Up Front

Father John Malone: "Champion of the poor and the sinners"

Last October, at a dinner to celebrate Father John Malone’s 40 years as a priest and his retirement as pastor of Assumption Catholic Church, I had the opportunity to toast – and roast – my good friend. It was an evening I knew I would relish, because it is not often that Father Malone has to sit quietly and take the brunt of barbs, good-natured as they may be.

Eventually, however, he found himself at the podium. He kept his remarks characteristically short, much like his homilies, and at the end he quoted from a famous William Butler Yeats poem:

Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.

The words were entirely appropriate for the evening, given the capacity crowd of 300. As I reflected later, I realized the words were also appropriate in summarizing the work of a priest who has touched – and has been touched – by so many people.

I met John Malone more than four decades ago, and I consider him one of the finest people I know. In a word, he cares. It doesn’t make a whit of difference to him whether a person is a friend or a stranger, rich or poor, powerful or powerless. If the person needs help, Father Malone provides it.

He grew up on the East Side of St. Paul and attended Nazareth Hall and the St. Paul Seminary, from which he was ordained in 1967. He earned a law degree, taught business law at St. Thomas for more than 25 years, did pro bono work for people who couldn’t afford a lawyer, worked part-time at the Ramsey County Public Defenders Office and became pastor of Assumption Church in downtown St. Paul. Among his honors are the 1999 Ramsey County Bar Association’s Humanitarian Award and the 2004 St. Thomas More Award from the Lawyers Guild of St. Thomas More.

Over the course of 40 years, Father Malone has become known for many things: common-sense lectures, short but incisive homilies, a puckish sense of humor and, above all else, wise compassion. People have always known that they could trust him.

That sense of humor, in particular, has carried him a long way. His stories – and stories about him – are legendary, and could fill many pages. Two are worth sharing here.

In his legal work, he would wear a suit and tie – not priestly garb – because he didn’t want any special treatment. He once told Law and Politics magazine about “a real loser case” he had handled, “but believe it or not, the jury comes in and says, ‘Not guilty.’ I think to myself, ‘Man, I am a good lawyer.’ Then later, this woman who was a member of the jury comes up to me and says, ‘Father Malone, I told them you never would represent somebody who’s guilty.’ That was a particularly humbling experience.”

As much as he would protest otherwise, a number of people have thought Father Malone would make a good bishop. Thus, he found in his mail on April 1, 1995, a letter from Pope John Paul II declaring that he had been named a bishop. The document looked authentic. It was written in Latin on parchment, signed by the pope and enclosed in a Vatican mailing tube with official stamps. Alas, it was a forgery – the concoction of Ramsey County District Judge Margaret Marrinan and Archbishop John Roach. Once the charade was revealed, Father Malone could only smile and promise revenge.

Father Malone admits that he does “the unexpected” and demonstrates what one reporter called “respectful flippancy.” His friend, Father Michael O’Connell, says some of Father Malone’s actions, while “outrageous” in one sense, always are grounded in doing what’s best for people. “He was taught to reach out to the poor and to seek justice,” Father O’Connell said last fall in a Pioneer Press profile, “and he is not afraid to speak his mind. So he can say almost anything, and he does.” Added his sister, Kathleen Stroh, in the same story: “He’s a champion of the poor and the sinners. … He’s awesome and outrageous, and he’s my hero.”

Father Malone would scoff at any “hero” talk and would upbraid me for encouraging it. Yet I know from observing him all of these years and hearing many stories of his kind deeds that he is, indeed, a hero, and I am heartened that he will spend more time on our campus with students and alumni. They will find themselves nodding in appreciation, as do I, at what Yeats once wrote. ... “and say my glory was I had such friends.”

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