Catholic Herald staff
Faithfully navigating the twists and turns of life – learning to abandon one’s plans to respond to God’s call – has been the great lesson of Dcn. Brian McCaffery’s life thus far.
“We have no idea where life can lead us,” said Dcn. McCaffery, a retired conservation biologist and Alaska transplant who now lives in Grand View, in Bayfield County, and serves the parishes of St. Ann, Cable, and St. Joseph, Hayward.
The deacon’s ministry draws on his many talents as well as his many years of Catholic education. A songwriter who also performs, Dcn. McCaffery has used his pen and voice in service of the marginalized. He has used his training in the sciences in service to the church, and his current project is writing a book with an uncommon theological perspective.
A California native educated in Dominican and Jesuit schools through his first two years of college, McCaffery knew by age 7 that he wanted to be a biology professor. He was working toward his life’s goal, two-and-a-half years into a doctoral program at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, when everything changed.
One day, a voice in his head said, “Leave grad school.”
It was loud, clear, unmistakable.
“To me, it was unequivocal that that was God,” he said.
A self-described rationalist, McCaffery knew he would rationalize away the command if he waited too long or thought too much, so he called his parents that day to tell them he was quitting.
God didn’t have any further instructions – McCaffery has only ever heard the voice once – so he decided to join the Jesuit Mission Corps. He’d spent five summers doing ornithological research in Alaska, and he returned to the state as a volunteer in 1984. That’s where he met the fellow Mission Corps volunteer, Christine, who would become his wife.
The couple married in 1987 and settled in Bethel, Alaska, where he worked as a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the next 30 years. A town of about 6,000 people, Bethel is the largest community in western Alaska and ninth largest in the state. Two-thirds of the population are Yup’ik Eskimo.
The McCafferys lived on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, which he describes as a “roadless area about half the size of Wisconsin.” Dcn. McCaffery was ordained a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Fairbanks in 2002, a one-year delay because then-Bishop Michael Kaniecki, who was also a pilot, died in 2000 of a sudden heart attack while walking along the Yukon River in early spring, visiting a remote parish.
The Diocese of Fairbanks has the oldest permanent diaconate program in the country. Dcn. McCaffery was asked twice by his parish council to become a deacon, but he was initially rejected for the permanent diaconate by his pastor because his parish’s program was designed to train Native deacons, not Caucasians. Over time, the emphasis shifted to rural ministry, and he was welcomed into both formation and the clergy.
Priests were few and far between on the delta – he estimates fewer than six priests serve 24 parishes – and Dcn. McCaffery’s role, especially when his last pastor in Bethel was ill and away for months at a time, was to lead Liturgy of the Word with Communion services and maintain the parish’s prison ministry, among other duties.
One of his most notable contributions to the local church during his service in Alaska drew on his training as a conservation biologist. His 30-page essay weighing in on Alaska’s longstanding subsistence debate – determining who has priority hunting and fishing rights on millions of acres of federally owned land – was used by the state’s bishops to pen their own letter offering Catholic guidance on the divisive political issue.
Although his parishes in Wisconsin and Alaska are demographically different, “The core of my diaconal service is the same in Wisconsin as it was in Alaska—to provide a ministerial presence in my parishes with as much integrity, reliability and creativity as I can,” he added.
Times were tough when he was ordained. Sex abuse scandals were just erupting in Boston, and the Catholic Church in Alaska, particularly in the region where he lived, would soon follow suit.
“Similarly, now that I’m in Wisconsin, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report inaugurated a new area of regret, shame, and reparation for the church in the U.S., and in both places, our new bishops have had to shoulder a profound burden in response,” he commented.
If historic abuse and cover-ups were the church at its worst, he also sees the opposite – the church at its best, reflecting God in word and deed.
“When the church makes the case for God and the necessity of Jesus for salvation with intellectual rigor, eloquent expression, luminous clarity, and heartfelt compassion, it is at its best,” he said. “When it generously couples the corporal works of mercy with the tender mercy of forgiveness, it is at its best. When it accomplishes both with fidelity, integrity, and purity, it is at its best.”
Being a clergyman in Alaska has taught him something else – not to fear fewer vocations to the priesthood.
“Unlike many Catholics, including many in this diocese, I do not view the shortage of priests as the most important issue facing us,” he said. “In fact, I wouldn’t even put that in the top three issues of concern.”
Instead, he identifies the top three challenges for the church as “restoring the church’s integrity and moral authority in the wake of, and ongoing fallout from, the clerical sexual abuse scandal”; “effectively catechizing the small fraction of baptized Catholics who actually do attend Mass, participate in parish efforts, and strive to make their faith central in their lives”; and “evangelizing the unaffiliated, the ‘nones,’ those simply drifting away, particularly the young.”
‘A blessing for us’
The McCafferys became parents to their foster son, Michael Raphael, when he was in high school. They knew his family, his grandmother in particular, and took over legal guardianship of the teen.
To Dcn. McCaffery, parenting was “a blessing for us,” and “so completely humbling.” He knew what he was doing as a scientist, a deacon and a manager, but parenting was something new.
“We just kind of stumbled through,” he recalled.
The McCafferys had planned to move to the South after his retirement, but tragedy struck. At the time, their foster son was living in Ashland with his wife, Chandra, and their children, Michael and Adalie.
“He was working in the Williston, North Dakota, oil fields, and in July 2015, he was shot and left paralyzed from the sternum down,” Dcn. McCaffery explained. “We flew down to Bismarck, North Dakota, to be with him during his seven-week recovery and rehab, and about three weeks into it, we decided that we needed to try to move down here to be with him and his family.”
Moving to Wisconsin around Thanksgiving in 2015 was not in their long-term plans, “but we absolutely love it here,” he said. It’s been a blessing to be with their grandkids, but – as has often been the case in his life – “not something we could have anticipated.”
Dcn. McCaffery was driving along one day when a melody popped into his head. Although he cannot read or write music and does not play any instruments, he teamed up with musicians who helped him bring the song to life.
“Writing lyrics generally comes very easily to me,” he observed. “So, to bring my lyrics and melodies together, to bring them to fruition, therefore, I need generous musical collaborators, and while I was in Alaska, I was blessed with them.”
He’s used his gift in service. When he was working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he wrote and recorded songs on endangered species and ATV use in the tundra for outreach campaigns on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
In 2006, he wrote his first song on domestic violence, one of the social problems stemming from the poverty and substance abuse plaguing rural Alaska. He would revisit the theme again and again.
“Around 2009, the director of our local shelter, the Tundra Women’s Coalition, asked if I might compile all my songs in a CD, and that’s what eventually happened in 2014,” he said.
When Dcn. McCaffery produced the album, he gave hundreds of copies to the shelter, so they could use them for education, prizes for fundraisers and more. It was an effort to help people on the margins.
For now, though, without musical collaborators in Wisconsin and with other projects in the foreground, the deacon has temporarily put his songwriting aside. He hopes to use the gift to glorify God, and to reach and evangelize people, in the future.
‘The Harsh Rabbi’
Dcn. McCaffery’s current writing project – he’s about 70,000 words in – is a book, with the working title “The Harsh Rabbi.”
Although the trendy portrayal of the Lord is that he is “gentle and mild,” the deacon sees little evidence of that in the Gospels, except in a passage where Jesus is described that way. He wants his readers to gain a fuller, deeper understanding of God.
“I perceive the Scriptural portrayal of our Lord as much more harsh and abrasive than is generally appreciated or understood,” he explained. “Given that ‘God is love,’ it is therefore important to understand how his harsh words and behaviors are not betrayals of, or inconsistent with, his love for us, but rather additional avenues by which he shows us his love, even when it is uncomfortable and painful.”
His work on the book was temporarily sidetracked by another project, the “Stations of Light” Youtube videos he and Christine produced for their parishes, accessible from stjoseph-hayward.org/reflections-and-resources. Each video explores one of the Stations of Light, an Easter meditation; most run between five and eight minutes long and include a Bible reading, song and reflection.
The videos were posted in late April, and now he’s back to writing. He expects the book to be finished by the end of the year and anticipates it’ll be between 100,000 and 120,000 words. He hasn’t sought a publisher yet; he wants to finish the manuscript first, he said.
A few of Dcn. McCaffery’s favorite saints: St. Patrick, St. Ignatius and St. Francis.
“I’m Irish, I was born in San Francisco and took Francis as my confirmation name, and that I had six years of Jesuit education, respectively,” he explained. “Three of my other favorites include St. Athanasius, St. Ephrem the Syrian, and St. Hildegard of Bingen.”
The service of his brother deacons, in both Wisconsin and Alaska, also inspires Dcn. McCaffery: They “have varied skills and charisms and … what they do and how they minister just blows me away with admiration and humility.”
Above all, being a deacon has taught him “that God’s work is never done, but that no one person can or should do all of it,” he said. “That simply being present to people has an essential, if unquantifiable, power and value, even when we can’t intellectually explain why.”
Dcn. McCaffery’s music is available on Youtube by searching “Brian McCaffery.” He can be reached at .