce headache for even attempting to match the power of John L. Likewise, how many young punks ended their short lives in the local Boot Hill cemetery for daring to take on the speed of Wyatt Earp or Billy the Kid. There are scads of folk around even today who would never again dare to try to best John Charles Reynolds after their skewering of times past.

He has a unique talent for telling amusing stories which one can hear over and over again and still get the precious belly laugh we all need. He has a Zero Mostel skill whereby his face will change to become a drunken Irishman, a flighty Chinese gent, an old Jewish woman from the Bronx or an illiterate lout trying to sound educated. He has remarkable and hilarious routines imitating great public figures of the past, somewhat wasted, unfortunately, on the present generation which apparently isn’t interested in the historical meaning and affect of FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, Churchill,. Fr Coughlan or General Mac Arthur.

However, on his entrance into Religious life, he practically (emotionally) carried on his sprightly shoulders a whole Novitiate class during a desperately barren year on the top of a mountain somewhere in the New Jersey hills. In a depressing pall which hung over the facility, every one looked to Jax for the lightening of spirits, including the miscast, ill Novice master whose only joys were smoking foul smelling cigarettes and cooing at a huge, ugly, sloppy Newfound hound, comically named “Jiggs.” While he was in Washington D.C. propping up some of his wounded, bruised and unconfident schoolmates, Jax gained a Master’s Degree in history at Catholic University. This was probably intended to balance off the polyglot, haphazard, somewhat absurd program at his own college, St. Paul’s, where the foundation for his later-in-life view of theology was laid. In the heady days of Vatican II, he was asked what he thought of the “New” theology and whether he had any trouble adapting to it. He instantly replied: “ I have no trouble with the new theology. I never knew the old one.”

Such a response for Jax was a jocose sounding but terribly serious appraisal not only of the superficial theological training we received at that time but also a prescient look at the nonsense and excesses that were so rampant in the sixties and seventies. Adult men and women outdid themselves in trying to demonstrate how avante garde [2] they were. Retrospectively, their solemnly pronounced predictions and analyses now seem incredibly juvenile. How we were urged to accept the New Theology and the New Look of Catholicism! This was particularly tinged with a kind of battle cry or mantra, “in the spirit of Vatican II” which became a catch-all to justify some weird and, fortunately, now forgotten enthusiasms.

There were strong movements to downplay the Rosary, de-emphasize Mary and her role in Redemption, give up the holy water stuff, forget about the sacrament of confession, there really isn’t any sin after all except polluting the environment, all religions are pretty much the same, a little sex never hurt anyone and it is probably helpful to ward off neurosis, liturgy (never say Mass) should be an experiment with dance and popular song, after all it is theatre and on and on.

Such lofty balderdash never made it with handsome Jack. To assess him merely as a very funny guy with a great gift of storytelling and wit, would be to do him a terrible injustice. He is far deeper and more intelligent than just being a clerical Henny Youngman or Don Rickles. Discounting the new theology and never knowing the old, allowed Jax to stick with basics. He says (even today in his early nineties) that his spiritual life consists of the following: Daily Mass., daily rosary, stations of the Cross, visits to the Blessed Sacrament and solid spiritual Reading. In spite of his alleged ignorance of theology, he knows that saying Mass in his room at his desk is not saying Mass alone. There is no such thing as a “private” Mass. Jax knows that the whole court of Heaven with God the Father presiding, celebrates with him every day. Another non-hip [3] priest, Pope John Paul II, urged priests to celebrate Mass every day—even if there is no one else physically present.

Jax always knew that he wanted to be a priest, unlike many of us who doubted and twisted and evaded . He, unlike many of us, never considered marriage as a life style [4]. He wanted to be a priest of God. But a priest who preached God’s Word. It was preacher, not teacher nor pastor nor even convert maker. So he chose a religious group known for its eloquent preaching. And what a fortunate choice he made!

He became one of the greatest preachers in the United States. His style was elegant, even at times, Shakespearean. Interestingly, to this day, he insists that Fulton J. Sheen was the greatest preacher of the 20th century. One could easily see the influence of Sheen upon his own preaching. (Jax called him “Full tongue”). For many years he traveled sometimes alone, sometimes with colleagues, to preach the deep riches of Jesus Christ throughout the whole country. The Governor of California, Pat Brown, heard him on the radio and expressed a wish to meet him personally. This was replicated often, time after time. One particularly memorable feat was his TV debut with a colleague, Fr J. F. Finley, another preaching giant, in a presentation of the famous Pulpit Dialogue on a National Television hookup for four consecutive Sundays. It was, in show biz terms, a smash. Further, Parish missions, retreats to priests and nuns, Three Hours’ Agony Services, all were venue for his talents. He was always a Star—but it was his inner life as much as his natural gifts that made him such. One can hire talent but the combination of such superb natural gifts plus the highly refined intimacy with Christ is indeed rare.

While his great preaching days are over, due mainly to severe hearing loss, he still serves God in prayer and good humor. He tells us that his three major assignments now are breakfast and lunch and dinner. He tells us, somewhat unnecessarily, how tough it is to grow old. This is inevitable of course, but his spirit never gets old or bitter. He still offers his experience and friendliness to all. He still makes others laugh. He never laughs at others, always with. He still says his prayers. Perhaps, it is easy to mimic his external behavior. It is a lot more difficult to imitate his spiritual life. Yet, how to be a star in the priesthood? Follow Our hero, Big Jax. Keep to the basics----Any of us can do that. One can never go wrong that way but beyond just being right---it is really the way to God.


[1] He is insistent that the “category” was show girl and not chorus girl. The former group was tall, Stately, beautiful and reasonably intelligent. The latter category referred to shorter girls who danced, were muscled and not too interested in things intellectual.
[2] The term “Avant garde” originated in the French military wherein the idiots, unskilled useless peasants and the socially inferior were placed on the front lines to absorb the ferocity of the enemy. The superior types were held back until the avant garde were slaughtered.
[3] Non-hip according to certain “modern” priests who celebrate Mass only when there is some one there to listen to them. JPII taught that Mass is for worship of God—not in any other direction.
[4] One natural reason for aversion to marriage was his distaste on seeing his sisters’ nylons hanging in the shower each morning.