We are gathered here to mark the sojourn through the life of Charles James Morrissey.
Charles was sent by God to live in this world, and now he has been removed by God from his station. He was sent to be a part of the family of mankind. He was born in Harlan, Iowa, the first child of Charles and Lois Morrissey on January 29, 1932 and died on July 5, 1977 in Chicago, Illinois.
Charles was the brother of Monica, Malachy, Rita, Michael, Frances, Mary, Stephen, Shirley, Genevieve, Joseph, Thomas and Veronica, all of whom survive him.
Charles attended St. Peter and Paul Grade School in Carroll, Iowa and high school and college at Our Lady of the Ozarks School in Carthage, Missouri. Nurtured by the Roman Catholic Church, he made the vocational decision to enter the priesthood and enrolled at the Novitiate of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Godfrey, Illinois. He did his major seminary work at Our Lady of the Snows Scholasticate in Pass Christian, Mississippi. He was ordained into the priesthood in May 1958, which ordination he honored faithfully his whole life.
From 1959 to 1966, Father Morrissey served as assistant pastor of Assumption Parish in Ridgefield, Minnesota where he daily went about his task caring for the members of his parish with a compassionate zeal that set him apart as a very special kind of human being. Called to identify himself with the suffering of this world, he became a missionary in Recife, Brazil, in the diocese of Dom Helder Camara where he labored from 1966 to 1971. Always on the pioneering edge of the historical Church, on his return from Brazil he requested an assignment from the Oblates to the staff of the Ecumenical Institute, which request was granted.
Father Morrissey insisted on being practically engaged in the renewal of the Church, and he was equally concerned to find ways of articulating the power of Jesus Christ in liturgy and teaching that would speak to common people. He was assigned by the Institute to be an ambassador-at large and, in that capacity, traveled around the globe. He literally lived out of two suitcases for five years. Everywhere he went–Latin America, Europe, India, Southeast Asia, the Philippines–he met and talked with princes of the Church, parish priests and religious orders, gaining authorization for the mission of the Institute to serve the Church and the world. Because of his labors, the Institute has been warmly received, encouraged and actively supported by the Roman Catholic Church wherever it has gone to work. He was clear that the historical Church needs to transcend the divisions of doctrine and practice to exercise, once again, its prophetic and healing word. This very conviction was what made him a worthy priest of the Oblate Congregation.
Father Morrissey, finally, was solitary. He lived his life in joyful obedience to God and understood, in the depths of his being, that he was the son of God. His life is now complete and will itself remain a part of the eternal love of God, being given back the Mystery from which he came and to which he already belongs.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I have lived half of my life in a small town in southern New Hampshire next door to a retreat house run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. For years they have provided chaplains and confessors for the enormous convent that was a boarding school when I first arrived there at ten years old. Thus, when my Congregation agreed to assign me to intern with the Ecumenical Institute in 1973, meeting Charles Morrissey was like unexpectedly meeting a friend from home.
I must confess that my first impressions were less than enthusiastic. I thought him rather non-descript, somewhat of a plodder. Then we were assigned to work in the newly established Roman Catholic Authorization Post, and I soon changed my mind. The Post was intensely involved in the renewal tool we were building for religious orders, the Religious Orders Consult. The phrase that held it for me then and that became irrevocably linked to Charles’s name in my consciousness was: missional chastity. Missional chastity as we’ve come to define it in Kierkegaardian terms: purity of heart is to will one thing. Charles had that single-mindedness like few people I know. He had it in such depth that he was always and everywhere totally himself, with zest and no apologies. He had it so profoundly that he was doing maneuvers years before the term became a household word among us. He willed one thing and found the most effective way to embody the one thrust his life was.
Charles always seemed to work intensely without tension, to throw himself into any assignment with his whole being, whether it was to address the Asian Bishops’ Conference as he did once on behalf of Dean Mathews or to mop the kitchen floor for me at 11 p.m. as he did a few days after he returned from Europe last month. He was in the dish room most of that week-end and sang incessantly. “Charles,” I said, “do you sing all the time?” “I guess I do,” was his reply. Charles sang all the time, and when it wasn’t audible it was in his eyes, in his whole stance toward life.
Two days after his return, he was assigned to report on the Termine Consult during the morning collegium. He started by distributing copies of the love song from The Godfather and had us sing it. How corny I thought. Then he said a few short words of context and the rest became apparent: the Italian village, the poorest of the poor whom he loved as a husband loves his wife, a love song to articulate his decision to pour out his life on their behalf in order to make comprehensive socio-economic development a reality in our time.
In this time of profound transition in the Church’s understanding of its mission in society, in this era of profound change in religious life, I am personally–and on behalf of the Order: Ecumenical–deeply grateful to the Oblate Fathers for having had the foresight and the willingness to share Charles with the Institute. In a rare moment of self-revelation, he once told me that he came back from Brazil in 1971 ready to leave the priesthood. Last week I met Fr. Leo Figge who was his Provincial Superior at that time, and he confirmed the fact just hinting at the long, painful struggle that had been. He allowed Charles to attend the Academy, and the rest is part of our history.
Msgr de Mazenod founded the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to carry the Good News to the poorest of the poor, to the most forgotten in the most inaccessible parts of the globe. When you add up all the authorization work and development work Charles did to enable that kind of care to become a sociological reality, it is far less significant–despite its incredible magnitude–than the fact that he understood in the deeps of his being what it means to dare to walk with princes and be a nobody. That, in all its crushing demands, is his legacy to us just at the time we need it most.