MILWAUKEE — At 59, Fr. Bryan Massingale doesn’t consider himself old. Although colleagues thought he was at the age one begins to look toward retirement from academia, he saw it differently.
“I feel great; young enough, vibrant enough,” he said. “I’m young enough for another big adventure.”
That “big adventure” began Aug. 1 when he joined the theology department at Fordham University in New York as a faculty member for its new doctoral program in theological and moral ethics.
Interviewed July 21 in his near-empty Marquette University theology department office, the priest said one of the reasons he accepted the invitation to be part of the Fordham program is that it combines classroom work and field placements in which students will be ethical consultants for nonprofit organizations.
“The more I studied this program, the more I thought this would be the kind of doctoral program I would develop if I were going to create a program,” he said, adding he will teach African American theology and religious ethics.
Fr. Massingale said he wasn’t certain he wanted to uproot from the city where he was born, raised, educated, ministered and taught. Then he reflected on the words of the prophet Isaiah (43:18-19): “Do not call to mind the former things, or ponder things of the past. Behold, I will do something new. Now it will spring forth; will you not be aware of it?”
“That word ‘new’ is a very dangerous word, but it became an invitational word as well,” he said.
The only native-born African American priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee serving within the geographic boundaries of the archdiocese, Fr. Massingale has been a voice for and in the black community.
“One of the blessings of this transitional time is it has given me the grace to hear and to reflect upon the contributions I have made to Marquette, the archdiocese, and the black Catholic community in particular,” he said.
Fr. Massingale said people have told him they were grateful for his leadership in raising the consciousness of the Catholic Church’s social teaching and its social mission.[su_pullquote align=”right”]Fr. Bryan N. Massingale
Parents: Clifton and Connie Massingale (both deceased)
Home parish: St. Agnes (now All Saints), Milwaukee
Grade school: St. Agnes
High School: Pius XI
College: Marquette University
Seminary: Saint Francis de Sales Seminary
Ordained: May 20, 1983
Graduate degree in moral theology: The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.
Doctorate in moral theology: Academia Alphonsianum, Rome
Academic positions: Professor of moral theology, Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, 1991-2004, Professor of moral theology, Marquette University, 2004-2016
Parish ministry: Associate pastor, St. Sebastian, Milwaukee, 1983-1986; Sunday “help out” at Three Holy Women, Old St. Mary’s, All Saints, St, Martin de Porres, St. Francis of Asssi, and Prince of Peace/Principe de Paz, Milwaukee; and St. Mary, Hales Corners. [/su_pullquote]
“They have also said they appreciate my willingness to take a stand and to be at the forefront of leading public discussions of issues that may have been more controversial,” he said. “More recently, talking about the Black Lives Matter movement, and talking about the Catholic Church’s presence, or lack of presence, in that movement.”
Sandra Melcher, a member of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Black Catholic Ministry Commission, said Fr. Massingale provided a “historical perspective” of the black Catholic experience.
“He was giving us a voice and a definition of our (black) history in the Catholic Church and in the community at large,” she said.
Referring to his 2011 book, “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church,” Melcher said, “He captured many of the experiences we had that were unfair and unjust. He was able to put those in perspective, and to show us what we need to do now – the action steps we need to take to build bridges.”
Robert Masson, chair of the Marquette University theology department since 2014 and a member of the faculty since 1980, said Fr. Massingale’s move to Fordham is a “great loss for Marquette, the archdiocese, and Milwaukee, but a great gain for the larger church.”
While noting that the priest was “one of the most demanding teachers” who expected a lot from those who took his classes, Masson said, “Yet, he had unbelievably high teaching scores from the students.”
He said Fr. Massingale helped carry out the department’s motto, “Theology building traditions, cultures and disciplines.”
“He was a great bridge builder,” Masson said.
Fr. Massingale has been criticized for his opposition to the state’s 2006 defense of marriage constitutional amendment, supported by the Wisconsin Catholic Conference and which overwhelmingly passed, his stances on other social justice concerns, and his support for Black Lives Matter.
“There are people who have not extended to me the same charity that I hoped to have extended to them in discussion of these issues – especially with the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said.
The priest said he has received letters from people who have accused him of not being Catholic and of being “anti-police” for his support of Black Lives Matter. One writer wrote to the pope suggesting he defrock him from the priesthood.
“Those are the ones I can publicly talk about,” he said with a laugh. “There are those that are far more vile.”
While admitting the criticism hurt, he views it as an “invitation to grow spiritually.”
“(You) understand that when you stand up for the Gospel, you can’t expect not to pay the same prices Jesus did – and I would not want to equate myself with Jesus by any means,” Fr. Massingale said. “When Jesus says take up your cross and follow him, part of that cross is the misunderstanding or even the misrepresentation or the outright lies that people say about you because you take a principled stand.”
Noting “the Gospel is supposed to make us uncomfortable,” the priest recalled what he learned in the seminary from his homiletics professor, Fr. Ty Cullen.
“Men, the worst thing someone can tell you after a Sunday homily is, ‘Nice homily, Father.’ Because the Gospel isn’t nice. Make them glad, make them sad, make them mad, but don’t make them feel nice,” Fr. Massingale remembered the professor saying.
The priest said he hoped he has “unsettled” people, but in ways that enlightened rather than enflamed them.
“It’s too easy to enflame people and get them excited or get them mad; I hope I do or have raised unsettling questions about where are persons of color in our church communities, where are gays and lesbians in our church communities,” Fr. Massingale said. “Those are unsettling questions, but they are precisely the questions we need to wrestle with if we’re going to be faithful to Jesus, who was a man who went to those in the margins and welcomed them.”
Fr. Timothy Kitzke, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s vicar general for urban ministry, pastor of four parishes, and temporary administrator of three, said Fr. Massingale, whom he described as having “a parish priest’s heart,” would take pressing issues and make people think about them.
“His intention was not to prod to make people uncomfortable, but to prod to help people think more clearly so that they could use their faith, seeking that as a basis in order to effect the change that needs to happen to become a more just and equitable society,” he said of the priest who helped out at the parishes Fr. Kitzke serves.
Masson felt that prodding from his colleague.
“He was encouraging me to take on these issues (of justice) in my classes as they are a concern for all of us,” Masson said.
Fr. Massingale admitted his leaving “creates a void, an emptiness” when it comes to being the voice he has been, but he continued, “The question shouldn’t be, ‘Who is going to replace me?’”
Instead, he is counting on students he taught during his 14 years as a member of the Saint Francis de Sales Seminary faculty and during his 12 years at Marquette.
Citing John 14:12, “… whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these…,” Fr. Massingale said, “My hope and expectation is that there are former students of mine who will continue to raise those kinds of uncomfortable questions and do them in ways I haven’t done and do them better than I have done. … I have no doubt there are people who will continue to do this kind of work.”
Jim Henry, a member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Milwaukee, said Fr. Massingale was here for one reason.
“God sent him to help the poor,” he said of the priest’s work. “His message was, ‘Don’t forget the poor!’”
Terming Fr. Massingale a “good, decent, warm, humble human being,” Henry added, “Even if you were an atheist, you’d love him. He touched all people.”
Despite having addressed social concerns by writing and speaking, Fr. Massingale wishes things would change because they “need to change.”
“I wish there was some way of being able to make the church take more seriously the deep racial division in Milwaukee, in the church of Milwaukee – that we’re living in a city that is one of the most segregated in the United States – hyper segregated,” he said. “Race has always been a troubling issue – a troubled issue – in Milwaukee, yet there’s a deep reluctance, even a resistance, in the Catholic community in taking on that issue front and center.”
Fr. Massingale added, “If there’s a regret or pain in leaving, it is to say that we’ve made such little progress (in addressing racism).”
As he was going through files, he found a copy of “To Find a Way Out: A Pastoral Plan to Combat Racism and Renew Our Catholic Identity,” a 1989 archdiocesan task force report on racism.
“I pulled it out and read it and had an ache because I realized how little had been done since 1989. In many ways we could take that pastoral plan, issue it today, and it would still be frighteningly relevant,” he said.
The archdiocese’s Black Catholic Ministry Commission is developing a Black Catholic Pastoral Plan whose release date is yet to be determined.
The priest said he didn’t know what he could have done differently, but he wished he could have been a catalyst for getting things done.
“Moving this church to being a more pro-active agent of racial justice and to realize that this church cannot exist with integrity in our social location if we don’t take the hyper segregation of our civic community more seriously,” he said.
He said Marquette University should do more, too.
“A Jesuit institution surrounded on both sides by a very poor Hispanic community to the south, a very poor African American community to the north, yet you look at what we do here at Marquette and I don’t get the sense that our social location really impacts a great deal of what we do and how we do it,” he said.
William Welburn, executive director of Marquette University’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, said he and Fr. Massingale, whom he described as “very involved” in diversity and inclusion concerns, would talk about how the demographic map of Milwaukee looked.
According to a 2015 report from Welburn’s office, 28 percent of the students were “ethnic minority students.”
“There’s Marquette in a community that looks very different – communities of color to the north, south and west,” he said. “Marquette struggles not to be isolated from them but we are not, in some ways, an integral part of solutions for the community.”
Welburn noted Fr. Massingale would say that Marquette was a diverse community that is isolated from each other, and that isolation fuels ignorance and fears.
He added, “The Catholic Church is on the side of resolution and engagement with the community.”
Fr. Massingale said he was “grateful” the archdiocese launched its urban ministry initiative 14 months ago.
“It is overdue. The city of Milwaukee does have unique challenges, and the Catholic Church’s presence has been a diminished one, especially in the central city, especially with the merger of parishes (in 1996),” he said. “The fact that we’re now addressing how are we going to be present in the city of Milwaukee, particularly in the central city, that is a very important question.”
Noting the U.S. bishops’ 1979 pastoral letter, “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” Fr. Massingale quoted one sentence: “Racism is not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family….”
“I wish the church would have radical actions that would be commensurate to the radical evil that it says racism is,” he said.
Fr. Massingale said that while he will be working in New York, he will remain a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, for which he was ordained in 1983, and will be available to consult, especially with the archdiocese’s Black Catholic Ministry Commission.
“I’ll always be rooted in Milwaukee and will take the flavor of this local church with me to New York and wherever the opportunities New York opens up to me,” he said, adding with a laugh, “I don’t anticipate adopting a New York accent.”