Tracy O’SULLIVAN. Been There All Along. Darien, IL: Carmelite Media, 2013. pp. 178. $16.99 pb. ISBN 978-1-936742-08-0. Reviewed by Keith J. EGAN, Saint Mary’s College and the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN 46637.
Pope Francis has made it clear: he wants priests to get involved in the messiness on the streets. That message comes from a former streetwise cardinal who learned that messy “streets” are where Jesus is to be found: in the messiness of hunger and thirst, immigration and homeless, among the ill and prisoners. The author of this memoir, Tracy O’Sullivan, was ordained to the priesthood about four months before the initiation of the Second Vatican Council which began on October 11, 1962. Been there All Along is a story of a priest whose life and ministry have been intertwined in the ups and downs, the successes and the confusions in the aftermath of Vatican II. Significantly O’Sullivan was ordained during the large influx of seminarians after World War II and prior to the declining ordinations after the 1960s. Priests ordained during the era of large ordination classes are now becoming scarce as a result retirements, aging and even death as well as from the departure of resigned priests.
Born during the height of the Great Depression on the Southside of Chicago to Irish immigrant parents, Joe O’Sullivan was the seventh of the eight children. Joe came under the influence of the Carmelites when he attended Mount Carmel High School on the Southside of Chicago where he played quarterback on a third consecutive City Championship team; he was co-captain of the football team in his senior year. Joe O’Sullivan, known as Father Tracy once he became a Carmelite, has been quarterbacking ministerial teams ever since his high school days when he turned down football scholarships to become a Carmelite friar.
I recommend this fast moving, forthright book that tells stories of ministry on the streets of the Woodlawn District on the Southside of Chicago and subsequently on streets in the heart of South Los Angeles. This book is a must read for younger priests who may not understand the journey of older priests who had to transition from pre-Vatican II ministry to the not yet fully evolved ministry of the post-Vatican II church. Father Tracy knows this evolution from his ministry in parishes and to his stint as prior of the house in Washington, DC, where young Carmelites study theology. If ever there were a need for generational understanding among priests, now is that time, and laity who struggle to understand their church will find comfort and strength in the ways that Tracy O’Sullivan has confronted the fast-moving changes and reversals of the last half century. Those who seek to deepen their faith through prayer will discover hard earned wisdom from this priest who has been willing to learn from his acknowledged mistakes and some miscalculations.
Father Tracy tells his story with courage and humility; he is not one to flinch from sharing both his failures and his successes. I recommend this book also to those like me who have led sheltered lives within the walls of academe where, once the upheavals of the sixties and early seventies were over, have been protected from the messiness on the streets of urban America.
A crucial aspect of Father Tracy’s ministry has been his long-held conviction and commitment to insure that children on the Southside of Chicago and now at St. Raphael’s in Los Angeles receive the very best education possible. African American and Hispanic children in Tracy’s parishes have been the beneficiary of this commitment to education as the way out of the intransigent cycle of poverty and discrimination. Numerous women and men from these minorities are now leaders in their communities because Father Tracy fought to obtain money and other resources to make sure they received a challenging basic education.
Spiritual seekers will benefit from Father Tracy’s retrieval in his own life of Carmelite Spirituality. Teresa of Avila’s wisdom about prayer became crucial for Tracy who has discovered that there are many things that he can forgo as a priest but not prayer. Teresa has become for him a model of contemplative prayer which he fosters among those to whom he ministers. Teresa of Avila, whose five hundredth anniversary of her birth will be celebrated in 2015, has become a mentor for this Carmelite activist who has learned to keep in creative tension action and contemplation.
The eminent historian of American Catholicism, John Tracy Ellis, claimed that the key to effective priestly ministry is the commitment to preaching. Tracy O’Sullivan has made that same discovery. Parishioners have been blest with a pastor who shares the word of God in the spirit of Saint Bernard who said that his principal intent in preaching was “to move hearts.”
Been There All Along, the title of this memoir, is a refrain that runs throughout this book as a reminder that the Carmelite tradition calls for a growing awareness of God’s loving presence in good times and in bad. The deepening of this awareness through prayer leads to one’s conversion into the person God created one to be.