A Priest Not on a Pedestal
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by Jennifer Szweda Jordan
November 12, 2018

 

When the college student first spotted Paulist Fr. Ken McGuire planting pink begonias on campus, he mistook him for a gardener.

“Hi, do you know where Fr. Ken is?,” the student asked. It was 1975, and the start of a long friendship between Fr. Ken, a campus minister and the younger man, who became Paulist Fr. Bill Edens.

“Later on,” Fr. Bill says, “I saw him painting his bookshelf, and I thought, this is a guy I could get to know—he’s down-to-earth.”

Fr. Ken was so down-to-earth that he often sat on the chapel floor in prayer with students at the University of California, Los Angeles, while celebrating candlelight Saturday night Mass at 10 p.m. It calls to mind Luke 6:17 when Jesus “came down with (a crowd) and stood on a stretch of level ground.”

“I wanted not to live on a pedestal,” Fr. Ken says.

In those heady days after Vatican II, Fr. Ken embraced the call for all members of the church to fully participate. At one campus where he worked, nobody could lector two weeks in a row to promote wider community involvement. There were 50 Eucharistic ministers to share responsibilities in that area, too. And dialogue homilies became a hallmark of a Fr. Ken Mass–in which he’d ask the congregation questions and listen to their answers about the Gospel.

“He kind of greases the skids to have people think of life and what they’re doing in a different way, to entice them out of their comfort zone,” says Stephen Burnett, a longtime parishioner at the Paulists’ St. Mary’s of the Lake in Lake George, N.Y.

At UCLA’s Newman Center, Fr. Ken brought together a tight-knit community of students and locals. He made sure all had keys to the chapel so they could visit during exams, or at any time. The group ate and worshipped together for many hours one Saturday a month. Forty years later, members of the group who remain in L.A. are still meeting. Out of that group came three Paulist Fathers, including Fr. Bill, and two religious sisters, as well as many former Paulists, and couples with their children and grandchildren. During Fr. Ken’s 50th anniversary Masses through this year, several of these people came to celebrate.


You may also listen to this interview at Storycorps.


Perhaps Fr. Ken learned how to grow a community (and begonias) from the ground up since he was raised on a working farm. As a youngster, he drove a horse-drawn plow through the fields of the sharecropped Ohio property where his family lived. He tended cows and chickens and vegetable gardens and honed many of his do-it-yourself skills.

“The candlesticks were turned on the lathe by Fr. Ken,” Fr. Bill said at Fr. Ken’s 50th anniversary outdoor Mass at St. Mary of the Lake, pointing to a rustic wooden altar, also made by Fr. Ken. “He built the garage in which the machines are so he could turn those on the lathe.”

Fr. Ken’s mother taught him to sew, and Fr. Ken still makes his own dress shirts, often with loud colorful paisley or Hawaiian prints. To put himself through college, Fr. Ken worked in a machine shop, then as a short order cook—4 p.m. to midnight. Friends still rave about his strawberry and cherry pies. One of Fr. Ken’s favorite dishes to make at home in Palm Springs is chicken piccata.

“I have about three different recipes–some with tomatoes some without,” he says.

No religion was practiced in Fr. Ken’s home, but he got a taste of Christian camp meetings when he visited his grandparents. Fr. Ken went to the Air Force, and found that he loved talking—and arguing—about the nuances of various religions.

He got curious about Catholicism and an Air Force friend gave him the 1938 book “The Faith of Millions: The Credentials of the Catholic Religion” by Fr. John A. O’Brien, a Notre Dame theologian.

“It made sense,” Fr. Ken says.

Two-thirds of the way through reading, Fr. Ken was sold on Catholicism. He was baptized a couple weeks later. Fr. Ken then attended Ohio State University, where he joined the Newman Center run by the Paulists. Fr. Ken says it was a very active center—one that organized dances with hundreds of people. As president of the Newman Center, he successfully lobbied for the national Newman convention to come to OSU in 1958, filling dorms with Catholic college women and men, and 100 priests from around the country.

While Fr. Ken wanted to be a priest from as soon as he was baptized, he initially thought he wasn’t holy enough. But friends saw him differently.

“People kept saying, ‘You ought to be a priest,’” he says.

The Paulist community appealed to him because they had many priests in campus ministry. And then there was a deadline.

“I was told that you have to enter before 30 or you can’t enter at all,” Fr. Ken says. “I was turning 30 that fall. So I said, ‘Well, I’d better hurry up and try it out and they can throw me out if it doesn’t work.’”

The Paulists still haven’t thrown him out, even though he’s often pushing the envelope of belief systems.

“I‘m a very liberal theologian but someone said I was able to get along with all sorts of people,” Fr. Ken says.

Even if he doesn’t always get along with their ideas.

“In seminary they tried to get me to say accidents and substance is what makes the world…I never gave in,” Fr. Ken says. The theory of accidents and substance owes to St. Thomas Aquinas, a theologian who became de rigueur after the Reformation.

The Catholic Church has come late to science, progress, and dialogue, Fr. Ken says.

“Friends of mine–two moral theologians–wrote a book about five or six years ago, and they had two chapters on transgender. No Catholic publisher would touch the book. They had to publish it themselves,” he says. “Yet three or four weeks ago, I was reading a major moral theologian who went back and began to think about and talk to transgender people and so he was beginning to say, ‘Hey, these are real people, these are real problems.’ These are things we have to deal with. The Church doesn’t deal that way well.”


On the occasion of his 50th anniversary Mass, friends share their experiences with Fr. Ken:


 

Fr. Ken studied plant breeding at Oregon State and earned masters and doctoral degrees in anthropology. He says the anthropology studies allowed him to understand in depth how different people have different mindsets.

It led him to develop inculturation programs to help foreign-born priests integrate into American culture.

“What are some particular characteristics of American culture that you’re going to have trouble with?” Fr. Ken would ask the priests, who came from traditional cultures. “It was always women, equality and sexuality. These are big issues in the American church.”

Fr. Ken says that although the program went on for years, it was still hard for him to help priests make the shift.

And yet at Fr. Ken’s Lake George anniversary Mass, he described the importance of being open to change.

“We can see change coming down the road and it can be seen as exciting or terrifying,” Fr. Ken says. “Scripture for us is very clear–seek new life, more understanding, not just the same old same old or the miracles of this world. How many times have I said cure me of this or let me avoid that? What we need to do is say whatever comes is sufficient for this life because God has shown us in Jesus that new life is here. All we have to do is prepare.”

Shortly after that Mass, Fr. Ken removed his priestly robes, revealing his silky homemade button-down shirt and sat off quietly in the chairs among the audience–the priest off his pedestal among the people.


Jennifer Szweda Jordan is a writer and audio producer in Pittsburgh.