For 12 years, the relationship between Ascension Catholic Church and the congregation’s pastor, Rev. Larry McNally, can be described as a very good fit.
A sign of what longtime Ascension parishioner Bill McNichols called “a symbiotic relationship” is that as the time approached for McNally to be moved by the Archdiocese to another parish this summer (following two terms as pastor), parishioners circulated petitions and wrote letters asking Archbishop Cupich to make an exception to archdiocesan policy and let them keep their pastor for another six-year term.
When members of Ascension explain why they are so attached to Fr. McNally, they don’t talk about his skills or talents. Indeed, McNally acknowledges that preaching is not his forte.
“Fr. Frank Jenks, who was here before me, was a great preacher,” McNally recalled. “I can’t reach that level. We all have different gifts.”
What parishioners do talk about is his pastoral presence, exemplified by how he has related to children.
“He shows his pastoral nature with the younger ones among us,” said Paul Rubio, who has been involved in “a number of ministries” at Ascension. Every May, when the First Communion Masses roll around, after the gifts have been brought to the altar, McNally walks to the pews where the first communicants are seated with their families, gathers them together and leads them up to the altar where they stand behind him as he says the Eucharistic Prayer.
“Last year I happened to be at one of the First Communion Masses,” Rubio said, “on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, often referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday. By leading the children up to the altar, Fr. Larry gave us a beautiful image of our Good Shepherd.”
Beata Kruss recalled bringing her twin boys, who were 4 years old. They were “antsy and fidgety at times” because they weren’t used to being in church. When she would go up for communion, her boys would accompany her.
“My twins must have sensed unbelievable love and warmth from [him],” she said. “They embraced Fr. Larry and hugged him in the middle of a very serious Catholic ritual. And you know what? Fr. Larry stopped everything and reciprocated the embrace. It was very short, but in my mind it was going on for way too long, and it challenged my entire strict, serious Polish Catholic upbringing. It took me close to two years to realize that Fr. Larry had been like Jesus who told us, ‘Let the little children come to me.'”
Twelve years ago, when McNally was thinking about accepting the move to Ascension, one of the things that attracted him to the parish on East Avenue, in addition to its “strong liturgies,” was the existence of a parish school with close to 500 students. He visited classes in the school frequently as well as religious ed classes after school for parish children who go to public schools.
Older children would line up after Mass to chat with him, one of the favorite topics being baseball.
“He never passes up a good opportunity to acclaim his White Sox pride,” said Rubio, “or to kid around with those displaying their Cubs pride.”
“Fr. Larry knows how to have fun,” he added. “At a catechist appreciation brunch last year, the entertainment was one of the sisters from Late Nite Catechism. I can still remember how red his face turned from laughing at sister’s jokes.”
McNally said Ascension has been good for him.
“One of the great things about being Catholic,” he said, “is the sacraments. I love celebrating sacraments and receiving them personally. That’s huge in my own personal life.”
Another area of growth for him has been speaking his mind, even when it is not considered ecclesiastically correct.
“I’m more outspoken than I was when I first came,” he said, “especially when the cardinal [Francis George] was bashing gays and the rainbow sashes. I came out and said publicly that if you come in here with a rainbow sash and want communion, I’m going to give you communion.”
The Archdiocese was not pleased.
He also got reprimanded because of his public statements on women in the church. “I thought the women religious got a real raw deal from the bishops,” he said, “and I was very outspoken about that. The one thing I got reprimanded for, and for which I had to put an apology in the bulletin, was that I said from the pulpit that it’s time for us to start a discussion about ordaining women.”
What Ascension has experienced during the past 12 years is a pastor who shares their progressive values (he proudly proclaims himself a “Vatican II priest”) and is highly approachable on a personal level. The approachability likely comes from Fr. McNally being comfortable both in his own skin and in his vocation as a priest.
“Growing up,” he said, “I always felt like I wanted to be a priest, but I did everything a normal guy would do. I had part-time jobs, dated, did all sorts of things even though I was going to seminary. I tried to be as normal as possible. I hung around priests a lot when I was a kid. I really liked their lifestyle.
“What really formed my vocation was being assigned to St. Malachy’s at the corner of Western and Washington for what they called field education. All of the members were African American, very different from my home parish as a young child, St. Kilian’s, an Irish parish on Chicago’s Southwest Side. The members of St. Malachy’s opened their arms to me. Seeing poverty, seeing how people had to live in the projects, it gave me a real dose of reality away from the seminary. I thought, ‘Wow this is really neat!'”
Another good experience, he said, was doing three months of clinical pastoral education at St. Luke Hospital in Milwaukee.
“Dealing with sickness, healing, death, telling people their loved one had died during the night but also seeing people walk out of there.”
He summed up his time at Ascension and his whole time as a priest by noting, “I am very content with my vocation. I really feel God has blessed me. When I die and see God face to face, the first thing I want to say is ‘Thank you for my vocation and my priest’s life.’ I have no regrets.”