Given a choice, most of us would ask that death come after a fulness of years untouched by diminishment of mind and spirit. Few are granted that wish, but when it happens for others we rejoice. Upon learning this past Monday that my friend and mentor Fr. Joseph T. Nolan, age 95, had returned to God, feelings of thanksgiving triumphed over sadness. Having just read earlier in the day his latest reflection, entitled “Alive in God and for God” from his daily e-mail journal Thoughts for the Journey, I could only marvel how his life’s passion persisted to the very end.
You may have encountered Fr. Nolan’s English translations of Christus Vincit and Ubi Caritas in the St. Pius X Hymnal, texts later retained in Theodore Marier’s Hymns, Psalms and Spiritual Canticles. As a graduate student he had sung in Marier’s schola at St. Paul Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts before becoming a prominent early advocate of liturgical reform who implemented at various parishes in the mid-West, with his bishop’s consent, many changes that would become the most identifiable features of the post-Second Vatican Council rite.
Fr. Nolan had an interesting career before becoming a priest. Winner of the coveted Fulton prize in debate as a student at Boston College, he joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation upon graduation in 1942 and was assigned as an agent in Arkansas. Later he was “invited,” to use his wording, by the FBI to serve as an officer in the navy during World War II. At war’s end he was reassigned to the New York bureau. It was in New York that he met Dorothy Day, an experience that would fuel a desire to become a priest and inform his growth as a theologian. (At the 50th anniversary of his ordination, when asked by a Boston College student why he left the FBI for the priesthood, he replied, “It was easier to get confessions.”) Before solidifying his decision to become a priest, however, he completed a graduate degree in history at Boston College.
|Rev. Joseph T. Nolan,|
with his mother
Make no mistake, Fr. Nolan was a true progressive. To him, the old rite didn’t express the theological fulness of Resurrection faith. When at the end of Mass he said, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” he meant all the social engagement and responsibility those words imply. But he was also acutely aware that the post-Vatican II rite fell short, particularly in music, language (oh, how he could groan over hymn texts) and preaching. Being more sympathetic to the old rite, I would suggest to him that his expectations fell short because most priests simply don’t have his skills to bring off the reformed rite as he envisioned it. Undeterred, he would remind me of the old horrors: the auctioneer’s speed often adopted at Mass, the emphasis on guilt at the neglect of God’s love and mercy, not to mention the disregard of Scripture and the presence of Christ in others as components of Real
I will greatly miss Fr. Nolan’s intellectual prodding and irrepressible Christian witness. He kept me honest and there is no adequate way to measure the value of such a friend.
[Randolph Nichols is an organist, pianist, and choir director, and sang in the men’s schola at St. Paul Church in Cambridge.]