By Larry Flynn
Fr. Tom McCarthy is in his element. He wears the Augustinian Black Robe. He fills the immediate space around him with gestures and a Chicago accent. He faces 32 students at All Saints School in Rossford, Ohio, and plants a seed.
“How many of you here have thought about being a priest or sister?”
The question matters to McCarthy because he once had to answer it. Sister Catherine Hanlin posed the same proposition to his sixth grade class at St. Adrian’s on the south side of Chicago – in room 205, he remembers. He recalls little else from Sister Hanlin’s speech other than the question itself.
Here at All Saints School, seven students raise their hand, answering McCarthy’s question. It’s normal, McCarthy says, for only a few to respond, leaving dozens of silent and shy faces. Some are afraid to admit they’ve considered the priesthood. Others are absorbing the question and its gravity for the first time.
Back at St. Adrian’s, McCarthy didn’t raise his hand. But now, he has answered yes to a question that requires another leap of faith, accepting a position as the English-language official of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization.
4,807 miles away. At the Vatican.
Rome came calling on December 6, 2017 in the form of an email from Vicar General Fr. Joe Farrell, a former vice president at McCarthy’s alma mater, Villanova University. In 2011, St. Benedict XVI had created the council to promote “New Evangelization,” a term coined by Pope John Paul II, to answer one central question – how should the Vatican invigorate and innovate its preaching of the Gospel around the world? Pope Benedict had always felt an American should be represented on the council, and now Pope Francis was honoring his wish by hiring McCarthy.
Dubbed the “Mayor of the South Side” by Chicagoans and the Midwest Augustinians, McCarthy was an obvious choice for the role. He concluded his nine-year term as the Augustinian Vocations director in June with five consecutive years of growth in vocations and 32 men in formation to become friars. That’s the largest candidate group the Augustinians have seen in 40 years. McCarthy also led roughly 3,000 middle and high school students every year in retreats and campus ministry events.
The 52-year-old priest believes his work in the office of student life at Villanova University may have pushed his candidacy over the edge. He initiated the “Festival of Forgiveness” at the St. Thomas of Villanova Church on campus, now running in its fifth semester. The trick, in McCarthy’s spirit of simplicity, was to keep the church open 24 hours for the sacraments of adoration and confession. Over 1,400 students, nearly a quarter of Villanova’s entire student body, participated last semester.
“It doesn’t get much more Catholic than that,” McCarthy said. “Why can’t that be done around the world? Why can’t we challenge universities, schools, parishes, shrines to make a difference using normal, everyday stuff?”
McCarthy hesitated at first on the job offer. He he wasn’t interested in a desk job, he told Farrell. But the vicar general reassured McCarthy that the new position was quite the opposite, calling the posting “the accessible, friendly face of the Vatican and the Pope.” So he turned to prayer and his closest friends.
“One of my friends, a priest, says to me, ‘how many times have we told people to follow our heart and told people to trust in God, that God has a plan?’” McCarthy said. “So I had to look in the mirror and do the same, myself.”
McCarthy has a mirror on the wall of his office at Villanova. It’s decoupage, with pictures of red and green and yellow fish along the exterior. Matthew 4:19 is written along the top boarder of the mirror.
“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
McCarthy’s mirror, as well as most of his office possessions, will be stored in the basement of St. Rita’s parish in Chicago – where McCarthy attended high school and served as school president – during his five-year stint at the Vatican.
Upstairs in St. Rita’s, David Relstab is in application to become an Augustinian friar. He lives at the parish after graduating from college in December. His life changed when he emailed McCarthy as a junior in college.
“I was your altar boy when your parish mission came to my parish, St. Patricia, in 8th grade,” Relstab wrote. “I’ve been thinking about the priesthood. I remember you introducing me to the Augustinians and I have since been enthralled by them.”
Relstab attended McCarthy’s “buon viaggio” party at St. Rita’s on March 1 as a friend and mentee. He’ll live above McCarthy’s decoupage fish mirror, roaming the halls McCarthy once walked as a student and preaching the same liturgical calendar McCarthy will use thousands of miles away.
McCarthy left Chicago on March 13, arrived in Rome on March 14, and began work this week. In the meantime, the “mayor” has kept himself busy with five vocations speeches in the last month, in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Kentucky and Florida.
“Oh yeah, I’ll miss it,” he says. “I loved it, I loved my ministry. I always say, if you’re saying it’s hard to leave, you know you’ve been doing the job well.”
McCarthy doesn’t yet know what his work will look like at the Vatican. He’s taking a leap of faith as he has encouraged others to do.
“Like today. Who knows? Maybe I planted a seed.”