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Last week, our family grieved the loss of Father Ed Thompson, a spiritual giant who had an enormous impact on our community. At age 92 he was the oldest active priest in the Diocese of Orlando.
But more than that, he was our priest. He served for more than 20 years at our parish, St. Mary Magdalen in Altamonte Springs, Fla., and was extremely close to our family: he married me and Kathleen, baptized our children and served as my confessor and spiritual guide ever since I became Catholic in 2008. Two months after I entered the Church, he and I began meeting weekly for instruction, prayer and spiritual conversation. We spent hundreds of hours together over the last eight years.
Father Ed’s story is a remarkable one, beginning with great success as a young priest and then spiraling into addiction and suspension from the priesthood. Yet through God’s grace it’s ultimately a story of redemption.
After giving birth to Ed and David Thompson on May 29, 1923, in Philadelphia, Penn., their mother developed rheumatoid arthritis and suffered with it for the rest of her life.
When the boys were born, the arthritis had already become so bad that she couldn’t even hold the new babies. She was able to do one thing, though: as the nurse brought the boys near, their mother took their hands, one at a time, and helped them make the sign of the cross over their foreheads. (Father Ed would later see this as a foreshadowing of the thousands of priestly blessings he and his brother issued over the years.)
As the two boys grew, they became drawn to religious service. They decided to both enter the seminary, studying under great professors and falling under the influence of Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Sheen became their great hero, and they were able to meet him on several occasions. Once, while the boys attended one of Sheen’s radio recordings, Sheen walked up to the twins, who were in seminary at the time, and said, “Seminarians! Future priests! Twins!” Sheen then embraced the two boys, looked at them with his piercing eyes and offered his advice: “Persevere. Persevere. Persevere.” How prescient that advice would become.
Father Ed was ordained a priest in 1951. Not long after, he became the director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, where his work remains legendary. Most dioceses today would be thrilled to ordain three or four guys each year. But as vocations director, Father Ed consistently guided scores of young men to the priesthood. One year he saw more than 100 men ordained from his diocese!
As vocations director, one of Father Ed’s tasks was to organize a massive event celebrating the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, which was to be held in Philadelphia one particular year. His bishop told him that it was his job to pack out the cathedral. So Father Ed reached out to the most famous, magnetic person he knew, someone he was sure would draw a crowd: Archbishop Sheen.
Sheen had worked with Father Ed on retreats in the past and graciously agreed to come. But Father Ed wasn’t done yet.
He wanted to make an even bigger splash, so he also wrote to a little Albanian nun halfway across the world, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, inviting her to come and speak too. Surprisingly, she said yes. She was already planning a trip to America and said she would be happy to squeeze in the prayer event.
Crowds poured in for the World Day of Prayer celebration. They spilled out onto the streets and parks around the Philadelphia cathedral. In fact, Mother Teresa delivered her main message at Benjamin Franklin Parkway, near the famous Rocky statue at the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Before the event started, the speakers and organizers gathered for prayer in the cathedral sacristy. Father Ed remembers the experience of holding hands with two living saints: “We prayed together, and I had Fulton Sheen’s hand in my right and Mother Teresa’s hand in my left.”
By this time in his life it seemed clear that the Holy Spirit had destined Father Ed for great things, perhaps even to become a bishop (as his twin brother became). But the tide soon turned. On November 8, 1960, John F. Kennedy, an Irish Catholic, was elected president of the United States. Father Ed joined a few other priest friends at a local bar to celebrate the election of America’s first Catholic president. He had a few drinks, perhaps one too many. Those drinks led to more the next day, and then the next. Soon, Father Ed couldn’t stop. His friends noticed him becoming more abrasive and unreliable. He missed events, snapped at his friends and spent more and more time drinking. Though he wouldn’t admit it then, he was in serious trouble.
He was an alcoholic.
After several disturbing mishaps in Philadelphia, Father Ed was sent to a diocese in Nevada. He had more problems there. The bishop gave him many chances to reform himself but finally gave up. He stripped Father Ed of all his priestly faculties, telling him, “You will never serve as a priest again.”
That devastating decision only pushed Father Ed closer to the bottle. He was depressed, hopeless and saw no meaning in his life. Being a priest was everything to him, and now it had been taken away.
The drinking continued, as did his despair. He wanted to escape the addiction. He wanted to free himself. He wanted to return to the priesthood. But there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
The dark days blurred into one another, until one day he received a surprising message. It came from a lady who lived in Florida. At first he didn’t recognize her name. Her letter explained that many years ago, when Father Ed was still an active priest in Philadelphia, the lady had confided that God spoke to her, and that he wanted her to live an austere, consecrated life, though not through a religious order. She shared the message with several priests and leaders in her parish, but nobody believed God had actually spoken to her. Most of them dismissed her and suggested she look for a good husband and just get married.
“But,” she wrote, “you listened to me. You believed me. And you believed in me. I never forgot that.” For the last several years, the woman had lived the consecrated single life to which she felt God called her. Then recently, out of the blue, she sensed another message from God: “Father Ed Thompson needs your help. You need to find him and contact him.” She didn’t know why Father Ed was in trouble — they hadn’t spoken for years — and she didn’t know how to reach him. She didn’t know how she could help. But she trusted the impulse and decided to act.
She contacted the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and after several attempts eventually learned that Father Ed had been removed from the active priesthood and was now somewhere in Nevada. She tracked him down and sent the message: “Father Ed, we haven’t spoken in years, and you probably don’t remember me. But you once believed in me. You helped me when nobody else would. Now I believe in you, and I want to help.”
When she learned of his alcoholism, she invited him to come to Florida, where she could host him in her house and help him get back on his feet. Although it was one of the most humbling experiences in his life, Father Ed swallowed his pride and accepted the offer.
Heading to Florida was an admission that he couldn’t find healing on his own. He needed help. He moved in with this middle-aged woman, who lived in an old house with a bunch of cats. Father Ed was no longer allowed to say Mass publicly, but he received special permission to say Mass, once a day, privately in his room. The cats were his only parishioners (he remembered them meowing during his homilies, “but whether in approval or disdain, I never knew”).
Father Ed slowly adjusted and found stability. He started showing up for daily Mass at St. Mary Magdalen, a nearby parish, but not as a priest. He just sat in the pews, quiet and reserved. It took a while before anyone discovered his past ministry. Once the truth came out, the pastor at the time, Father Paul Henry, was a bit surprised. It was strange to see a priest as young as Father Ed who was retired. So he reached out to Father Ed to learn his story.
Father Ed shared the details. Father Paul sensed a good and faithful heart, but a man who was still on the road to recovery; he detected the lingering effects of addiction. So he suggested Father Ed enter Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Once again Father Ed sucked up his pride, connected with a man in the parish who would serve as his sponsor and signed up for AA.
AA was arduous, as it is for most addicts. But after many months he became clean of alcohol and would never drink again (even his later masses would be celebrated using special wine with minuscule traces of alcohol).
After seeing his progress, Father Paul floated the idea of Father Ed perhaps returning to active ministry. Father Ed couldn’t believe it. The most depressing part of his alcoholism was that it stripped him of his purpose and identity as a priest. He wanted nothing more than to recover that, to say Mass, to hear confessions, to usher people into the kingdom of God.
It would take a lot of work to restore his faculties. A group of bishops convened to discuss the case, including Father Ed’s brother (then a bishop in South Carolina), Father Ed’s former bishop in Nevada (who was leery of the idea, saying, “I’ve been burned by Ed one too many times”) and then bishop of Orlando, Norbert Dorsey. After much debate and discussion, they reluctantly agreed that with the support and guidance of Father Paul, Father Ed could resume his ministry as an active priest at St. Mary Magdalen.
Father Ed was overjoyed. He got his priesthood back. It was one of the best days of his life — “Next to my baptism,” he would later say — and he would remember its anniversary each year. After a long, dark journey of depression, addiction and hopelessness, he had finally found redemption. He now had meaning. He could now be, once again, what God had called him to: a priest to his people.
For the next 23 years Father Ed served the community at St. Mary Magdalen with heroic devotion and vigor. His two great privileges, he would often say, were to offer Mass and impart forgiveness through confession. He said Mass every single morning, with few exceptions, over those decades — more than 8,000 masses. He heard thousands of confessions and was a fixture in the confessional every Saturday afternoon. He’s still remembered in our parish as “Easy Ed,” not just for the simple but profound penances he assigned but for his merciful approach. In many ways his pastoral demeanor anticipated that of Pope Francis. He was a father of mercy who sought, above all, in the pope’s words, to “heal the wounds, heal the wounds.”
This article was reprinted from Brandon Vogt‘s website, with his permission. Vogt is content director for Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and a bestselling author, blogger and speaker.