Servant of God Vincent McCauley and Doing God’s Work (Then Getting Out of the Way)

servant of god vincent mccauley and doing gods work then getting out of the way

Vincent McCauley’s goal was to work himself out of a job. Though the inaugural bishop of a newly erected diocese in Uganda and a noted leader of the bishops of Africa, he had no interest in clinging to power or vying for promotions. He wanted to do God’s work and then get out of the way.

Such selflessness is more unusual than one might hope among bishops, but it surprised nobody who knew McCauley. Servant of God Vincent Joseph McCauley (1906–1982) was the oldest of six children raised in an unassuming working-class family in Council Bluffs, IA. He attended parochial school for grade school, then moved to Creighton Prep, where he excelled at baseball. He played first base and even spent a summer playing semi-pro ball in Omaha. After graduation, McCauley entered Creighton University as a freshman, but a mission at his home parish that fall changed McCauley’s life forever. The mission was led by priests of the Congregation of Holy Cross; hearing them speak awakened something in McCauley’s heart. Though he had long been drawn to the priesthood, this encounter with a missionary community convinced him that he was called to the mission field. He wrote to the vocation director immediately; in October he left Omaha behind and headed for the University of Notre Dame, there to enter the Congregation and embark on a vocation that would ultimately lead this Iowa boy to an episcopal see in Uganda.

Though it was a heart for the missions that took McCauley to Notre Dame, his transfer was no great sacrifice. Like most American Catholics of the time, he had been raised on the mystique of Our Lady’s University, listening to football games on the radio each week with his brothers. Now he was able to watch them in person during his five years of formation on campus. After professing final vows in 1929, McCauley earned his undergraduate degree in 1930 and then headed further east to the Foreign Mission Seminary in Washington, DC. In 1934 he was ordained at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. But though he was finally equipped to embark on his life as a missionary, the Congregation did not have the funds to send him yet. Fr. McCauley spent two years teaching and studying in Massachusetts while he awaited orders to head much further East.

Finally, they came: Fr. McCauley was to go to East Bengal (modern Bangladesh) to the mission that had been staffed by the Congregation for eighty years. From the first, his hope was to become unnecessary, to encourage and form native vocations so thoroughly that American priests would no longer be needed in East Bengal. “A native priesthood is, indeed, the ideal toward which the Church aims at all times,” he wrote, a profound statement that many would have viewed with suspicion at the time, hesitant as they were to accept the possibility of well-formed African, Asian, and Indigenous clergy.

Fr. McCauley worked in Holy Cross schools in Bandhura for three years before being sent to a small village in Mymensingh to serve the Kuki people, a tribal group that had begged for priests to come preach the Gospel to them. But he contracted malaria and was often feverish; harsh conditions in the mission field prompted his superiors to pull him from the jungle villages he was serving and send him back to Bandhura in 1940. There the Second World War began to impair the missionaries’ work, prompting a discouraged Fr. McCauley to write:

Maybe we are too pessimistic. Maybe it is God’s plan that things continue to move the hard way. After all, it is the cross we preach and the Man of Sorrows we call our leader. In truth we can’t hold a candle to the followers of Christ in mad Europe when it comes to suffering. We are just too soft, I guess.

Though his work of evangelization was discouraging, Fr. McCauley continued to find success in academic work as a professor and soon rector of the seminary. Still his health remained poor and late in 1943 serious blood clots prompted doctors to insist that he rest for six months to a year. His superiors wanted to send him home but the war made civilian travel impossible; finally they were able to prevail upon a childhood friend of Fr. McCauley’s who was serving in the U.S. army nearby. Fr. McCauley was given a chaplain’s uniform and sent back stateside under military orders as a wounded soldier, arriving in September 1944. He spent six more months recovering before he was finally able to resume work, first as a speaker raising funds for the missions and then as professor of Bengali at the Bengalese (the Foreign Missions Seminary) in Washington, D.C., where he was made superior and rector in the summer of 1946.

As rector at the seminary, Fr. McCauley was known for his congenial relationships with seminarians; even some who were studying down the street at the Holy Cross Seminary walked over to the Bengalese to visit with him, valuing the openness and friendliness of this mentor who was so different form the more stern superiors at their school. But rather than becoming conceited because of the love of the seminarians, Fr. McCauley maintained a deep humility. When three seminarians left formation in one year, he wrote to his superior, saying, “I would like to know if there is a remedial fault on my part, or if you think it is because of my influence on the men please do not hesitate to replace me.” His superiors found nothing of concern in his pastoral leadership and Fr. McCauley continued his work in the seminary. Alongside that ministry, he traveled some 80,000 miles a year to make appeals for spiritual and financial support throughout the country.

It was during this period that Fr. McCauley’s lifelong battle with skin cancer began, a struggle that eventually saw him undergo some fifty surgeries, frequently at the Mayo Clinic. Despite this, he insisted that his health had improved enough for him to return to the mission field. For eight years he appealed to his superiors to send him back to East Bengal or to any mission country. But Fr. McCauley was such a successful fundraiser and such a talented formator that they were reluctant to do so. After fourteen years of service in the States, Fr. McCauley was finally sent east—not to the Bengali people, as he expected, but to Uganda. There he was to found the first Holy Cross mission, at the request of a native Ugandan bishop who believed that Holy Cross priests would be perfect for the work.

Fr. McCauley felt himself too old for a mission that would require such an active man. Many others were concerned about his health; the fifty-two-year-old priest had already had twenty surgeries for skin cancer at this point. Still, his skill as a missionary and as a leader of missionaries was undeniable and Fr. McCauley was given the news that he would finally be headed abroad once more.

He was thrilled, though uncertain that he was adequate to the task. He wrote to his superior multiple times pointing out the ways he felt sure he would fall short (despite his evident qualifications). But his humility could not prevent the will of God, and off he went to Uganda, the land where he would become a saint.

Fr. McCauley was superior of the mission and a teacher in the high school and college for only three years before he was appointed bishop of the newly erected diocese of Fort Portal. He had attempted to deflect attention from himself, suggesting several other C.S.C. priests as candidates (since he agreed with Bishop Ogez, the native Ugandan bishop of Mbarara, that there was at that time no African priest in the diocese who was adequately prepared to become bishop). Aware that his name had been suggested, he even wrote to his superior, “I again urge that you remove me from consideration.” But when the call came, he consented—though reluctantly: “since it is a matter of obedience and not of choice,” he wrote to the Superior General, “I must accept.” Fr. McCauley journeyed back to Notre Dame to be consecrated bishop at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, where he had been ordained a priest twenty-seven years earlier.

But while he accepted his role as leader of the diocese, his hope was always to empower the native people of Uganda to lead their own church. “The objective of a foreign missionary,” he said, “must be to assist the Africans among whom he works to assume the responsibility for their Church.” And though many of the foreign missionaries were reluctant to hand over leadership to native clergy, Bishop McCauley insisted: “I am convinced that our modern missionaries must more and more make the motto of St. John the Baptist their own: ‘he must increase and I must decrease.’ They are here to serve and assist and not to dominate.” To that end, he established a minor seminary in his diocese and was tasked with the foundation of a Ugandan national seminary, strengthening the nascent Ugandan clergy and beginning the work of building them up into the brotherhood of priests that now exists in remarkable numbers, serving all over the world.

From the moment of his arrival in Uganda, it had been clear that Bishop McCauley loved the Ugandan people; Bishop Serapio Magambo, McCauley’s successor as bishop of Port Royal, later said of him, “He breathed Africa, thought Africa, dreamt Africa and the Africans, and did all that he could to advance the cause of Africa and of the Africans at national and international meetings and organizations.” So deeply did Bishop McCauley identify with the people of Uganda that in one of his last recorded sermons, he said, “I am an old man . . . but I am a Mutoro, a man of this district.” Bishop McCauley understood such a love of the people and their customs to be essential for missionary work and he encouraged the white priests and religious who served under him to embrace the culture of Uganda so as not always to seem set apart but rather to build up an African Church in Africa. “The Gospel, the Church, must be incarnated in the African culture in which we live,” he insisted.

Bishop McCauley’s advocacy for Africa was first evident at the Second Vatican Council, all four of whose sessions he attended. At the Council, he emerged as a leader among the bishops of Africa, organizing them and arranging for them even to live together so that they might have more time to discuss the issues facing their people, particularly the missionary activity of the Church and the role of the laity. Upon the conclusion of the council, he was instrumental in its implementation in Africa, publishing an English edition of the Council documents in Uganda in March 1966, only four months after the Council closed.

Though McCauley was open to inculturation in the liturgy in the wake of the Council (as liturgical reforms were being made around the world), he guarded against abuses by insisting that everything be approved in advance by his office. “All changes must first be promulgated by the Bishop,” he wrote. “The Bishops insist upon unity for the whole of Uganda. Priests may not put into practice on their own initiative changes which they find in newspapers or reviews which may be duly promulgated in other countries.” Among the changes McCauley introduced before the promulgation of the Mass of Pope Paul VI were the Saturday Mass of anticipation and the use of extraordinary ministers of holy communion. He also supported the work of lay Catholics, both by sending some for advanced degrees and by establishing training for the many Ugandan catechists who had been hard at work in that country for a century. Some of the missionaries looked with disdain at these men and women who had brought so many to Jesus (even remarking with undisguised racism that Africans were not good leaders), but Bishop McCauley honored the people he served and saw the future of their Church not just in a native clergy but in native catechists as well. This was especially striking in his support of women’s ministry in the Church; despite some cultural (and religious) taboos, he encouraged women to serve as extraordinary ministers of holy communion and as catechists. The diocesan Sisters were particularly employed in this way, even being trained to preside over communion services in the absence of a priest.

As bishop, McCauley was much the same man he had been as a young missionary or a seminary rector: he wanted to be among his people. Whenever possible, he left his chancery to visit with schoolchildren or make his way to outlying villages. Once, in the wake of a devastating earthquake, the sixty-year-old bishop rushed into the rubble to rescue trapped schoolgirls. Unfortunately, he was compelled to do all this with barely even a rudimentary grasp of Rutoro, the language of his people. His age made learning the language very difficult, but Bishop McCauley did not allow this to serve as a barrier between him and his people. Rather, he humbly muddled through as best he could, trusting in the love he had for his people to make up for his linguistic difficulties. Remarkably, it did; the people were delighted by a bishop who tried so hard (if so badly) to be close to them even when it exposed his weaknesses.

McCauley encouraged ecumenism in Uganda, not just through dialogue but through joint works of mercy performed by Catholics and Protestants. This was more challenging than one might expect in a nation where animosity between Catholics and Anglicans in particular had sometimes led to violence—and even a brief war in 1892—but Bishop McCauley succeeded in establishing the Uganda Joint Christian Council and serving as its leader for five years. In addition to sponsoring charitable works and prayer services, the UJCC established a common baptismal formula in the vernacular, an exceedingly important step for Christian unity.

Though he loved his work in Uganda, Bishop McCauley’s goal was still to resign, to hand the governance of the diocese of Fort Portal over to a Ugandan man; he viewed his role as temporary until such time as the local Church was prepared to govern itself. “Africanization is demanded in Uganda,” he wrote in 1967. “Foreign Priests (and Bishops) are tolerated for the time being. But our day is waning. Soon—within the next decade—the Church must depend on native African Priests (and Bishops) to sustain Her.” His first attempt to resign his see came only a year later, in 1968; the Vatican rejected his resignation and McCauley continued his work, but he had already begun training his replacement by sending Fr. Serapio Magambo, a promising young priest, to Oxford to study and then installing him as vicar general. In 1969, Magambo was ordained auxiliary bishop; only four years later, Bishop McCauley stepped down, though at 66 he was nearly a decade shy of the usual retirement age of bishops. There was significant pressure, in the wake of Ugandan independence, for expatriates to relinquish their authority in favor of native leadership, but McCauley’s choice was not a result of external forces. For the good of the Church—of Africans within the Church and of Africans observing from without—it was necessary that the Church of Uganda be an indigenous Church.

But though Rome had accepted the bishop’s resignation, nobody was content to let him go. As soon as he heard that McCauley had submitted his resignation, Cardinal Nsubuga wrote to the Vatican asking that McCauley be permitted to continue serving in Uganda even after his resignation. This request was answered in part when Bishop McCauley was made secretary general of AMECEA, the East African bishops’ conference of which he had served as chairman for nearly a decade. Servant of God Maurice Michael Otunga lauded him for this work, saying, “Whatever unity we bishops in Eastern Africa have, we owe it to Bishop McCauley.”

Bishop McCauley worked with the bishops’ conference for the next six years while also providing for the needs of the Ugandan refugees who had fled the regime of Idi Amin. Though he had to help them covertly so as not to jeopardize his ability to return to Uganda on occasion, McCauley insisted that these people were not obstacles to his work but at the heart of the work itself. On one occasion, when the bishop was extremely busy, his secretary sent some refugees away before they could see him; when McCauley heard, he was grieved. “See what you did!” he said. “You have sent Jesus away!” Subsequently, she would come to find him when refugees arrived, summoning him with the entreaty, “Christ is at the front door asking for you.” When chided for his naïveté in giving so prodigally, McCauley replied, “I know that at least nine out of ten are thieves, but I don’t want to reach heaven and find that I could have helped somebody and didn’t.”

Underpinning all Bishop McCauley’s work was a deep, abiding love of the Blessed Mother. “He didn’t make a big deal about anything,” his secretary said, “. . . except the Blessed Virgin. He was so in love with Our Lady.” Fr. Arnold Fell, CSC, concurred: “You cannot understand him at all apart from his devotion to Our Blessed Mother Mary. It is a great love story. She was his heroine, his inseparable companion. He spoke and wrote of her as if she was right by his side.” This was evident from his episcopal motto: Mariam Sequens Non Divias (Following Mary, You Do Not Go Astray).

After six years as secretary-general of the AMECEA, Bishop McCauley had prepared an African priest to take his place. He officially retired at seventy-three, having achieved his goal of handing his work over to the African people, but he spent the last years of his life assisting as needed, often working just as many hours as he had before retiring. Among his most important contributions in this period was his work to raise funds for the establishment of the Catholic Higher Institute of Eastern Africa, whose opening McCauley did not live to see. Alongside his chronic skin cancer, he had developed heart problems and later lung difficulties. He headed to the Mayo Clinic once again, where he died on the operating table. The Iowa boy who had spent his life in the mission field (or trying to get back to the mission field) died in Minnesota and was laid to rest in the Holy Cross community cemetery on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, a bishop whose work changed the world and whose grave is marked by the same cross as the least impressive, least successful, least faithful of his brothers in religion. What better tribute could there be to a man whose entire life was about pouring himself into service as long as he was needed and humbly stepping aside as soon as he was not?