My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.
–2 Corinthians 12:9–
In the late summer of 1971, Stephen Dougherty, a young seminarian only two years away from priestly ordination, was on a rural camping trip. The road along which he was driving was flanked by high cornstalks on both sides. This made it all but impossible to discern the unmarked railroad crossing. Steve didn’t see the on-coming train. His car never made it across the tracks, and although he miraculously survived the impact of the locomotive, he would know constant pain for the next forty-two years. John Cardinal Kroll, Archbishop of Philadelphia, was wonderfully solicitous, and Father Stephen J. Dougherty was ordained right on schedule in 1973.
The remarkable thing about Father Steve was that he was not ashamed of his past, and he would not allow it to shackle him. Instead, he looked at all his past experiences, positive and negative, pleasant and unpleasant, as stepping stones to improvement. He perfectly exemplified the message of the classic 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, by the Austrian psychologist Victor E. Frankl. Here’s a Stephen Dougherty passage if I ever heard one. Frankl, Holocaust survivor and former inmate of the Auschwitz concentration camp, writes:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
It can truly be said that, despite his accident, Father Dougherty always chose the best attitude. He was unable to perform some of the usual priestly duties, so he studied to become a certified clinical psychologist. As such, he had great empathy and compassion for those in any kind of pain. He had a gift for reading people and for preaching, and for these reasons, he was one of the most beloved professors at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary. I loved Father Dougherty! He was my hero.
One afternoon in class, Father Dougherty was telling us all about the little buttoned device he wore on his hip. “When the pain gets more than I can bear,” he said, “I just push this button, and it somehow prevents my brain from processing the pain signals it’s receiving.” Then this gentle priest paused, looked at us, and made a statement I shall never forget: “Men, don’t look for happiness in this life. Happiness is for the next life. The best we can expect here and now is to be reasonably content.”
The best we can expect here and now is to be reasonably content. Wow! On the surface, it sounds as though Father Dougherty lacked all joy and humor. That was far from the case. He used to poke fun at his own disabilities and sufferings. He would recount, for example, how, shortly after his accident, under heavy sedation and with his life hanging by a thread, he was to be transported to a larger hospital. Because no ambulance was available, he was put in a hearse. “I woke up in the hearse,” he said, “and thought I had died. Looking at the passing countryside, I figured the afterlife wasn’t all that bad. I thought I was in heaven. Later I found out it was only New Jersey!”
Many individuals—including priests and seminarians—came to Father Dougherty for counsel and advice. Because of his great compassion, they would come away filled with the conviction that their own crosses were nothing less than gifts from God. In other words, after spending time with Father Dougherty, you’d be left with the firm belief that the hand of cards that life had dealt you was not a punishment, or even a challenge, but an opportunity.
Father Stephen Dougherty died in 2013 at the age of sixty-five. But I wonder. What would he say to us today who are so determined to look for happiness in all the wrong places, who behave as though it’s up to other people to make us happy, who are so quick to don the mantle of victimhood, who too often forget that earthly life can offer us at most only some seventy years of pleasure, who strive so hard to find our niche in the edifice of success? I think Father Stephen Dougherty would tell us what he always used to say: “Don’t look for happiness in this life. Happiness is for the next life. The best we can expect here and now is to be reasonably content.” And how could Father Dougherty get away with saying something that flies so boldly in the face of all that modern society holds dear? How could he be so strong a witness for compassion, for hope, and, yes, for even joy itself? Because he was weak for Christ’s sake, and, as St. Paul the Apostle reminds us, God’s power is made perfect in weakness.
By the way, there is one thing that Father Steve Dougherty and I have in common. We were both, for a time, chaplains to a group called Courage. Courage, for those of you who don’t know, is a support group for Catholics who have same-sex attractions and yet strive to lead chaste lives in accordance with Catholic teaching. I think Courage is the Catholic Church’s best-kept secret. It was founded in the early 1980s by Cardinal Cooke of New York along with Father Benedict Groeschel. It is a national organization whose members meet more or less regularly in small support groups. Its annual conferences are well worth attending. I’ve learned a lot at them.
The people whom I have had the privilege of meeting through Courage are some of the holiest individuals I have ever encountered. I heard the confession of a man—and I have his permission to tell you this—I heard the confession of a man who for thirty years had been living a “gay” lifestyle. Sometime later when he received Holy Communion from me at Mass, he spontaneously exclaimed, “Now I have Him!” It was as if to say that only in Christ had he found the Joy for Whom for three decades he was secretly longing. Another individual whom I met through Courage speaks of Jesus by saying, “In Him I am made whole.”
Go online and check out Courage. Its members live quiet but heroic lives. Along with Father Dougherty, they too would say: “Don’t look for happiness in this life. Happiness is for the next life. The best we can expect here and now is to be reasonably content.” By relinquishing their striving for happiness, Father Dougherty and the members of Courage have been surprised by joy.