For 58 Years Monsignor Michael Has Provided Spiritual Care and He’s Still …
Walking Destiny’s Path
By David A. Maurer
Daily Progress staff writer
(Published in the Daily Progress, Charlottesville, Virginia, April 23, 2000. Reprinted here with permission.)
In the predawn darkness the white-haired man makes his way to the top of Ennis Mountain.
Monsignor Chester P. Michael prays the rosary as he walks, the soft murmur of his words joining the melodies of the awakening forest. This climb to meet the dawn is an established ritual for the 83-year-old Roman Catholic priest.
The West Virginia native knows precisely how long it will take him to make the journey up and down. If there isn’t any snow on the ground to slow his pace, it will take an hour, the time it takes to recite 15 decades of the rosary.
“I aim to get to the top of this mountain by sunup,” Michael said, his beaming smile lighting up his weathered face. “A friend of mine, Tom Harvey, has a little cabin on the top of the mountain.
“I have a Bible I keep in a cake tin on the front porch. I’ll read that or just sit there and listen to the sounds.
“I stay there until the sun comes up. I feel there is a special energy in the air at sunrise. It makes me feel energized.”
Michael needs all the energy he can get to continue to minister to the many people who seek his spiritual guidance. Technically, he retired in 1984, but his busy work schedule suggests otherwise.
During Holy Week, Michael was in Lynchburg leading a spiritual retreat. He has done this for the past 25 years.
“All of religion points to the events between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday,” Michael said as he sat at his sunlit table and looked through a window that offers a magnificent view of Humpback Rock.
“It’s the high point of the year for me. Our whole religion reaches a peak during this time.
“This is why Jesus came on Earth to live, to suffer, to die and to rise from the dead. I look forward all the year long to Holy Week.”
This Easter Sunday, along with millions of people throughout the world, Michael celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. It is an event he observes every day when he celebrates Mass.
Celebrating Mass has been a daily event for Michael since he was ordained on April 6, 1942. On most days, he celebrates Mass in his small, rustic home nestled among the trees of Ennis Mountain.
Michael performs the Mass at his little table. His congregation often consists only of the songbirds that tweet and bounce around in the feeder just outside the window.
Although the Nelson County resident lives a somewhat hermit-like existence, he remains very much engaged in the spiritual life of others. In a few weeks he will hold a three-day retreat for members of his Spiritual Direction Institute at Church of the Incarnation just north of Charlottesville.
“As I look back over my 83 years, I realize that there were different destinies God had in mind for me at different times,” said Michael as he rested his folded hands on the table.
“I feel quite sure that the number one destiny God has in mind for me now is the Spiritual Direction Institute. This is a very intense two-year program that trains lay people to be spiritual counselors.
“During the last 10 years, more than 200 people have graduated from this program. God has blessed this so much.”
The second destiny God has in mind for him at this time, Michael said, is conducting retreats. He said these retreats are vital for a person’s spiritual well being.
“We need to constantly try to discern what is the destiny God had in mind for us when he created us,” Michael said. “Our destiny changes from one year to the next.”
“At least once a year every person needs to try to discern where he or she is supposed to be. And secondly, what does God want me to be a year from now, five years from now?”
Michael feels his third destiny is to provide spiritual direction and counseling to people. He does this for 50 to 75 people.
Not all the people Michael helps are Catholics. He said he regularly gives spiritual advice to a Baptist minister, a Methodist minister and an Episcopalian priest.
About five years ago, Roger Mahloch, a Catholic, felt the need for spiritual guidance. Like many people, a serious health situation caused him to take a close look at his spiritual well being.
“I was sitting on my sofa one day and, even though I had been a regular church-goer, I realized I didn’t even know how to pray,” said Mahloch, a Charlottesville real estate agent.
“As a result of that, I was searching for someone who could give me some type of spiritual direction. I had heard of Father Michael and after attending one of his retreats, I started seeing him for spiritual direction.
“He has had a tremendous influence on my growth from a spiritual standpoint. Before I met Father Michael, I was on a dirt road and, although I’m not on a superhighway yet, I’m at least on a paved road.”
Michael feels God also wants him to continue writing spiritual books and booklets. His most recently published booklet is “Dreams and Their Significance.”
Michael said he believes God speaks to us in dreams. The booklet is designed to help people better understand their dreams and what they might mean.
Michael has also co-authored two books with Marie C. Norrisey, “Arise: A Christian Psychology of Love” and “Prayer and Temperament: Different Prayer Forms for Different Personality Types.”
Norrisey met Michael in 1963 when he became pastor of Holy Comforter Church. She was the president of the Catholic Women’s Club and later worked as Michael’s secretary.
“Father Michael believes what he preaches and lives the way he preaches,” said Norrisey, who lives in Charlottesville. “God walks with him every day.”
“He expects a lot from all of us, but we have to remember what he expects from us, he lives. He asks that we consider the plight of the poor and needy, and as long as I have known him, he has always done that.
“He will fast and tighten his belt so he can do more for somebody else. One of the things that has most impressed me about him is that he will help people financially, spiritually and even with physical labor and never talk about it. He just does it.”
Michael feels another important task God wants is for him to fill in for other priests. He does this by visiting different churches to hear confessions and celebrate Mass.
Michael’s presence is needed more and more as the number of priests continues to decline. He said the shortage of priests and nuns has reached the crisis stage.
“Back in the early 1960s, I was head of a seminary and also director of vocations,” Michael said. “I easily could get 50 boys each year who wanted to be priests.
“Now, you’re lucky to get one or two. It used to be you had just any number of girls who wanted to be nuns and now, again, you’re lucky to get one.
“The whole world has changed and much of this is due to what I call the three Ps—power, pleasure and possessions. People who are thinking about becoming priests or nuns get caught up in these three idolatries.
“I think one of the answers to the shortage would be to allow married men to be priests. I don’t see that happening under the present pope, but I think it will happen shortly. I think it will be a much longer time before women are allowed to become Catholic priests, but I think the time has come for it.”
When Michael was born on Oct. 17, 1916, on a small farm in Rock Gap, W.Va., most people probably wouldn’t have considered him a prime candidate for the priesthood. His father, Luther Michael, had promised his mother as she lay on her deathbed that he would never convert to Catholicism.
Mother knew best
However, Luther Michael’s wife, Carrie, was a devout Catholic. She had no doubt what path her youngest of four sons would take.
“When we met strangers, my mother introduced her children,” Michael said. “When she got to me she would say, ‘This is my son who is going to be a priest.’ The interesting thing is her saying that didn’t affect me one way or another.
“She died in 1966. I never asked her where she got that idea, and I’m so sorry I didn’t.”
Michael attended a one-room schoolhouse and proved to be an exceptionally bright child. He advanced rapidly because he loved to listen to his teacher, Milo Henry, teach the upper grades.
“When I was in the second grade, my mother told me she thought I should be in the third,” Michael said, pointing out a cardinal that had arrived at the feeder.
“The next day as we were going out for morning recess, I told Mr. Henry that I thought I should be in the third grade. He said, ‘All right. After recess you’ll be in the third grade.’
“I was precocious as far as intellect goes and I started high school when I was 11. During my last year of high school, I began to think about becoming a priest. We had just gotten a new pastor, Father McConnell, and after I graduated from high school, he took me to the seminary in Baltimore.”
After 10 years of study, Michael became a diocesan priest for the Diocese of Richmond. Then, as now, it was very much a missionary diocese, he said.
Michael’s first job as a priest was to travel throughout Virginia familiarizing people in rural areas with the Catholic faith. For a month at a time, he and another priest drove through the countryside towing a trailer named St. Mary of the Highway.
The trailer opened up in the back and turned into an altar and pulpit. When the gas shortage brought on by World War II ended the road trips, Michael was assigned to Camp Pickett, where he saw to the spiritual needs of the soldiers, many of whom were headed for combat duty overseas.
Michael resumed his missionary work when the war ended. He stayed on the road until 1953 when he became the pastor of St. Bede’s Church in Williamsburg.
In 1959 Michael left St. Bede’s Church to found St. John Vianney Seminary in Goochland County. He left there in 1963 to come to Holy Comforter.
One of Michael’s most important tasks at his new church was to shepherd his flock through the upheaval and change ushered in by Vatican II. Although he had long been a proponent for change within the church, the 1960s proved to be a time of soul searching for many Catholics.
“When I became a priest, the role was almost totally different from what it is now,” Michael said. “When I was ordained, I thought of myself as a magician.
“For example, I thought all I had to do for people who were in serious sin was make the sign of the cross over them, say you are absolved of your sins and as a result they would go to heaven. Whereas, if I didn’t do that they would go to hell.
“In a certain sense, that was why I became a priest, because it gave me that magic power.”
During the 1950s, Michael’s beliefs and views went through an evolution. He attended courses by the Jungian psychologist, Father Josef Goldbrunner, at the University of Notre Dame and saw how psychology could be a useful tool in helping to better understand religion.
Michael’s advanced studies in psychology, scripture and liturgy made him want to throw open the windows of his faith and let fresh air in.
“I saw the need for the changes Vatican II brought about years before they happened,” Michael said, referring to the Roman Catholic Ecumenical Council held from 1962-65.
“I was reconciled that I would be dead for 100 years before it happened. When it happened so quickly, I rejoiced. However, I remember when John XXIII was elected pope I said, ‘Oh, this old man. Nothing is going to happen with him.’
“But he was the very one who brought about the change.”
The changes were profound and sweeping. Priests began celebrating Mass in English instead of Latin. The altar was reversed, and priests began facing their congregations when they celebrated Mass.
Other changes went right to the bedrock of the faith. After 1,600 years, the belief that Catholics were the only people who would be saved and allowed in heaven was discounted. Michael said this change was important because it showed the church is much broader than the Roman Catholic Church alone.
Although Michael said he loved the changes that came out of Vatican II, he was tempted to leave the priesthood in the 1960s.
“Every priest had a crisis of faith in the ‘60s,” Michael said. “Every priest.
“I had to rethink why I was a priest and, if not, I would have stopped being a priest, as many did. My rethinking is that I see the priest as a spiritual leader, not especially different from any other person who is not a priest.
“We are called to be spiritual leaders to help lead other people toward God. That’s why I’m a priest and all my learning and background in education and so on allows me to be a better spiritual leader.”
While Michael and the church have both changed since the day he was ordained at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, his devotion to God has only grown.
“Over the years I have become more and more overwhelmed by God’s goodness and love,” Michael said. “This especially comes out during Holy Week, when we meditate on the Passion.
“Like the scourging at the pillar. Jesus was stripped naked and these two burly soldiers with this long leather whip that had pieces of lead to give it weight and sharp pieces of bone to cut, whipped him from head to foot, front and back.
“This was Jesus. He never did anything to harm them. But in some mysterious way through his suffering he expressed his love for us.”
As Monsignor Michael moves toward the dusk of his physical life, he continues to rejoice in the dawn of each new day. From his perch on top of Ennis Mountain, he listens to the sound of drumming grouse or the gobble from a wild turkey.
As the priest listens and watches the colors of dawn tinge the eastern horizon, he prays and reflects.
“The thing I’m most proud of is that I have been able to lead a simple life,” Michael said. “I think living a simple life is the calling for priests and the calling for everybody.
“I haven’t been able to convince anyone else, but thank God I have been able to live that kind of life. I guess in many ways, that’s the greatest blessing God has given me.”