For two decades, from her husband Tom’s 1981 ordination as a permanent deacon in the Catholic Church until vocal cord cancer put an end to his ability to preach, Patty was the poetry to his prose.
“It was an absolute team effort,” Patty said. First, he would study the Scripture readings in the lectionary for the coming Sunday, make notes, and set the general tone of what he wanted to say. “Then he just kind of handed it off to me and said, ‘Why don’t you make that interesting?’”
Apparently, she succeeded. The soaring sentences by Patty, delivered from the pulpit by her husband — a former high school seminarian, Marine and minor-league pitcher — frequently moved the congregation. After Mass at St. William the Abbot Parish in Seaford, N.Y., parishioners would often compliment him on the homily. She tactfully stayed away from those conversations, letting him reap the praise. Sometimes, people would send him letters or call him to thank him for another fine homily.
In addition to Sunday Mass, he presided at the baptisms of their grandchildren, nieces and nephews, the weddings of both their children, and countless other weddings and baptisms.
One couple he married loved the film “The Princess Bride,” which has a hysterically funny scene with The Impressive Clergyman pronouncing the sacrament as “mawwage” and speaking of “twue wove,” So, egged on by Patty, Tom began the homily in that voice.
This husband-wife preaching team first came to my attention in June, when I wrote a column saying women should be allowed to preach in the Catholic Church. That set off a stream of emails inviting me to join some other church if I wanted to hear women preach. (Sorry, not leaving.) It also drew a friendly email from Patty, describing their preaching, and one from Tom, confirming her role: “I am Patty’s husband, and, yes, she is the wind beneath my wings.”
His email added: “The end result always caused me to be so deeply moved and enriched by her awesome talent as a writer, and I rehearsed often to adequately convey her words with passion and sincerity at the Sunday liturgy.”
As a team, they brought to the pulpit a rich reality. “The experience of holding a family together and working together as parents and a married couple, and bringing that to a community who are also struggling with the same issues, we always believed was something that, when we did it right, touched people,” Patty said.
But only Tom can stand in that pulpit and preach at Mass. Not Patty. Under canon law, only the ordained, including priests and deacons, can do that, and the church says it cannot ordain women as priests. Just this past week, the news broke that the Vatican had bounced the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, a much loved peace activist, from the Maryknoll order for his support of women priests. A truly sad time.
“I yearn to see a woman on the altar in the Catholic Church: sensitive, insightful to the intricacies of what it is to be a mother, to be a daughter, to be a spouse — things that a priest can’t do,” Tom said. “I think, pure and simple, not having a woman priest in the church is pure discrimination.”
That’s a long way off, but Bishop Emil Wcela, a retired auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre and a fine Scripture scholar, wrote a strong argument in the Oct. 1 issue of America magazine for ordaining female deacons.
Why not? Maybe one day not too far off, Patty the ghost can be Patty the deacon and Patty the preacher. She’s already shown she can do it, many times over. Just ask Tom.
Bob Keeler, winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting, is a member of the Newsday editorial board.