By Their Fruits…
By Charlie Johnston
In the late 1950s young Regis Scanlon, a high school student on Pittsburgh’s north side, faced a conundrum. Throughout his childhood, for as long as he could remember, he had wanted to be a priest. But in his freshman year at high school, he discovered girls. He liked them. A lot. A charming and affable young man with a lively wit, Regis started dating. A lot. The problem was, he liked almost every pretty girl he met. He would visibly light up with enthusiasm whenever an attractive woman was near.
An older mentor told him that, should he get married, his wife would not be terribly happy with his enthusiasm over other pretty girls. At one point, he got engaged, but soon recognized the truth of what his mentor had said. Regis did not want to become a scamp who disappointed, or horrors, even betrayed his fiance in a moment of weakness. So he prayed to the Blessed Mother, asking for wisdom and direction. He received a locution of just three words: “Love them all.”
A genuine scamp would have imputed a much different interpretation to that locution than what Regis Scanlon did. For all his lively humor and joy of living, Scanlon is very serious about his faith – and both completely and joyfully orthodox. The engagement was ended amicably. His plans to become a math teacher gave way to a new determination to go back to his first love, the priesthood. From that moment, Scanlon resolved to love all the women in his life both passionately and chastely. In time, he came to love almost all he met with the same passionate and holy vigor.
At first, Scanlon sought to enter the priesthood through the Archdiocesan Program. After several months, though, he recalled how much he had been impressed by the deep prayer life of the Capuchins. For all his life and laughter, Scanlon finds his interior life nourished by deep contemplative prayer, directed to Our Lord through Our Lady. It is, in fact, the unending source of that life and laughter. The Capuchins are widely regarded as the contemplative branch of the Franciscan order.
“Capuchins came to my parish after I had been working there about five months,” Fr. Regis said. “I really wanted more prayer in my life. I remembered the wonderful retreats they had done when I was in grade school.” So he got engaged again, devoting himself to prayer and the active ministry to the poor of the Franciscan Capuchins. Fr. Regis Scanlon was ordained a priest in 1972 in the brown robe of a Capuchin Friar. This time the engagement took.
Fr. Regis spent 17 years studying Greek, Latin, the Church Fathers, praying, contemplating, preaching and working directly with the poor. In 1989, he was sent to Denver. It soon became obvious he was a priest who was going to make a difference. The unusual combination of a keen mind, restless energy, rigorous orthodoxy and passionate charity made him a unique character – and a forceful one. While working as chaplain to the Missionaries of Charity in Denver, he ministered to patients in the AIDS hospice, served the poor at Seton House, and ministered to homeless women at the Gift of Mary shelter for homeless women. He loved them all. Meantime, Fr. Regis’ reputation as a thinker who could defend the faith in solid theological terms that were easily accessible to laymen grew. Many Catholic Magazines and publications began to publish articles he wrote on Vatican II, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and fully Catholic answers to the questions that confronted modern times. The more that he wrote, the more publications came calling for him to pen something for them.
In 1995, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta was seeking someone to give intensive Eucharistic Formation to her nuns. She spoke with a Jesuit Priest with whom she was close, Fr. John Hardon, to ask for recommendations. Fr. Hardon told her that Regis Scanlon, O.F.M. Cap. was the obvious choice. So Mother Teresa contacted Fr. Regis. He formally asked his superiors for permission. Apparently they needed a little quiet, for he says they gave their sanction to the proposal “with joy.” For the next year and a half, he spent time in Africa, Madagascar and Tijuana, conducting retreats for the sisters of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity throughout the world, often having working breakfasts with Mother Teresa to discuss what was upcoming and review how things were progressing.
Working With Mother Teresa
Having survived the horrors of both the Nazis and the Communists, Pope St. John Paul II made the fullness of the “dignity of the human person” a central thesis of his papacy. Blessed Mother Teresa lived that thesis every day.
Fr. Regis and Blessed Mother Teresa (pdf)
Fr. Regis says that Mother Teresa spoke constantly about the need to defend the unborn. She maintained that, at its heart, defense of the unborn was the defense of the possibility of civilization. “If we kill our babies, who is going to prevent us from killing one another?” she would often ask, making the point that to defend the unborn is not just to defend the unborn, but ultimately to defend all life, including the life of abortion advocates who did not yet understand that their advocacy jeopardized their own future as well as a child’s.
In the most benighted areas of Calcutta, Blessed Mother Teresa would have her nuns pick dying women out of the gutters to carry them back to a shelter to be cared for. Once they got the women inside, they would often have to pick worms out of the open, running sores the dying women suffered from. Fr. Regis says that once an observer asked why they used their fingers to pick out the worms; wouldn’t it be easier to use tweezers? After all, the women were going to die anyway. Mother Teresa said it would be easier for the dying woman to know that God loved her if she knew that she was loved here, in this world, before she died – and love does not use tweezers. They always used their fingers, and the dying women were visibly comforted by that simple human touch.
While Mother Teresa helped show Fr. Regis a new depth to what loving them all actually means, she had a piercingly practical awareness, as well. At the time, Fr. Regis smoked a pipe. In order to be discreet with the nuns, when he needed a nicotine fix, he would tell them he needed to go out and “exercise” a bit, then wander off out of sight.
“Mother Teresa would often sit with me as I ate lunch during that three week period (of preparation to go out in the field with her nuns),” Fr. Regis says. “She would tell me many stories about the sisters and what she wanted me to emphasize when I would go to South Africa and Madagascar. In those days I use to smoke a pipe, but I didn’t want the sisters to know that or see me do it. So at the end of the lunch I would say to Mother Teresa that I was going outside to stretch my legs. She would nod in agreement. Then, I would go behind the building where no one could see me and puff away. One day it was raining and I said the usual ‘I am going out to stretch my legs’ and Mother replied: “Father you can smoke your pipe here today.”
Amusingly bracing to be busted by a saint-in-the-making!
From EWTN to Last Rites
When he got back home to the States, Fr. Regis’ reputation as an effective defender of the faith continued to rise. He went right back to publishing articles in major Catholic and Religious publications, then was asked to tape several series for EWTN. He taped a total of 24 hours worth of material for the dominant worldwide Catholic network, most in half-hour segments. He did a series on “What Did Vatican II Actually Teach?” along with several on “Crucial Questions” and “Catholic Answers.” He went to EWTN’s studios in Irondale, Alabama to tape the programs. You can still see them occasionally, though now they are mostly to be found in the wee hours of the channel’s programming. I was delighted to find a younger version of the Fr. Regis Scanlon I know explaining things to me early one morning from my television after I had come to Denver.
He is thunderingly orthodox in his homilies, but also self-deprecatingly funny. Fr. Regis usually does the Tuesday morning Daily Mass at Mother Cabrini Shrine in Golden, Colorado. If he doesn’t get three belly laughs even during his abbreviated homilies for Daily Mass, it means he is not in his best form that day.
But he is ferociously serious about sticking with the Truth – and will tell you so instantly. Just before the ugly episode with the Black Mass in Oklahoma City, a communicant who received in the hand walked off with no sign of intending to consume it. Before the man had gotten four steps away, Fr. Regis, his eyes flashing, had stopped the Communion line and said, “Sir…Hey…I need to see you consume that before we can continue here.” Abashed, the man consumed the Host and went back to his seat. (While most such cases are harmless, satanists try to obtain consecrated Hosts by sending adherents into Masses to receive in the hand, then pocket and abscond with it. They won’t have much luck with that plan on Fr. Regis’ watch).
In 1999, Fr. Regis took over as director of Prison Ministries for the Archdiocese of Denver. It was not something he had planned to do – or even was sure he wanted to do. When it was proposed to him, he asked God for a sign, because he really did not think that was what he was supposed to do. Shortly after that, he lost his voice for a time. As it turned out, the loss was caused by an aneurysm in the spot where a defective aorta had been operated on while he was just 17 years old in 1960. Since his voice was impaired for a time after the successful surgery, he figured that was a message from God to stay close to home for a while.
Over the course of the next 11 years, Scanlon directed six deacons, three priests and 70 trained lay volunteers in providing ministry to some 9,500 inmates throughout the Denver area. He said monthly Mass at three state prisons and had volunteers running weekly Communion services in prisons throughout the Archdiocese. He emphasized offering the Sacrament of Reconciliation – or Confession – to Catholic inmates and would sometimes spend days at a prison to see that all who wanted to take advantage of the Sacrament could receive it.
That ministry continued until 2010, when Fr. Regis developed serious new health problems. They were serious enough that most thought they would take him to his eternal reward. His vital systems were shutting down. He was attended by many doctors. When the fourth doctor told him he would not live, he was consigned to a hospice, as all expected the end was near. While confined to that hospice, an idea that had been forming in his head the whole time of his prison ministry came to the forefront of his thinking. He promised that if he made a miraculous recovery, he would dedicate the rest of his life to this last mission, to bring God’s love to all.
Amazingly, he did recover. His one-time superior, Provincial Superior Fr. Charles Polifka, commented that one night “we were visiting Regis in the hospice and three weeks later he was going out to eat with us.” When he just wouldn’t die and was expressing a plaintive desire for a good pizza, hospice officials eventually took him off the bland prescribed diet and let him eat what he wanted. They weren’t convinced he was going to live, but didn’t quite see what good depriving him of the food he wanted would do.
Fr. Regis gets a twinkle in his eye when discussing the last contact with the social worker assigned to oversee his care. She called and told him she was going to be there and wanted to visit with him. He responded that it was not a convenient time for him. She gently explained that, with his condition, this might be the last chance she would get to see him. So he impishly gave her the address of the IHOP at which he was eating when her call came in. He was shortly released from hospice. His engagement with the grim reaper didn’t quite take.
Walking With Julia Greeley
While running the Prison Ministry for the Archdiocese, Fr. Regis had noticed that there were many programs available to help men – and even more to help women with children. While these were important ministries, there were practically none to help single, unattached, homeless women. About the best they could get was a night in a shelter. In prison, many such women had explained to him how vulnerable to predators they are out on the streets; that their options generally came down to finding a man to take shelter with in exchange for sharing his bed or be subject to much more serious abuse and violence.
It seemed to him that these women needed more than a shelter for a night. That was merely a brief respite from the jungle they faced each day. They needed a way to rebuild their lives, the sort of opportunity that men in similar situations – and that women with children – were regularly getting. He came up with a plan to set up houses in which women could come in, find a real home, get vocational training, and go through a re-integration into the dignity of productive living, ultimately leading to independence. Realizing that many, even most of these women had no functional family at all, Fr. Regis thought the best situation would be to set it up so that these houses became real family homes to the women, that after they had moved on into independence, they could still come back to visit, to share holidays with their old family and new residents. This would give all who came through the doors a real family support structure – and the visiting women would be a very definite sign of hope to new residents just getting started on the road to recovery.
Fr. Regis turned to Julia Greeley as inspiration for what he envisioned. Greeley was born a slave in Missouri in the 1840s. After the Civil War she eventually ended up in Denver, working for the family of William Gilpin, the first territorial governor of Colorado. She converted to Catholicism at some point and devoted herself to caring for the poor – at night after spending the day working as housekeeper, cook and nanny for the Gilpin family.
She would go around collecting food and clothing from well-to-do families and then, pulling her little red wagon behind her, spend her evenings delivering hope, both the spiritual and concrete kind, to families in need throughout the city. She kept at it until shortly before her death in 1918. Fr. Regis advocates for her canonization and has dedicated his project to her.
He took his idea to Denver’s then Archbishop, Charles Chaput, who encouraged him to carry it out. Chaput has since been appointed Archbishop of Philadelphia. The Archdiocese continues to support the initiative, while Fr. Regis remains enthusiastic – and as the folks in the hospice, the prisons, EWTN, among Mother Teresa’s nuns, and in his own Capuchin order could testify, Fr. Regis’ enthusiasm is a force of nature.
In late summer of 2013 he opened up a pilot house in a Denver suburb which can house five women. He hired a house mother who directs things and shares staff with another project to help give education on basic adult skills, such as time management and goal-oriented planning. He is working to set up vocational partnerships, not only to train the women in useful skills, but to help them get a job as they are ready for it.
The biggest project is a majestic old facility in another Denver suburb which could house up to 40 women. It is not drably institutional. but looks from the street like a stately manor, with several outbuildings and guest houses. It has a distinctly homey feel, but inside has space for classrooms, recreation facilities, and even a chapel. It will ultimately cost over $2 million and still has some zoning hurdles to get through. Fr. Regis has spent time working to raise money and find grants, all through private sources. He will neither solicit nor accept governmental money, because of the inevitable strings attached, strings that often sap the effectiveness of such transformational programs. In any case, he envisions this as a form of family, not a bureaucratic regimen.
“Mother Teresa was opposed to using recruiters, (formally) raising money, or using insurance. She believed we should trust in God for everything. She often said that God has plenty of money – and gives it when we need it to do his work,” Fr. Regis says. But he would be unable to have opened anything in America without insurance. And certainly, if all money comes from God for good works, one of a priest’s prime duties is to encourage people to trust in God for producing good work. So the website for the Julia Greeley Home has a spot where donations can be made through PayPal. He hopes, he prays that with success in Denver, the program of rebuilding lives through building support structures modeled on the family will take root and blossom around the state, then the country, then the world. His ambition is based on instructions he received from above some 50 years ago: “Love them all.”
(Full disclosure: I act as an occasional volunteer consultant to Fr. Regis and the Board of the Julia Greeley Home, helping in small ways to develop plans for fundraising and administration techniques. It is not that Fr. Regis ever twisted my arm. Rather, he is the sort of good-hearted man you just can’t bear to disappoint. So if you are looking for a cause to donate to this Christmas season that you know is sound, take a good look at the Julia Greeley Home. If you don’t do online transactions, you can send a check or money order to : Julia Greeley Home, Inc., 3613 Wyandot St., Denver, CO 80211. All contributions are tax deductible.)