Unfinished calling: Retired priest finds there's still work to be done

Retired priest Tony Gallagher has found there is never an end to discipleship.
Retired priest Tony Gallagher has found there is never an end to discipleship.

The Rev. Anthony Gallagher is a retired Roman Catholic priest. He celebrated his final Mass as pastor of St. Patrick Parish (Providence) in Grand Rapids June 7, 2009. “I call it retirement. The diocese calls it senior status,” Father Gallagher said.

Planning for a leisurely time, “Six months or so before I retired I bought a used upright piano, to me from me for my birthday, and I thought I would see what I could remember from piano lessons 70, 65 years ago.” He found little time to master that or other projects.

Five years into retirement, “My library is not yet organized; it was just put into boxes and transferred and put on shelves—although the task was reduced when I donated three-quarters of my library and bookshelves to Lourdes [University].

“The word retirement is relative, but I have realized there is no retirement from citizenship and no retirement from discipleship,” he said.

In his senior status, “Without official responsibilities one can open one's eyes to community needs,” Father Gallagher, 78, said. “I got involved with the Dialogue to Change that The Blade has supported. Although I am committed to the success of our Catholic school system, I think as a citizen in the city or even in the suburbs, one responsibly needs to be seriously concerned about the effectiveness of our public school system in the city. … I think the whole issue of racial justice is important, and the effects of equality in northwest Ohio needs the attention of any patriotic citizen.”

His discipleship has included steps to fight clericalism, which is a perceived elevation above and power over others, and to give priests a collective voice.

He is one of 27 founders, along with two other Toledoans, the Revs. Martin Donnelly and Frank Eckart, of the Association of United States Catholic Priests in 2011. “Within Roman Catholic circles, there are national associations of Catholic lawyers, Catholic nurses, Catholic doctors, Catholic teachers, Catholic bishops, maybe Catholic lumberjacks. But there was no national association of priests, and while I am vigorously opposed to any clericalism, I do think there is a need for the voice of priests, the collective wisdom that comes from experience. Also, when it was formed we had a different pope, and a key impetus to the formation was a forceful revitalization of the message of the Second Vatican Council.”

Criticizing clericalism, Father Gallagher looks to raise others who embody the faith, “the women religious nationally, who are so gifted. In my view, the women religious in the last 10, 15, 20 years at least are the real leaders in our church,” he said. “If you want to know what it means to be a Catholic Christian, follow some nuns.”

Father Gallagher has faced challenges in the 52 years since his ordination. Besides Vatican II and social justice concerns, there were priest-centered controversies.

“I candidly think that overall for a significant percent of us, the mandatory lifestyle is an ongoing challenge. A good number of us think the charism to not being married and in a state of celibacy, and the charism for ministry are distinct. The former charism doesn't necessarily come with the ordination. I think that's an ongoing challenge for a lot of guys, legitimate, and particularly for men who own their humanity. A guy, especially in the last 10 to 15 years, can go through the seminary and maybe not really be completely open to who they are as a human man.

“Parenthetically, we buried a prince yesterday in Father Tom Wehinger [who died May 23]. One of the reasons of his effectiveness was that Tom owned his humanity … woundedness, sinfulness, everything, but all the richness of being human. Because he owned that, he was more easy to relate to, and secondly he more easily understood other human beings. He was just marvelous at both.”

Father Gallagher also noted the challenge of there being priests who sexually abused. “I think the effect of the sex abuse crisis, also Gerald Robinson's conviction whether valid or not, but that conviction and all that publicity was heartbreaking, heart wrenching, because there really are a lot of good priests, well-respected priests. … That was just emotionally devastating.”

Father Gallagher was ordained in a group of 54 in December 1961, pre-Vatican II, in Rome. He served in nine northwest Ohio parishes during his career, and he was on the diocesan Priests' Council and, by seniority, chaired the College of Consultors when Bishop James Hoffman died in 2003 and the consultors chose auxiliary bishop Robert Donnelly as diocesan administrator until Bishop Leonard Blair was appointed by Pope John Paul II.

His personal joy is “when one approaches the liturgy as a presider to proclaim the gospel as if the people are hearing it for the first time, to preach as if this is the only time these people are going to hear this, and to pray aloud and lead the eucharistic prayer as if they are hearing it for the first time because it is the people's prayer, that is extraordinarily satisfying.”

He has a particular strength now. “In Catholic circles we have seven sacraments; I happen to think there's unofficially an eighth. I have come to appreciate it and attempt to celebrate with frequency, the eighth being supportive presence. … Show up, shut up, and cheer, and maybe sometimes have a check. ... I can't get out and lead any parades; I don't have a platform or any official office. But I can attempt to be supportively present, and I think that's true of a lot of guys.”

Father Gallagher was asked what words of advice he might offer the newly ordained Rev. Matt Frisbee. “Accept the authenticity, validity, and power of the documents of the Second Vatican Council,” he said, “and know and live the Gospel. I would encourage him and everybody to realize that Christianity is about kinship and that our faith, our understanding of Christianity, would be a relationship with the trinity and relationship with others moving out in service, empowered by sacred scriptures. And realize that he's being ordained to serve relationships, not an institution.

Father Gallagher later added, “My hope is that he would always regard himself as a supportive brother to his baptismal peers.”

Contact TK Barger at:, 419-724-6278 or on Twitter @TK_Barger.