This Monday, July 27th, is Fr. Mitch Pacwa's 60th birthday (see his Facebook page), and I want to be sure to send him birthday greetings while I am thinking of it as the next few days are going to be fairly hectic here.
I've been fortunate, in my twelve years as a Catholic, of meeting and knowing some truly remarkable priests, and Fr. Mitch is one of the most remarkable. I think the highest praise I can give him, having known him for a dozen years or so, is that he is so obviously Christ-centered in all that he does and says. His love for the Lord is palpable, infectious, and real, and from this flows his tremendous love for the Church, for everyone he meets, for Scripture,
for life. His humor, humility, and holiness are deep and authentic, just as his academic chops (Ph.D. in Hebrew; speaks/reads a dozen or more languages, etc.) are authentic, but never paraded about or used as a stick.
While working on my MTS (1997-2000), Fr. Mitch was my spiritual director for about two years. I was a new Catholic, and his advice, exhortation, and wisdom were invaluable. He was instrumental in the publication of my first book, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, having encouraged me to write it in the first place and then, when I got bogged down in the middle of it, simply telling me, with just the right amount of sternness: "Finish it!"
Those familiar with Fr. Mitch know very well of his many endeavors, written and otherwise, in the area of apologetics. One thing I saw many times over, as I've had opportunity to be in public with him many times, is that he has an uncanny—actually, supernatural, I'm convinced—ability to recognize what needs to be said and not be said, a beautiful sensitivity to the person he is talking to or listening to. He often had strong words for me, and he was right to be so forward; he knew what I needed and he knew I could handle it. I also saw him handle delicate situations with a profound gentleness, as a true shepherd of souls.
And there is always the sly and knowing sense of humor, as evidenced in one of the stories I like to tell of Fr. Mitch. One Saturday evening, after he had taught class for six hours (as part of the University of Dallas IRPS program), Fr. Mitch and a group of five or six of us students went out for dinner. The young waitress, seeing his Roman collar (which he always wears in public), half-asked, "So, you're a Catholic priest?"
"Yes, I am," he said with a big smile. "Are you Catholic?"
She was immediately a bit nervous, but also somewhat defiant. "Well, I used to be," she said, "but I'm not anymore. I got over that whole guilt thing."
Seeing that she was wearing a wedding ring, Fr. Mitch said, "May I ask you a question?" He knew she was uncomfortable and likely felt, in a sense, outnumbered. "Sure," she said, not sure what to expect.
"Do you have any children?" he asked.
"No, not yet," she said, mystified by the question.
"Well," he said with a warm smile, "when you do, you'll understand the whole guilt thing. I'm sure of it."
And that was it. He didn't press further. Thinking about it later, I realized how easy it would have been to try to launch into reasons why she should come back to the Church and why Catholicism is true, and so forth. But such an approach was wrong for the situation; it would have most likely simply pushed her further away, reinforced whatever antagonism she had, for whatever reason, against her Catholic upbringing. But my bet is that Fr. Mitch's remark planted a seed—not based on sophisticated apologetic arguments or theological complexities (things he is plenty adept at handling, of course), but on basic human nature. And if I still remember that conversation ten years later, I suspect the young woman—perhaps now a mother—remembers it as well, and, by God's grace, it has caused her to rethink and reevaluate her position.
We are blessed to hear Fr. Mitch on EWTN television and radio, to read his books, to listen to his "PacwaCasts," to watch his various video productions. I've been truly blessed to know him as a friend and a spiritual director, and my prayer is that God will grant him many, many more happy years. Thank you and happy birthday, Fr. Mitch!