Fr. Joe Gillespie, OP is pastor at St. Albert the Great Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Fr. Joe just celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a priest, and here is an interview by OPCentral about what priestly life looks like from his perspective.
OPCentral: Tell me about your time in the Order of Preachers.
Fr. Joe: I entered the Order in 1963, right after the start of Vatican II, in the middle of that questioning about the future of the Church and its opening up to ecumenism. We studied theology in Dubuque, Iowa which was, curiously enough, one of the hotbeds of innovative ecumenism. Dominicans Cletus Wessels and the newly ordained Tom O'Meara listened to the council and made friends with members of other seminaries in town. They worked out a schedule for shared classes with Lutherans from Wartburg Seminary, and with Presbyterians and Methodists from the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, and with the diocesan seminary. It was a very exciting time.
What do you remember of your first year as a novice?
The novitiate was very cloistered and quiet, in the old, traditional mold, in Winona, Minnesota. There are days in which I would give anything to go back and spend a year up on the hill in Winona in silence. One of the things that reflected my curiosity in the novitiate was that it was dedicated to the memory of St. Peter Martyr, who was a 13th century Dominican, a great preacher, and had a particular phrase that I found interesting and I've held on to: “silentium pater praedicatorum” (“silence is the father of preachers”). Unless you can learn to be silent, you shouldn't be preaching, otherwise, it's just your own analysis of things. But that invitation to live in contemplation alone was never enough for me. In our formation, people like Bob Perry and Henry Holman and Gilbert Graham offered a vision of Dominican life in which one was deeply involved in retreat work and preaching but held on to a sense of silence. There was a need for contemplation and a need for ministry.
You were ordained in 1970. That was an interesting time to be ordained.
In my first year of ministry we were demonstrating against the Vietnam War in little Dubuque, Iowa. I remember being singled out in a photograph in the New York Times. There was a genuine invitation to be among the people, and that orientation was very clear to me, and has remained so. I have been thinking about a statement of Pope Francis that, if you really regard yourselves as shepherds, you should smell like the sheep. You have to be out among people to know what their issues are. So that has always been a mantra of sorts for me: can you really be among people and understand what their needs are?
In 1970, when I was ordained, I began working at Mercy Hospital as a chaplain, but I also started teaching pastoral care courses about working with the sick, and death and dying, and divorce, and drug addiction. While teaching, I worked for ten years at the Dubuque County Mental Health Center as a family therapist and did weekend jobs at various parishes. In a way, then, I have always had that interplay between contemplation and action, sometimes perhaps too much action and not enough contemplation, but always reflecting on what I was doing.
After 26 years I had a chance to work full-time in a parish, the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. I thought I was only going to be there for a semester and then return to teaching in St. Louis, but I stayed eight years. I felt that this was the heart of preaching, where everything I had been teaching suddenly became apparent in the life cycle of individuals and families, because you could take it all and apply it to people's everyday lives. I still get emails from people who said that I changed their life with something I said or did. I can't always say that I knew what I was doing, but what I was doing I knew was good. From that point of view, it was worth doing.
What weighs on you, and what gives you hope?
Well, I'm coming out of a very critical moment here in Minneapolis. We just had riots here and the parish was just a block away from being engulfed and flames and tear gas and rubber bullets, and this went on for many nights here in our neighborhood. I was called one evening and asked if I would be willing to shelter a number of people who were afraid that their building was going to be set on fire. So at midnight was receiving a group with their blankets and pillows, and the Church became a sanctuary for these refugees. I think that the church has to always be willing to open its doors to people who are searching for something that will mitigate the uncertainties of life, whether it's in the City of Minneapolis or in the church itself.
My preaching always tries to convey to people that they are welcome here. I'm not out there checking credentials, whether people are worthy to be there or not. I am just delighted that they are able to be there. It would be difficult for me as a pastor if I could not do that.
But also, during this pandemic there is a curious uncertainty about the future. Many people are not coming to church. They are staying home and watching the Mass live-streamed. One gentleman, when he came back to church, said that while attending Mass live is better than watching it on the computer, he missed his remote and being able to put me on hold or fast-forward. So we're in a liminal state of some sort and perhaps the future may not be the way I would want it to be or how we dreamed it would be. This pandemic has helped us to understand that we are not in charge as much as we thought. Perhaps we are being called more towards “letting go and letting God.”
One other example of hope: I attended a peaceful civil rights demonstration by ecumenical clergy, including our own Archbishop Hebda. It was a very hot day, and we had our masks on, and one of the local African-American pastors said, “George Floyd said he couldn’t breathe. Let us all kneel and try to breathe in the gift of the Holy Spirit so that we can do something good.” At my age, getting down is easy, but getting back up is difficult. When I went to stand again, I asked the black woman in front of me if I could lean on her to steady myself. She turned around and said, “Reverend, you can lean on me, because we have to lean on each other now.” That has become my mantra: we are going to lean on each other as we lean into the future. We don't know where it's going to take us for sure, but if we can't lean on each other, maybe it's not worth going there.
Last question: knowing what you know now, would you do it all again?
Yes, but now I would lean into the future rather than rushing into it. You lean into the next year after the one you just completed, uncertain as to how it will turn out, but through the grace of God knowing that you are still called to preach and to teach the Good News.