Good Shepherds: A College Chaplain Saved My Soul. Who Saved Yours?

Maybe everyone has a particular priest who they think of when they think of the priesthood.

I do: Father Cornelius Michael Buckley, the priest who brought me back into the Church just by being a priest 35 years ago.

Good Shepherd Sunday makes me think of what priests and shepherds have in common. 

Shepherds displace themselves, they have to tirelessly “keep their watch,” they fight off dangerous intruders, and they even “lay down their life for their sheep.”

The field Father Buckley displaced himself in was a men’s dorm, and the way he “kept his watch” was living a door-knock away from his immature flock down the hall.

He was tireless: He would say Mass at 10 pm because that is about the only time his college students would go. He fought off dangerous intruders who meant us harm, from his confessional where he put in hours every week. And he spent the decades after I graduated serving college students still, at Thomas Aquinas College, laying down his life for his vocation.

A key virtue of a Good Shepherd is that he saves sheep from themselves.

A shepherd’s job is to prod sheep away from dangers. That’s what Father Buckley did.

Father Buckley wasn’t a flashy priest. He didn’t get people stirred up. He had a healthy suspicion of “holy rollerism,” because he knew how thin the line is, especially in the young, between religious enthusiasm and religious fanaticism.

Again and again, he headed me off from excesses in various directions and toward a solid, grounded love for Jesus Christ and the normal ways the Church provides of reaching him.

His approach has been a rudder that righted my ship throughout my life.

Of course, Good Shepherds don’t just keep you away from dangers: They prod you towards what you need.

Father Buckley launched my life’s work in several ways. First, he got me involved in the college newspaper, so I would use my writing talent to do something better than the parody poems he saw me scribbling in the dorm.

Next, he got me involved in Catholic journalism, arranging the meeting that got me in touch with the great Fran Maier at the National Catholic Register, which has carried pieces of mine for 33 years now.

But most importantly, he saw my burgeoning Eucharistic devotion and asked me to sign men up for the All-Night Adoration he was scheduling monthly. I agreed and he asked who he should assign to sign up women. When I said I didn’t care, he said: “Tom, I’m asking you: Who do you want to meet regularly with about this and stay up all night once a month with?”

“Ah,” I said. “April Beingessner.”

And, beginning with a dinner with Father Buckley at a downtown restaurant to plan adoration, April and I have been together ever since.

In other words, a Good Shepherd has a lot in common with a good father.

I remember Father Buckley refused to join the teacher’s union that was being promoted on campus, even though he was a professor of history, because, he said, “It is my vocation for my work to be exploited.”

I think that’s what a father needs to say regarding his family. Some of the most important things you do as a father are boring, but you do them anyway, for the family. Your most crucial tasks as a father are unglamorous — no one ever thanks you, or even notices, if you do them right.  I admire Father for risking the worst things imaginable in our age, boredom and obscurity, for us.

I have gotten phone calls from Father Buckley two weeks in a row now. He’s in his 90s, and still checking in to see how I’m doing. I pray I can be the kind of father for my children that he has been for me.

Click here for my podcast on six priests and the priesthood.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.