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‘He was the one who washed the feet’

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Sunday night, I attended the Mass of Transferal in Brooklyn for Msgr. Patrick Fursey O’Toole. The celebrant, Bishop Raymond Chappetto, mentioned in his closing remarks that it has been a rough few weeks for the priests of Brooklyn; eight priests had died recently, and the funerals just never stop. He asked for prayers for the priests of the Diocese of Brooklyn, who are grieving the brothers they have lost.

Over the weekend, the grief deepened. This one hit especially close to home. We received word of the death of Msgr. Michael Dempsey, who was in residence at my parish for five decades:

Msgr. Dempsey was ordained on May 31, 1958. His first assignment in our Diocese was at Saint Finbar (Brooklyn) until 1960. From 1960 to 1971 he was assistant superintendent of the Diocesan Superintendent of Schools Office; from 1971 to 1978 he was secretary of the  Education Office; and from 1978 to his retirement in 2007 he was director of the Pastoral Communications Office. He was also a Catholic Television Network founder and member. From 1961 to 2010 he resided at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs.

He came, really, from another era—a time when vocations to the priesthood were abundant, and when most of the seminarians in Brooklyn were sons and grandsons of immigrants from Ireland and Italy and Germany. He never ventured far from his roots; in his later years, he lived in the Long Island City apartment where he’d grown up.  In his heart, he was an educator, and his homilies resembled deftly structured lectures. Stepping into the pulpit after he’d preached, I’d sometimes find scraps of paper with his homily notes scrawled on them—outlines, with numbered bullet points, laid out in his meticulous handwriting.

Talking to parishioners over the last few days, I’d hear them mention his many kindnesses, his wonderfully instructive homilies, his compassion and good cheer. After his retirement, he spent his days visiting the sick, praying for the dead, comforting the grieving. He undertook a personal ministry of consolation that never failed to move all those he met. Whenever he heard of someone who was sick or in the hospital, he was there to offer his presence or a prayer or a comforting word. Not long ago, my wife and I met him for dinner and he said this ministry had enabled him to rediscover his priesthood and live it in a new way. He considered himself blessed.

Sunday, one parishioner reminded me of something else. “Msgr. Dempsey,” she said, “was the one who washed the feet.”

For years, he was the priest who exercised the Holy Thursday mandatum, re-enacting Christ’s humble act of foot-washing at the Last Supper. It was a gesture both pointed and poignant: Msgr. Dempsey was the oldest priest in the rectory—almost 80 by then, the senior priest in the parish—but year after year, he removed his chasuble and wrapped an apron around his waist and knelt to wash the feet of a dozen people in an act of touching humility and tender mercy.

One year, I remember, he took it a step further. In the sacristy, preparing to wash the feet, he removed his chasuble—and then took off his shoes and socks and walked out into the sanctuary barefoot. He explained to me later, “I imagine the people having their feet washed probably feel embarrassed doing that. I wanted them to know I understood how they felt, and they weren’t doing anything I wouldn’t do.  If they had to have bare feet in the middle of Mass, I would, too.”

It was a striking gesture—and more than a little unorthodox. But it was also something that was deeply human and, even, Christ-like.  It said something about the act he was undertaking—and about the man undertaking it. He was, as he always was, teaching.

Please remember all those priests who, like Msgr. Michael Dempsey, bend to wash the feet of others and continue to show us the way, as he did, with humility and compassion and grace.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him…

Photo: Our Lady Queen of Martyrs

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Deacon Greg Kandra
Headlines and Homilies
Deacon Greg Kandra is a Roman Catholic deacon in the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York. For nearly three decades, he was a writer and producer for CBS News, where he contributed to a variety of programs and was honored with every major award in broadcasting. Deacon Greg now serves as Multimedia Editor for Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA.) He and his wife live in Forest Hills, New York.
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