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Friday, November 16, 2007

The gospel of hope

From today's Catholic Universe Bulletin:
The gosepl of hope
Father Joseph McNulty brings hope to the margins through St. Augustine’s diverse ministries
By Wendy A. Hoke

Father Joseph McNulty is preaching this Sunday morning on Luke's story of Zacchaeus. He paints the story of the tax collector who hid in a tree only to be called to open his home to Jesus not only with his words, but also with his hands.

“The people I see think Jesus doesn’t want to come to them, that God would not forgive them. That’s not true,” he says to the congregation gathered at St. Augustine Parish. “There’s no person Jesus doesn’t want to be with. I find real hope in this story and I hope it helps you find hope for yourselves and also for those who feel very far from Jesus.”

This is the weekly Mass for the deaf at the parish in Cleveland's Tremont neighborhood and Father McNulty, pastor for 30 years, signs the entire Mass.

Petitions are offered for the poor, hurting, forgotten, shunned, sick, suffering, recovering and dying. But it's hope that Father McNulty and the many others who support the work of St. Augustine in its ministries to the deaf, blind, mentally ill, disabled, poor and homeless, build their life around.

“When we meet the poor we meet Christ. As a church we bring them a sense of hope that we truly love and are dedicated to them,” he says.

For his efforts and leadership, Father McNulty will receive the Archbishop Hoban Award for distinguished service to the Diocese of Cleveland this Sunday. It's the highest honor given by the diocese.

“I’m very honored to receive the award, but it’s really for all the people who work in our ministries here. So I am honored to receive it in their name,” he says.

The award will be presented at the Deo Gracias Mass and brunch at Parmadale. Mass begins at 10:00 a.m. with the program afterward.

St. Joseph Sister Corita Ambro, who has been at St. Augustine longer than Father McNulty, says the award is well deserved and long overdue.

“He goes far beyond his duty in caring for his people,” Sister Ambro says. “The Irish in him keeps him from being a hugger, but his heart is overwhelming.”

His philosophy is like that of St. Francis de Sales: If you’re praying and someone comes to the door, leave your prayer and go answer the door, says Sister Ambro.

She calls him a natural teacher and mediator. “He knows where the central road is and that’s where he’s going.”

One of eight children of Irish immigrants, Father McNulty grew up in St. Thomas Aquinas parish. He describes himself as a “lifer” having entered the seminary in high school, but his early exposure to the marginalized of society helped to influence his ministry.

“We were probably poor, but I didn’t know it,” he says, partly because his family had hope and a connection to others. “My dad had a cousin who was a divorced single mom and every week he would buy enough food for her and her child. Back then we called homeless people bums. My mom always fed them and also tried to give them advice. Both of my parents really inspired me."

Younger brother Dennis McNulty is director of disability services for Catholic Charities and plays bass guitar in the St. Augustine choir. He says that their parents gave all of the McNulty children a real sense of service to others.

"Prayer was central to our lives and church was central to our community," he says. "We have a keen sense of caring for people."

While in seminary Father McNulty worked for what was then called the welfare department and found that through working with the poor, he felt the strength of the gospel message.

“True poverty is when you don’t have the material or spiritual resources to have a sense of hope,” he says. “I don’t believe that physical poverty can overwhelm because you still have a connection to others that can help you beyond the material needs.

“Spiritually when you are so destroyed by poverty that you see no way out is far more devastating. The problem today is that we’re seeing entire families in this predicament. We try to give people a sense of hope and that takes time and contact. It’s hard to have hope when the only people you see around you are those like you.”

When he arrived at the West 14th Street parish in 1972 as an associate, he came as director of the apostolic for the deaf and hearing impaired. Father McNulty quickly learned of the generosity of spirit of the community he was appointed to serve.

“The deaf are a real community and they gather in that community. They know each other through generations. We’ve used that model with our other groups and as a tie-in to our ministry to the poor,” he says.

So many of St. Augustine’s ministries overlap. While he teaches American Sign Language classes to the general population, he also teaches an ASL class to the blind. He’s proud of the Alcoholic’s Anonymous community at St. Augustine and often tries to get visitors to the Hunger Center to give a meeting a try. Every year he does about 30 Fifth Steps with recovering alcoholics. (Admit to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.) And at least one AA meeting per week is interpreted for the deaf.

He doesn’t allow panhandling as a rule, but has been known to give spare change if he gets an honest story about how it will be spent, even if it’s for a 40-ounce beer.

Just keep him away from the turkeys. As a group of high school students unload frozen turkeys, he jokes that he is not encouraged to help with this particular ministry.

Instead, he is headed to Walsh Hall just behind the rectory for the twice-monthly meeting of St. Augustine Buckeye Deaf Seniors Citizens.

The deaf share not only a language, but also a culture, a passion for the St. Augustine community and a love for Father McNulty.

Speaking as he signs, Father McNulty reminds the seniors of the Bishop Richard G. Lennon’s upcoming visit and the reception following Mass. “You can ask him for a younger priest,” jokes Father McNulty. They smile and wave their hands in applause. “If you need a way to come to church, let us know.”

St. Augustine’s many communities and ministries have found a home, thanks to Father McNulty’s leadership.

As he distributes Communion at Mass, Father McNulty taps his chest twice, “The body of Christ.” Parishioners bring their hands out and then together in prayer to signify, “Amen.”

“Lord God, give us new hope through the Eucharist,” he concludes.

Hoke is a freelance writer.


Michelle O'Neil said...

As he distributes Communion at Mass, Father McNulty taps his chest twice, “The body of Christ.” Parishioners bring their hands out and then together in prayer to signify, “Amen.”

Your words bring the scene to life.

* Also loved the quote about being Irish and hugging. Too funny.

Wendy Hoke said...

Thanks, Michelle. I spent a lot of time with Fr. Joe so it was a pleasure to write about him.

I nearly spit out my coffee when Sister Corita made the Irish/hugger comment. :)