Carmelite Father Tracy O'Sullivan is a man whom I have known since his days as a college seminary student in the 1950s. In "Been There All Along," he is writing his life's story but in reality it is the story of all of us who seek for meaning in our lives.
He is a member of the Carmelite order, which is important to understand his intense search for the spiritual basis of his work. He summed it up this way: "Over time, I would learn that the Carmelite calling, to search for the face of the living God, was at the center of my being."
He has essentially spent his life as a Carmelite priest working to alleviate poverty and discrimination in the African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods of the South Side of Chicago and South Central Los Angeles. Yet this is fundamentally a story about his long struggle to avoid the trap of being an activist unconnected to a deeper spirituality.
Tracy was the name he took when entering the religious community. His baptismal name was Joseph, and he grew up as the seventh of eight children in a working-class family begun by Irish immigrant parents on the South Side of Chicago. His two oldest siblings were born in Ireland. The extended family now consists of multiple generations of nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles and cousins, most of whom continue to populate the southern region of the Chicago metropolitan area.
The young Joe was an outstanding athlete, quarterbacking the high school city championship football team in his junior year. After high school he chose a different path and entered the seminary to study to become a Carmelite priest. Two years after ordination, he returned in 1964 to that same Chicago neighborhood where he had attended Mount Carmel High School to work in the local parish.
This area, known as Woodlawn, was located just south of the main campus of the University of Chicago. In the 1960s it became the home of one of the most notorious black gangs of the city, called the Black Stone Rangers.
For the next six years, Father O'Sullivan made a name for himself as an outspoken advocate for alleviating the conditions of poverty and remedying discriminatory practices in housing, health care and policing in the neighborhood. He joined forces with the religious leaders of other faiths to move the gang leadership away from violence and toward more constructive activities in the community.
These activities were controversial and attracted a great deal of media attention as well as that of local and national politicians, who did not look favorably on his efforts. Father O'Sullivan also had to confront his own religious community, accusing the Carmelites of being part of the problem rather than the solution to these problems. It was a lonely road and he often found himself more at home with his black brothers and sisters than with his fellow Carmelites.
Father O'Sullivan's activism was animated by the religious principles and the new energy and spirit of the Second Vatican Council that permeated the Catholic world during this time. But this was a period that left little time for reflection on these matters. He talks about learning about Vatican II "on the run." All of this began to leave him confused as his work was not rooted in the necessary spiritual and theological foundation to give it meaning.
At the beginning of the 1970s, he stopped praying and began drinking, which he described as a deadly combination. But this was the start of a more introspective stage of his life and work.
For the next seven years, he remained in the local parish where a group of black mothers from the parish school convinced him to engage directly in the education ministry. He followed their advice and began to work as a teacher and later as the school principal. He found this not only very rewarding but beneficial to his growth as a person and a Carmelite.
Several years later on the advice of a fellow priest, he left the parish school to pursue a year of studies in pastoral theology at the University of Notre Dame. This provided a formal introduction to the new theological thinking of Vatican II and more importantly gave him ample opportunity to reflect on the meaning of being a member of the Carmelite community.
He returned to Chicago to work in a progressive suburban parish serving a middle-class white community. This experience gave him new insights into his own spiritual journey. During these years he began to appreciate the centrality of liturgy and the Eucharist to the Catholic community.
He was then assigned by his religious community as director of justice and peace (1978-1984) for the Carmelite Provincial Council. During this same period he also became very involved with establishing the liberal lay organization dedicated to church reform, known as Call to Action.
He completed his 25-year tenure in Chicago as pastor of the parish where he had lived and worked for the previous two decades. He was constantly struggling with overcoming his personal demons related to alcohol and celibacy. Of this period he says, "I knew I was a disaster waiting to happen. I tried to stop drinking and I did. It only took me about 200 times to eventually close the deal." In the process he was gaining a new and deeper understanding of his own spiritual life and how God was in much more control of his destiny than he knew.
He finally summoned the strength to overcome his drinking problems just before assuming the role of director of formation and superior of the Carmelite House of Studies in Washington. This together with his experience in the African-American community of Chicago prepared him well for his last major ministry -- that of the pastor of a very poor multiracial and ethnic parish is South Central L.A. Here the liturgy imbued with the spirit of Vatican II together with education become central to his ministry.
He had begun to appreciate that the elements that made up the narrative of his life "reveal the mystery of God working in our lives." Put another way, he had learned that throughout his journey that God had "been there all along."
This book is an important contribution to the history of the Vatican II church as it evolved in the United States during the half century since the historic council.