Paul McMullen is managing editor of the Catholic Review.


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Great article Paul. Really enjoyed reading it!


Dear Paul, Great , I love it. Sweet memories, Lots of Love Sharon



athletics catholic faith church faith Feet For Francis Francis in Philly golf Pilgrimage soccer sports Uncategorized
Baltimore Boomer

Some of my best friends are journalists

At some point my parents left it to my older siblings to correct my behavior at St. Rose of Lima in Brooklyn. Two memories stand out, once for slouching as an altar server, the other in a pew, for not washing from my neck and arms the newsprint that had accumulated one Sunday from more than 100 copies of the News American.

Fifty years ago last month, on the day I turned 12 and became legally old enough to man – boy? – a paper route, my brother Kevin took me to the garage of Mrs. Richardson, the neighborhood distributor of the Hearst daily, who gave me my first job. The discipline and diligence that was lacking in the classroom came out on Church Street, perhaps because I was already partial to periodicals. With a home awash in three Baltimore daily newspapers, the Maryland Gazette, the Catholic Review, Army Times, Life, Look, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, etc., who had time for assigned reading?

With a few brief interruptions, I have remained an ink-stained wretch. The more funerals I attend, the more appreciative I am of the folks who made that possible.

Weeks out of high school, Al Hopkins and Joe Gross gave me an opportunity to write sports for the Annapolis Capital and Maryland Gazette. Al was not the most effusive guy, but neither was my father. At Halsey Field House, Al singled out the Marines from the Navy men jogging laps. It seemed silly then; now, I recognize it as a lesson in observation. Joe taught the value of passion and a good publicity stunt.

Mike Klingaman got me into the Evening Sun newsroom in Baltimore, and Larry Harris got me fulltime employment there. Molly Dunham taught that if you want to qualify for a big assignment, you need to get out of your comfort zone. Bill Marimow taught that it is more important to be fair than first.

Many acquaintances and neighbors mock the media. I have never fabricated facts, but have witnessed the newsroom dismissal of those who did.

At times, I served my employer better than my family, leaving Mary to deal with the kids. On March 14, 1993, while the eastern U.S. was dealing with an historic late winter snowstorm, I was in Chapel Hill, N.C. It was not that important a lacrosse game, Loyola College at the University of North Carolina, but a road trip seemed in order. I wrote that it was believed to be the only outdoor sports event played that day east of the Mississippi River. USA Today picked up that nugget.

On that trip, I took holy Communion with the Greyhounds at their pre-game Mass in a hotel conference room, one of many great church memories on the road. Twenty years ago, the NCAA basketball tournament took me to Birmingham, Ala., where the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Joe Juliano and I joined a Palm Sunday ecumenical pilgrimage after Mass, then had the best home-cooked soul food ever. A week later, I was walking up No. 2 following Steve Elkington at The Players Championship outside Jacksonville on Easter Sunday when something tickled my ankle. It was a serpent, albeit a harmless little green snake. The year before, Easter Sunday was spent in Augusta, Ga., where I squirmed to hide my Masters credential as the priest began his homily, “Blessed are the poor and ticketless.”

The lobby at The Sun included a photo of H.L. Mencken and this quotation: “As I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It really is the life of kings.” Wrong about a lot of things, Mencken was right about that.

The Sun allowed me to see the Acropolis in Athens; La Rambla in Barcelona; Pebble Beach; Elvis Presley’s grave at Graceland; Fats Domino on New Year’s Eve in New Orleans; several Jerry Jeff Walker birthday shows in Austin, Texas; Jerry Falwell in his office in Lynchburg, Va.; and the Tasman Sea west of Melbourne, Australia, where baby penguins screaming for dinner gave way to the Southern Cross.

Because Mary was at my side, that last one is my favorite memory of all.

People resonate more than places. The first time I wrote about faith was in 1979, when a teenage runner named Bob Golliday was dying of cancer. Before coaches had to maintain a Twitter feed, I lingered in the offices of Dave Cottle, Bill Nelson, Fang Mitchell, Skip Prosser, Tony Seaman and Terry Truax. Sometimes, we talked basketball and lacrosse. More often, we talked life.

The secular media gig ran out, but Dan Medinger and Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien brought me to the Review and Chris Gunty and Archbishop Lori keep surrounding me with good people. The Review has allowed me to worship in a rundown cathedral in St. Marc, Haiti; much more regal houses in Assisi and Rome; and throughout the archdiocese. You don’t need a passport to see Europe; just head to Baltimore’s older churches.

Trying to slow down on the road from Baltimore to Philadelphia with Father Jack Lombardi in September 2015.

I loved writing sports, where nearly everything is quantifiable. Now I love writing faith, because it is not.

As awkward as I am on a dance floor, my vocation has been blessed with good timing. The Summer Olympic beat fell into my lap just as the North Baltimore Aquatic Club was unveiling a 14-year-old prospect. Both Michael Phelps and Bob Bowman, his coach, taught me not to let anyone else define your limits. Deacon Rod Mortel, who escaped Haiti and one of the worst slums in the Western Hemisphere to run a hospital, reinforced that.

There is still much to learn, from 30-something co-workers, retirees and those in between, like Paula Tiller, a fellow pilgrim on our September 2015 walk from Baltimore to Philadelphia to see Pope Francis.

Inhaling a chicken leg at a roadside stop on Belair Road, Paula slowed me down, instructing me to thank the farmer who fed the chicken, the truck driver who transported it, the Royal Farms counter person who prepared it – and finally, the chicken itself.

She didn’t have to say, thank God.

That, I already knew.

April 06, 2017 12:42
By Paul McMullen

Of Brothers Brennan, and Brothers McMullen

“I’m Coach Mac’s brother.”

When I introduced myself to Jason Brennan at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Homeland Jan. 19, he carried his Uncle Mark’s crosier and a confused expression.

Back in December, I had spent a leisurely morning at the Frederick home of his parents, Paul and Patricia, gathering background for a feature on Bishop Mark Brennan’s roots. Paul is Bishop Brennan’s only sibling. We had already established a pretty good rapport when he mentioned that their three children, Jason, Lyn and John, had all played athletics at Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick.

I noted that when my brother, Kevin, a career educator, took his calling in the 1990s from Anne Arundel County to Frederick County, his first coaching job there was the boys’ soccer team at TJ.

“I know your brother,” Paul Brennan said. “He coached Jason.”

A photo of the Brennan Brothers shows the future bishop on the right.

Much of the remainder of the interview kept returning to our shared interests and acquaintances. Paul spent about 30 seconds discussing his own professional career with the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (his last 25 years there spent managing a wastewater treatment plant in Damascus), and was more eager to talk sports. The Brennan brothers attended St. Anthony High School in Washington, D.C., where Paul played football and baseball.

The Brennan Brothers played baseball growing up.

“John Thompson was in his first year (1966-67) there when I was a senior,” Paul said, of the coach who would go on to become the first black man to lead an NCAA basketball champion, at Georgetown University in 1984.

The Brennan brothers are separated by 27 months. My brother, Kevin, is 22 months older than me. (We weren’t the closest bond of brothers in our house, incidentally, as Don and Tim are separated by 11 months, “Irish twins” born in January and December 1947). Paul Brennan described an idyllic youth with his big brother stretching out from the Glassmanor Apartments in Oxon Hill, along the border of our nation’s capital and Prince George’s County, of games of whiffle ball and two-hand touch. All of those happened at my home, which included one of the first regulation basketball hoops in Brooklyn Park. The photo below is from 1971, when I was called up to the Brooklyn Park High varsity for the District V tournament because I looked good in lay-up lines.

While the Bees came within just 47 points of winning the district final and playing at the state Class B semis in Cole Field House, Kevin and I rarely lost a game of 2-on-2 against the other family combos based at St. Rose of Lima Parish.

When I asked Paul Brennan his thoughts on his brother becoming a bishop, he got emotional and struggled to find words to describe their bond. I understand his sentiments. A young Father Mark Brennan baptized his nephews and niece, and now officiates at the weddings and the baptisms of their children. My brother, Kevin, was the Best Man at my wedding, 33 years ago. I am godfather to his oldest, Esther.

When I related my meeting with Paul Brennan to my brother, Kevin remembered Jason Brennan as a hard-nosed player and natural leader.

Like father, like son, like brothers.

February 02, 2017 10:31
By Paul McMullen

Phelps’ maturation includes faith

Having been blessed to cover his Olympic debut in Sydney, Australia, in 2000, and report on his unprecedented eight medals at the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece, I am more than a casual observer of the athletic marvel that is Michael Phelps.

It was gratifying to see Phelps swim as well as ever the night of Aug. 7, as he led the U.S. to a gold medal – his 19th – in the 400-meter freestyle relay. It was his first dip into the pool at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but the performance was not surprising, considering the evident serenity the 31-year-old discovered in the aftermath of a series of aimless choices that culminated in a drunk-driving arrest in fall 2014.

Phelps bared his soul to Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden in November 2015, and in June Karen Crouse of the New York Times added additional pertinent details about his personal growth.

It was at an addiction recovery center in Arizona where Phelps, who turned pro at 16 and never had time for college, began reading real books, not just magazines, which took him from Rick Warren’s best-selling “The Purpose Driven Life” to “Man’s Search for Meaning,” by Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl.

This is a side of Michael not previously exhibited.

Over a 14-month span, from July 2003 to August 2004, The Baltimore Sun sent me wherever Phelps competed. Those travels became a book, “The Story of Olympic Champion Michael Phelps, From Sydney to Athens to Beijing” (Rodale Press, 2006).

The only references to faith or religion in the book are mine.

On page 1, I wrote that “Michael Phelps manipulated water like no man since Moses.” Later, it was noted that swimming’s 24/7/365 ethos does not observe the Sabbath, that before swim finals are held on a Sunday night, preliminaries are held on Sunday morning, church services be damned. While the men who founded the North Baltimore Aquatic Club swam their first strokes in a Knights of Columbus pool and studied at Loyola High and Loyola College, the NBAC stressed a self-reliance and self-determination more in line with Ayn Rand.

Phelps was a boy and young man of few words when I followed him on a full-time basis. He never mentioned church or faith, and I cannot recall him saying “Thank God” or anything similar, as an aside or at a press conference, on the road to Athens.

That’s why it is gratifying to hear him acknowledge a higher power, that he is not in this on his own.

August 08, 2016 11:33
By Paul McMullen

On the road for religious freedom, again

The rhythm, routine and Providence were similar, but this religious pilgrimage was also a bit different.

Father Jack Lombardi and friends began another Religious Freedom Pilgrimage June 14, albeit without the fanfare and media attention that accompanied the Pilgrimage of Love and Mercy he led from Baltimore to Philadelphia last September to see Pope Francis.

There were no interviews from The NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt or local media for that matter. With Catholic schools already closed for the year, nor were there hundreds of children cheering pilgrims on, such as the send-off we received at St. Ursula School in Parkville  last September.

As Father Jack and 14 other pilgrims make their way from Annapolis to Ocean City, however, there is still an abundance of devout witness, prayer and song – and not just hymns.

I spent pretty much all of June 15 with the pilgrimage, starting with 8 a.m. Mass at St. Mary in Annapolis, in the church adjoining the school which had provided them shelter the previous night. The kids and adults were still raving about the Italian dinner a parishioner had provided when we strolled over to Main Street and breakfast at Chick & Ruth’s Delly. Father Jack had negotiated a discount for our waffles and eggs and pancakes and bacon, but then two Good Samaritans stepped up and picked up the tab for the entire party.

Scott and Barbara Millar are parishioners of St. Dennis, in Galena. That’s in Kent County, just north of where the pilgrimage was headed. They’ve got a son at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and were on their way to visit their day-old grandson, Anson. He was born June 14, which happens to be Barbara’s birthday, so she was serenaded with the Happy Birthday song.

Chick & Ruth’s is around the corner, literally, from the Maryland Catholic Conference, where Mary Ellen Russell, executive director, took time to visit with the pilgrims, many of whom walk in objection to the HHS contraceptive mandate. She briefed them on the MCC’s ongoing success in fighting the legalization of assisted suicide in Maryland.

It’s a short walk up Francis Street from MCC headquarters to the Maryland State House, where pilgrims got a quick reminder of the state’s significance on the religious freedom front, including mention of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The pilgrims had walked from St. Mary’s to Sandy Point State Park June 14. After lingering in Annapolis the morning of June 15, a four-vehicle caravan crossed the Bay Bridge in a driving rain. Just as we began to start walking from Kent Narrows, the rain stopped and the sky began to clear. We made new friends in Grasonville, where lunch at Ewing Pond Park was provided by St. Andrew by the Bay Parish in Annapolis, courtesy of a group headed by youth minister Christine Lamolinara.

Crossing Route 50, past the outlets at Queenstown, we found some nicely shaded roads, then returned to Route 18, where the road to Centreville was lined with farmland that whetted the appetite for Eastern Shore produce and reminded us that we’re still a ways off from local corn.

It was good to see old friends, such as Martin Webbert, a young parishioner of St. Ursula who’s headed to Archbishop Curley High, and Paula Tiller and her youngest children, James and Philomena.

It was also good to make new ones, such as Judy Dudich, who like, Paula Tiller, is the mother of 10. She had Grace, Mary and Joseph along for the walk. They’re also parishioners of Father Jack’s, at St. Peter in Hancock.

All told June 15, we walked close to 15 miles. The pilgrims spent the night at St. Benedict’s in Ridgely. They’ll rely on the kindness of other Catholic churches and schools in the Diocese of Wilmington through June 22, when they’ll dip their toes into the Atlantic at Ocean City. Then they’ll hustle home for the priestly ordination of Deacon Michael Rubeling, whose siblings Tim, Emily and Claire are pilgrims, once again.



June 17, 2016 11:41
By Paul McMullen

Jerry Savage benefit brings flood of warm memories

All things for a reason.

That was the prevailing sentiment among several hundred at Loyola Blakefield April 16, when the school held a fundraiser for a merit scholarship fund that  honors Jerry Savage, its former basketball coach and athletic director. Marquette University coach Steve Wojciechowski, a Baltimore Catholic League Hall of Famer who led Cardinal Gibbons to the 1994 title and is one of the fellow Jesuit institution’s most prominent faces, was initially advertised as the headliner for the benefit, but then the NCAA objected and the Dons went to their bench. “Wojo” is a great success story, but because he was not allowed to make it, Loyola Blakefield alums, as well as the friends and family of Savage, had the chance to hear some poignant and powerful stories from three of their own.
It was my pleasure and honor to moderate a panel that included Snuffy Smith ’60, Pete Budko ’77 and Tony Guy ’78. Retired from coaching, Snuffy became the first commissioner of the BCL, and indirectly explained the appropriateness of the league’s Player of the Year award carrying the Savage name. Smith was a University of Baltimore freshman in the 1960-61 season, when Savage was a senior at Mount St. Mary’s and concluding a record-setting career. Savage still had game in the early 1970s, when Budko and Guy entered Loyola Blakefield and made a good high school program great. The Dons won four straight BCL tournaments from 1975-78, still the only program in the league’s 45-year history to achieve that feat.
Budko and Guy traded one tradition for another, as they chose two of the nation’s five most storied college programs, North Carolina and Kansas, respectively. Budko related his injury-wracked senior season with the Tar Heels, which ended with Dean Smith putting him on the floor for the first time in months in the NCAA final, against Indiana. Who had replaced Budko in the North Carolina starting five? “Sam Perkins,” he answered. Guy’s name association was even more impressive. Asked to describe a time when he leaned on what he had learned from Savage, Guy told a story from his freshman year at Kansas, when a Michigan State star lit up Tony and the Jayhawks. “I guarded Magic Johnson as a freshman, Michael Jordan as a senior, and everyone in between,” Guy said. “There wasn’t anything I heard at Kansas that Jerry hadn’t already said. We came to Loyola as basketball players and left as much more than that. The expectation was excellence.”
Guy found a home in Kansas, where he has worked for State Farm for 30 years. Budko runs his own business development corporation in New York.

The evening’s rewards included visiting with Savage’s peers, like Nappy Doherty and Bucky Kimmett, and some Loyola Blakefield alums I hadn’t seen in decades. The latter included the Welsh brothers, Marty and Pat. A football and lacrosse star, Pat was one of the Baltimore metropolitan area Athletes of the Year I selected for The Evening Sun in 1984.
Those guys are part of a substantial legacy, one that I hope Loyola Blakefield alums never take for granted. I related a story about Jim McKay ’39 leaving me spellbound with his ABC reporting on the terrorist attack on the Israeli quarters at the 1972 Munich Olympics. What I didn’t share was how Tim Pierce ’60 and Murray Stephens ’63 brought Jesuit standards to the swim club they founded, one that produced the greatest Olympian ever, Michael Phelps.
“Men for Others” was not a slogan for Savage, but an ethos. In retirement, he gave countless hours to the Baltimore Catholic League he helped found in 1971. He took ill at the 2015 BCL tournament and died a few months later. I last saw him in February 2015, at Mount St. Joseph, where the Gaels were hosting No. 1 Our Lady of Mount Carmel. I wasn’t seated five minutes when Jerry entered the gym and supplied copies of the BCL standings. It wasn’t the first time he helped me out on a story. His wife, Pat, was one of my voices in a 2009 article about Notre Dame of Maryland’s Renaissance Institute.

Pat Savage, center, with, from left, Tony Guy, Snuffy Smith, Paul McMullen and Pete Budko. (Photo Courtesy Loyola Blakefield)

April 20, 2016 11:46
By Paul McMullen

My favorite cross – and Cub Scout Den Mother

The memory bank is on overload this week.

While most of Baltimore was obsessed with Orioles’ Opening Day April 4, I was more interested in the NCAA basketball final, which featured a star turn for Villanova by Mount St. Joseph grad Phil Booth. What made the night resonate was that I used to write about his father, a Coppin State star in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

I wore a golf tie to work that day, it being Masters week. This is 30th anniversary of an epic win by Jack Nicklaus at Augusta National. That 1986 Masters was the last my father watched, as he was dying from cancer. He grew up in Western Pennsylvania, home of Arnold Palmer, and resented The Golden Bear dethroning The King. As a 46-year-old Nicklaus took control, however, my father was on the edge of his recliner seat for the first time since Johnny Unitas had retired.

Sunday was equally poignant. I worked the 125th anniversary Mass at St. Athanasius, once my home parish. Making the rounds in the hall afterward, I went to greet Deacon Mike Dodge, who was talking to a man my age. “I’m Brad Thompson,” he said, “to which I immediately replied, “Is your mom around?”

“Miss Maggie” was seated a few feet away, alongside Lou, her husband of 67 years, the two having been recognized earlier that morning as one of the oldest married couples in the parish. I was thrilled to tell her about two heirlooms that have graced several Mac and Mary household foyers. The more recent is a framed $1 bill my father fished out of his wallet in 1985 after inspecting the first rowhome we were about to purchase, in full view of a real estate agent, no less (I inherited his negotiating skill). The other is a cross made of matchsticks, one I constructed circa 1964 in Miss Maggie’s kitchen in Brooklyn Park.

“You boys made them yourselves,” Miss Maggie insisted. “All I did was cut out the cardboard cross, and give you the glue and matchsticks.”

She had volunteered to be a Cub Scout Den Mother for Troop 188, sponsored by St. Rose of Lima, simply so that the oldest of her sons, Brad and Gary, had an opportunity to get into Scouting. She remained a Den Mother even when her boys were done with Scouts, and worked among kids for 20 years, in the cafeteria at Lindale Elementary School, and then for eight years as the cafeteria manager at Brooklyn Park Elementary.

The more we visited, the more it became obvious that Miss Maggie and her husband had a lot in common with my parents. Both had seven siblings. Like my parents, the Thompsons were married at old St. Martin Parish in West Baltimore, having met when both were employed as teens at the Montgomery Ward department store on Monroe Street. Like my parents, they set down roots and never budged. Miss Maggie and Mr. Lou put a $10 down payment on a house on Redmond Street before it was even paved.

That was 62 years ago. Before her husband built an addition, she had as many as nine restless boys seated around at her dining room table, working on Cub Scout projects. We made those crosses out of matchsticks, presumably during Lent. For Christmas, we crafted gifts for our mothers, Santa’s sleighs made out of a turkey’s breastbone – all while Miss Maggie’s attention included a baby, Roy, in a wheelchair.

Miss Maggie’s own mother had died in 1935, when she was just seven years old. Raised by an aunt and uncle, her formal education stopped when she finished eighth grade at St. Martin School, but she taught plenty. Both a son and grandson are graduates of Loyola University Maryland.

“I loved helping the kids in the neighborhood,” she said of her Den Mother days.

It’s an affection I get to touch every day, heading out the door.

April 08, 2016 10:21
By Paul McMullen

Five weddings, two funerals, one inseparable couple

Bill and Norma Zaruba

The last time I visited with Bill and Norma Zaruba was April 18, at the first of five weddings my wife and I had the privilege to witness this year. The daughter of one of their nieces was being married. Attending that Mass at St. Athanasius in Curtis Bay brought physical challenges for the couple, but they could write a book about commitment, as they were married 68 years ago in that parish, on Nov. 1, 1947.

They were two of the most gracious folks you would ever encounter, good parents and understated patriots, and I cannot offer higher praise than to say that they reminded me of my parents. They were not blood, but I greeted them as such. Uncle Bill died Nov. 25 at age 94. Aunt Norma was too ill to attend his services. She died Dec. 8, at age 91, meaning they were apart for less than two weeks.

They were parishioners of St. Philip Neri, but the funeral Masses for both were at St. Athanasius. As their most recent pastor, Father Michael DeAscanis, put it at Uncle Bill’s funeral: They were raised in Curtis Bay; married here in its chapel; had their children baptized here; and this is where they wanted to be buried.

Father DeAscanis described them as being one of the founding families of St. Philip Neri Parish, which was founded in 1964.

This is an incredibly busy time of year for pastors and priests, and it speaks to the esteem in which he held the Zarubas that Father DeAscanis was alongside Father Rob DiMattei, pastor of St. Athanasius, when the latter offered Aunt Norma’s funeral Mass. It included an honor guard from St. Philip Neri’s chapter of the Catholic Daughters of the Americas. Aunt Norma had been a member. As her obituary noted, her volunteer efforts included serving at Our Daily Bread and supporting the Little Sisters of the Poor, “where she enjoyed visiting and enriching the lives of the elderly residents.”

Uncle Bill helped count the collection at St. Philip Neri, where he had been an usher. He had also served in that capacity as St. Athanasius, and had been assistant Scoutmaster of its Boy Scout troop. “Even when he wasn’t supposed to be driving,” Father DiMattei said, “they would show up at our rectory to make a donation.”

Uncle Bill worked at the U.S. Coast Guard Yard for 43 years, and developed a renowned apprentice ship fitter program. Aunt Norma was his engineering equal. She retired from Westinghouse, and worked on a video camera that documented the first manned lunar landing. Their four children gave them five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

“Part of me wants to say that Norma died of a broken heart,” Father DiMattei said during the homily at her funeral. “But I like to think it was more her desire to join Bill. This is a celebration of marriage.”

December 18, 2015 01:27
By Paul McMullen

Reflections from the road: Feet for Francis Day 8

The final full day of the Feet for Francis/Pilgrimage of Love and Mercy began with a jolt to the nervous system. Maureen Cromer had to get from the gym at the former St. Philomena School to the 30th Street Train Station bright and early Sept. 27 to greet the Amtrak express from Baltimore – an aspect of the day pilgrims being shepherded by the archdiocese and Catholic Review Media that had been the genesis of our walk. Hearing horror stories about security in Center City, Maureen rode shotgun while I started her car at around 5:20 a.m. We were stopped at a red light on Baltimore Pike without a whiff of coffee, when a gleaming set of teeth that resembled the Chesire Cat came out of the dark and a hand pounded on her window. We jumped and screamed, until we recognized Matt Pieper. The father of Shanon and Logan needed to rendezvous with another daughter, to watch the Papal Mass with her.

He hopped in the back seat, and I let the two of them off at 38th Street, the western security perimeter. Twenty minutes later, it made for a light moment during a radio interview with WBAL’s Robert Lang.

Back at St. Philomena, pilgrims were waking and packing for the final time. All were given a golden ticket, courtesy of Father Paul Castellani, the pastor. Like most outside the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, we had been thrown a curveball when organizers announced that a ticket would be required for admittance above Logan Circle to the papal Mass along Benjamin Franklin Parkway. For the most part we struck out Sept. 9, when some extras became available online. The next morning, Father Paul said not to worry, he had set aside tickets for his guests from Baltimore.

His gym is decorated with banners of CYO basketball championships, no small distinction in what I consider America’s best basketball town. “Come back in a few weeks,” Father Paul said. “We’re honoring one of the teams that included Phil Martelli (the longtime coach of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia). Phil’s dad is in (7:30 a.m.) Mass right now.”

So was Mary Bergin, unbeknownst to the rest of the pilgrims. Search parties couldn’t locate her until 8:30 a.m., when she came across the parking lot pushing a wheelchair she had procured for Madelyn Milstead, who had been hobbled with an ankle injury for several days. We folded the wheelchair into the back of the St. Ignatius van – aka the Baltimore Popemobile – which I piloted 4.5 miles to the corner of 38th and Market Streets, where I waited in the Corner Bakery with Madelyn; her mom, Catherine; and others for Father Jack and the walkers. Leaning on his roots in Oregon, Kevin Brown drove the van back to St. Philomena, then ran down Father Jack’s group, yeoman duty he repeated later that day.

Some wait out the morning at the Corner Bakery at Market and 38th Streets. (Paul McMullen/CR Staff)

They arrived at 10:35 a.m., according to a group text I sent the media. The minutes before and after were giddy with anticipation, as pilgrims passed out prayer cards and told visiting religious women that their money was no good, “let me pay for your coffee.” With little more than a mile left between us and Pope Francis, it seemed that we crossed the Schuylkill River on air rather than on Market Street. Turning north on 21st Street around 11:30 a.m., everything ground to a crawl just past the portable toilets under JFK Boulevard. It took us nearly two hours to move as many blocks, a wait made terminable by the universal church made visible and all of those little babies in tow. When pilgrims complained of claustrophobia, I told them to turn around and look back, at all of the faces behind them, rather than the backs in front.

Patience was required on 21st Street, near Arch. (Paul McMullen/CR Staff)

Without Madelyn getting us access to a handicapped entrance, we probably would not have made it through security in time to line up along a snow fence and watch the papal motorcade before 4 p.m. Mass. That I took the following video on Maureen’s mini-tablet is not noteworthy: the miracle is that I sat down on the grass, fired up Chris Gunty’s mobile wireless hotspot and e-mailed it to her in three segments. Somehow, God graced me with the patience and presence to slow down and follow the prompts appearing on the mini.

Watch a video of the pilgrims greeting the pope.

Transmitting that, I multi-tasked and opened the bag lunch that Laura Hamilton and other moms had prepared – my PBJ was better than filet mignon. Around me, it was as packed as a Preakness infield, but with an entirely different sense of decorum, one evidenced during communion, when others waved strangers in the direction of lines for communion. I had seen the Holy Father, albeit from a greater distance, in St. Peter’s Square last April. Attempting to process the afternoon and the week it took to get from Baltimore to Philadelphia, I realized that, at least for me, the journey was the destination.

From left, Eun Ya Williams, her husband, Bob, and Mary Bergin watch the papal motorcade, moments after it had passed in front of them. (Paul McMullen/CR Staff)

We picked up Father Jack and his through walkers by van around 50th Street on Baltimore Pike, and drove them back to St. Philomena. Leftover pizza from Saturday night became our final meal on the road, and I think Pope Francis would have approved. Some asked for other pilgrims to sign their T-shirts. I second-guessed what we would change – put “Feet for Francis” on those, introduce 9-year-old Philomena Tiller to the faithful at St. Philomena and hire a media consultant – but then I thought of all that went right.

Adult pilgrims on chairs, with youths on the floor, give thanks at the end of an eight-day journey that had some walk 110 miles. (Paul McMullen/CR Staff)

There was the manner in which very private pilgrims became rather public evangelists, as reported that evening by the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt.  There was also the weather that God blessed us with, as we beat the remnants of Hurricane Joaquin by a week.

Speaking of forces of nature, Father Jack tossed this into an Oct. 7 email:

“Wanna talk to you about another project I am working on sometime!”


October 11, 2015 07:52
By Paul McMullen

Reflections from the road: Feet for Francis Day 7


Recounting thoughts from Sept. 26, I am writing mid-day Oct. 10. The morning started with a 10-mile run with the Baltimore Pacemakers through the beauty of the Loch Raven watershed. Taking my customary position at the back of the pack, I heard an auto behind me and reflexively yelled the warning that began this post.

Thank you, Father Jack Lombardi (be patient, I will connect the dots).

My first decade in journalism was spent at evening papers, before there were laptop computers. No sweat. The morning after a game, I would rise early, be in the office on West Street in Annapolis or Calvert Street in Baltimore, and have 500 words filed by 7 a.m. I often stir before 5 a.m. My Scot, Irish and German DNA is geared to the Irish and North Seas. Eat dinner early, retire early, wake early.

From left, Joe Landry, Martin Webbert and Edmund Tiller join Father Jack Lombardi at the head of the pilgrimage pack. (Maureen Cromer/CR Staff

Father Jack, meanwhile, is equally proud of his Italian heritage, and maintains a Mediterranean rhythm. He sends emails at 12:45 a.m. I reply at 5:45 a.m. After walking 16 miles with teens and seniors in tow, he’ll take the former to a basketball or tennis court, and let them blow off more energy tossing a Frisbee or kicking a soccer ball. Only then, do they sit down for evening prayer and witness. Lights out is often not until 11 p.m. It took a week to comprehend the method of Father Jack’s brand of madness. He wants youths to test their limits, share their impressions and develop leadership skills.

So it was that on an overcast Saturday morning, while I was ready to hit the road and pilgrims lingered over continental breakfast outside the Mirenda Center at Neumann University, that 14-year-old Martin Webbert of St. Ursula Parish in Parkville, sharing how he had matured under Father Jack’s tutelage, uttered the following: “Like Mr. Paul said yesterday: Everybody needs to be yelled at sometime.”

I had tossed that line off while pontificating the previous morning in a support vehicle that included Martin. My son, Don, will recall my histrionics and words from 20 years ago, with specific detail, and it was another reminder that, like the John Prine song goes, little pitchers do indeed have big ears.

We had a challenging morning, walking on two-lane winding roads from Neumann U. to the town of Media. I worked the back of the line to Father Jack’s front, one of my responsibilities being to listen for, and warn those ahead, about cars coming from behind. Throughout, I fumed that the teens Father Jack had running interference for him up front were not being assertive enough with oncoming traffic. Duh. How else will they learn to lead?

Lunch at Pinocchio’s in Media, Pa., was memorable for multiple reasons. (Maureen Cromer/CR Staff)

Lunch was marvelous, on multiple counts. Miguel Almaguer and a crew from the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt began a six-hour stretch with us. The meal was going to come out of money donated by strangers in previous days. We ate and drank more than $140 worth of cheese steak subs, pizzas and sodas. When I got the bill, it was $40 and change. Patrons inside the restaurant had chipped in that much.


Father Jack’s hat trick works better with a clerical collar. (Maureen Cromer/CR Staff)

The spirit kept soaring after Maureen Cromer was involved in a minor fender-bender.  It soared even higher along Baltimore Pike, after we crossed under Interstate 476 and neared Philadelphia. The surroundings transitioned from affluent to well-worn, from boutiques to barrooms. Twenty-four hours from the prospect of seeing Pope Francis, Father Jack and his pilgrims kicked into another gear. Matt Pieper, father of Shanon and Logan, sprinted across the street to share prayer cards with auto mechanics. Women in the 2005 college classroom uniform (T-shirt and pajama bottoms) stepped out of rowhomes to visit and get selfies with Kevin Brown and Bob Williams.

In Lansdowne, we glimpsed the steeple at St. Philomena, the end of an approximate 12-mile day. Sitting for photos on the front steps, I shushed others, that 5:15 p.m. Mass was under way. We walked into a gorgeous 19th century worship space during the consecration, and stood or kneeled in the back. Father Jack had previously talked over the phone with Father Paul Castellani, the pastor, but the two had never exchanged a glance until the former went up to help with the distribution of communion. We went up to receive Father Paul’s blessing, and he joined us in the gym of the former school, our home for our last night on the road, where dinner was on him, pizza and another Philadelphia tradition, soft pretzels. I ate with a black woman, a parishioner, who told me that she knew many Oblate Sisters of Providence, back in Baltimore.

Having covered approximately 104 miles in a week, pilgrims rest on the steps of St. Philomena Church in Lansdowne, Pa. (Maureen Cromer/CR Staff)

Maureen and I set up our laptops in the rectory kitchen, where Father Ukachukwu Onyeabor rinsed and cut vegetables while talking to others on his Bluetooth. Between conversations, I asked him his homeland. “Biafra,” he said. “I remember,” I answered, and he raised an eyebrow in appreciation.

Kids, look it up.


October 10, 2015 06:21
By Paul McMullen

Reflections from the road: Feet for Francis Day 6

Walking the Brandywine Valley Sept. 24 and finally enjoying the demands and rhythms of the road, I felt the strong presence of my parents, who have been gone a while now. At that moment, a butterfly – OK, given the season, it might have been a moth – flittered from behind my left shoulder and in front of me, hanging there for a few strides. The next morning, on day six of the Feet for Francis/Pilgrimage of Love and Mercy, we awoke Sept. 25 in the auxiliary gym of the Mirenda Center at Neumann University and walked a few hundred yards to its lovely Sacred Heart Chapel. Its main aisle is inlaid with three icons. The one closest to the altar? A butterfly.

Family was the theme of this day. Some are named Wojciechowski or Ansorge or Poetzel. Others are brothers, not necessarily of blood, from Curtis Bay. Now add to them a Lombardi and a Tiller, etc.

Father Jack Lombardi points the way the morning of Sept. 25. (Maureen Cromer/CR Staff)

Driving from Neumann University back to a point near Kennett Square, I moved to to where I should have been from the start, the back of the pack. Up front, I had just been getting in the way of Father Jack Lombardi, who has trained his pilgrims in military maneuvers, halting and warning traffic, walking in double-time.

Paula Tiller, with Clara Milstead, had a horse eating right out of her hand. (Paul McMullen/CR Staff)

We were on secluded country roads in the Brandywine Valley, with little traffic, where grazing horses would trot to the fence and sate their curiosity. A radio reporter from Philadelphia found us on the road. Jorge Ribas of the Washington Post walking with us and toting a video camera, blended in and became an afterthought. The through-walkers soldiered on while most hopped into support vans and headed to Chik-fil-A near Glenn Mills for a lunch of significant import.

En route there, neither Father Jack or I were riding shotgun in a support van, and the caravan missed its turn, delaying a radio interview WBAL-AM had scheduled for me. Never mind that it was being taped; I was in full Tasmanian Devil mode. At the Chik-fil-A, Paul Tiller came after me like one of my brothers from Church Street or Curtis Bay, to rightfully read me the riot act. While I was out back, waiting for WBAL to call, Paul came to me to shake hands, his wife, Paula, having read him the riot act. I blew off his outstretched hand. Instead, we hugged, like the brothers that we have become.

So it was that I was an emotional wreck when I visited with Mary Beth Marsden on WBAL. I asked her about the ages of her children. She has a child born September 9, 1999. I told her that I was in the waiting room at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center that day, as one of my grandsons was also born there, 9-9-99. She hit record and we taped the interview, but at the end the talk turned to sacrifice being part of pilgrimage, and I broke down, sobbing that I missed wife, Mary.

My Mary was alarmed by my state when she heard the interview. Over the phone, I fell back on Father Jack, who that very morning – no wait, was it the day before? – talked about ecstasy and its Greek root word, “ekstasis.” Until that point in my story-telling life, I had used multiple words to describe the emotion felt at the birth of a child, or marriage of a daughter and accomplishment of a son, or a sunset in Montana and the community created among strangers. Now I do. Aware and transcendent, it is ecstasy.

So it is that I have no idea if the photo below was taken before, or after lunch. Don’t know, don’t care. All I know is that Johnnie the rescue dog, in Concordville, Pa., gives kisses.

Back at Neumann University, we waited – and waited some more – for pilgrims and their supporters to come together, pray and dig into the dinner that had been paid for by the good women of Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson. Somehow, the wait was alright.

Dinner from Seasons Pizza in Aston, Pa., was paid for Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson. (Paul McMullen/CR Staff)

October 09, 2015 05:11
By Paul McMullen

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