Fr. Daniel Kenna, OFM
I grew up in the heart of the Southern Baptist Bible belt. Back in the 50’s, my family was part of the first wave of Catholics who migrated to the South from other parts of the country. My Dad’s company had transferred him from the Midwest. As a boy, I remember “Whites Only” water fountains and black people always sitting in the back of the city buses. And I think I found myself identifying with those folks because I too felt like a minority.
I was Catholic. Oh. I didn’t suffer the horrors of discrimination that my African-American brothers and sisters did back then, but I often felt excluded. I recall frequently being taunted because I went to parochial school, couldn’t eat hot dogs at Friday night baseball games, wasn’t allowed to attend Vacation Bible School with my friends at the Baptist church up the street. One time I remember everyone in the neighborhood getting together for a huge picnic on Independence Day. Only my family and the McCauley’s from next door weren’t invited. A buddy of mine apologized with embarrassment, “Sorry, it’s not for Catholics.”
In many ways, I believe my vocation as a Franciscan was rooted in that growing-up experience of feeling like a minority. One pretty powerful recollection sticks in my mind to this day. I was in fourth grade and, after school one day, my teacher said she wanted to visit my Mom and asked if she could walk home with me. She was a nun, and wore the traditional long black dress and veil. As we walked toward my house, we had to pass a playground adjoining a public school. A group of guys there notices us and began quickly run along behind us.
“It’s a Catholic witch!” one of them yelled. Another picked up a handful of gravel from beside the street and hurled it over our heads. I was scared stiff. But Sister said softly, “Danny, just keep walking and don’t say a word. Hold your head high and be proud of who you are.”
Well, it wasn’t long after that experience that I met my first Franciscan. He was visiting in my parish and spoke at an altar boy outing about how St. Francis had dedicated his life to standing on the side of the poor and marginalized. He told the story of Francis going out with several of his brothers “to preach.” They spent the whole day walking through the streets of a village, and said not a word. At the end of the day, as they were returning home, one of the friars asked disappointedly, “When are we going to preach?” Francis answered, “We just did.”
I liked that story. And, over the many years of my being a friar, I’ve thought of it often. “Preach the Gospel,” Francis said, “and if necessary use words.” And so I’ve done. My life as a friar has taken me many different places. I’ve served as a college administrator at St. Bonaventure University in New York State, a campus minister in Colorado, a parish priest in Connecticut and New Jersey, and in Boston as a director of formation for young men coming into the Order. In each place, I’ve tried to quietly give witness to the Gospel by accompanying others in their life journeys, paying particular attention to any who, for whatever reason, have felt excluded, have felt like a minority.
After 20 years of ministering inn other parts of our province, I am now living back in the South. It’s great to be back home! While much has changed here and many thousands of families have continued to migrate to the region, still the Catholic community in North Carolina makes up less than 4 percent of the population.
I now regularly stand up and preach at Mass, But I still thank my most effective ministry is done in my quiet accompaniment with those who would probably never feel drawn to come inside the church where I preach. Sometimes when collaborating with Baptist ministers for affordable housing, or visiting at the local hospital, or walking down death row at the nearby state penitentiary, or sitting on the bench with the N.C. State basketball team, I think of my walk home back in 1955 with Sr. Joan Lorraine. What a tremendous witness she was for me.
She showed a young and very impressionable person what it’s like to walk in the world as St. Francis did. I hope I’m doing likewise. The Franciscans. The Order of Friars Minor. The “Little Brothers” who often don’t say a lot but who hold their heads high and encourage others to do likewise, being proud of who they are in Christ Jesus, the Lord.
— This essay was written in 1999 when Fr. Dan was serving as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh, N.C. It appeared in the September 1999 issue of The Anthonian magazine.