With the passing of another great religious leader such as Msgr. Thomas Duffy, all of us in the Diocese of Charleston ask, “Who’s going to fill their shoes?” I can hear Msgr. Duffy and others from the clergy and religious communities saying, “You! All of you beloved sisters and brothers in Christ; you have the same calling to speak the truth in love!”
I first met Msgr. Duffy 20 years ago at an ecumenical event sponsored by the Christian Action Council in Columbia. The topic of the conference was peacemaking, and our U. S. bishops had just released their pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.” Msgr. Duffy had a large box of copies of this document and was handing them out and discussing it with anyone who would listen. Over the years we met at various prayer services and vigils for social justice. In his talks, writings and relationships monsignor was often simply reminding us what our Holy Father and our bishops in their primary role as teachers are telling us on all life issues. He always emphasized the dignity of the human person and that all life is sacred. A special memory I have is of the time when Msgr. Duffy arranged to have Cardinal Joseph Bernardin come to Orangeburg and speak at a conference on the Consistent Life Ethic, with its implications for social policy and medical ethics.
When I served as director of Catholic Charities for a few years in the early 1990s, Msgr. Duffy sat patiently with me for hours, answering my questions and sharing with me the rich and vast history of the church’s work in civil rights, race relations and working with the poor. Monsignor had been the director of Catholic Charities for many years, and he was always very supportive, helpful and encouraging. He also reminded us to keep our sense of humor.
I admired the way he took stands on simple things that meant a lot. Many recall that as pastor he would ask children and parents, especially at Christmas time, not to ask for or purchase toy guns and other weapons. He was reminding us that even these things can plant seeds of violent thought and behavior in children, who quickly grow into adolescents and adults. He was well-known for his writings in The Miscellany and local newspapers, including a thought-provoking column in The Chronicle.
A special trait worth mentioning and very telling of his character is that he never returned an insult with an insult. When he was criticized, which I guess goes with the territory of leadership, he never said a negative thing about anyone. He debated the issues, yes, but never spoke in a derogative way personally about anyone.
Msgr. Duffy taught us that courage is one of the most important and needed virtues to live the Christian life. We, the church, have a role and voice in society to help create a better future for all people. That means to preach the Gospel “in season and out,” even when, and often especially when, it is uncomfortable. May we honor his life by renewing our witness and efforts to speak, act, pray and serve others in the spirit of the Gospel, as Msgr. Duffy did so well.
Mark Dickson is director of mission at Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital in Charleston.