May 18, 2018
“Brewing Beer and Catholic Traditions” – it’s a mixed drink of a lecture that Paulist Deacon Michael Hennessy has been serving thirsty audiences for the last couple years.
While living in Beer City, USA (AKA Grand Rapids, MI) where the Paulist Fathers assigned Deacon Mike to live and minister with them one summer, he was asked to develop teaching topics.
“I proposed something on Jesus, something on the Psalms, and I just kind of threw in, out of left field, something about the Catholic traditions of brewing beer,” he says.
“That’s the one,” he was told.
“So I immersed myself,” Deacon Mike says without the slightest snicker. “We had been home brewing at the seminary. Trying Trappist and monastic beers.”
He reached out to local breweries in Grand Rapids.
“Go figure at one of these breweries, the head brewer was a member of the Knights of Columbus,” Deacon Mike says. “He came to the event.”
A bar originally scheduled two nights for his talk. Over 200 people came and they scheduled a third session.
“Then all the sudden, I had this topic in my back pocket,” Deacon Mike says. “I’ve given this talk like 10 times. What happens is in my travels – I did my pastoral year in Knoxville, and went to Asheville, which is another big beer city. It’s just something that’s kinda taken a life of its own.”
Deacon Mike has done more research since that first talk, and says he might like to write a book on this topic.
“There’s really nothing in-depth written from a Catholic perspective,” he says. The talk is “not a bait-and-switch that these people come to learn about beer and I give them ‘Life in Christ’ but there’s a line in the talk, about vocation, surrendering to God’s will.”
Just like Deacon Mike started talking about beer on a whim – he started the path to be a priest that way, too.
When he was just 18, walking amid the tables at a bustling orientation fair with his parents at Saint Anselm College, he signed up to be in the choir. Those six hours or more spent in a church ended up having a profound effect on him.
“I just found it to be a very peaceful time in my life,” Hennessy says of singing in choir. “By the end of my college years, all this time, you know, in church praying and singing – there was a depth to my spiritual life that, you know, I don’t think I realized right away. That just continued to grow.”
After graduating, Deacon Mike taught social studies and U.S. history in a large urban public high school in New Hampshire.
“I kind of took to history early on in college and I just saw it as something completely relevant but that needs to be translated and needs to be brought to the students in a way that they can be open to hearing this message,” Deacon Mike says, “which I think is very similar to how the church needs to bring its message to the people.”
He worked with what he described as “diverse students, rich to poor. I had students who were refugees. I had students who, on their information sheets, it says they were born January 1, because they didn’t know what day they were born..For some students that I worked with, you know, this might have been the only time in their life that they were expected and wanted to be somewhere.”
He also coached the cross-country boys running team, and had a full life, attending a Sunday night Mass. Every now and then he’d get a glimpse in his mind of seeing himself as a priest. Then, he says, there was what he called a hinge moment.
“I was near 30,” he says. He asked himself, “Do I want to actively find someone to get married in the church? I had been in relationships. A priest asked, ‘When you picture yourself as a priest, does it disgust or disturb you?’ And I said, ‘No.’ I said that I’d always regret not trying it.’”
From that point, he says, he made a series of what he calls deals with himself.
“I said ‘I’m going to look into this, and if, at any point, it doesn’t feel right, I can step aside,” Deacon Mike says. “For me it wasn’t, ‘I’m going to seminary,’ but ‘I’m talking to the vocation director … Every step just felt like, this feels OK. And six years later I’m still in the game.”
God-willing, Paulist Deacon Ryan Casey and Paulist Deacon Michael Hennessy will be ordained priests by Cardinal Joseph Tobin on Saturday morning, May 19, at the Paulist Fathers’ mother church, the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, in New York City. All are welcome to attend!
Jennifer Szweda Jordan is a writer and audio producer based in Pittsburgh. Listen to her full interview with Deacon Mike here: