For much of the 55 years Msgr. Owen Campion has been a priest, he’s had a front row seat to history – and in some cases a seat at the dinner table with a pope.
As the Master of Ceremonies for Bishop Joseph Durick and editor of the Tennessee Register, he chronicled the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and the monumental changes in the Catholic Church that followed the Second Vatican Council.
As a representative of the Vatican, he helped the Church in former Soviet-bloc countries rebuild their mass communications and reported on the Church in Latin America as it charted its future.
And at every step along the way, he met people who became lifelong friends.
“I’ve made some wonderful friends wherever I’ve been,” said Msgr. Campion who marked the 55th anniversary of his ordination on Friday, May 21.
A native of Nashville, Msgr. Campion grew up as a parishioner at the Cathedral of the Incarnation and graduated from Overbrook School and Father Ryan High School.
“I would not be a priest today if I hadn’t gone to Father Ryan,” where he met and was inspired by the priests on the faculty, he said.
His first brush with history was as a freshman at Father Ryan, when the school integrated just months after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
“People today would not realize how traumatic that was. A total culture change,” Msgr. Campion said. “The Nashville Catholic Community was very upset about desegregated schools.” But in the end, they went along with the bishop’s decision, Msgr. Campion recalled.
After graduating from Father Ryan, he attended St. Bernard College in Cullman, Alabama. He finished his seminary formation at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. “I loved my days there,” Msgr. Campion said. “I go back and it’s still home.”
He returned to Baltimore and St. Mary’s for a small celebration of his ordination anniversary with old friends, including Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, the former Archbishop of Baltimore whom he first met through their involvement with the Catholic Press Association nearly four decades ago, Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop Adam Parker, and Fathers Phillip Brown, P.S.S., and Thomas Hurst, P.S.S., the current and former rector of St. Mary’s, respectively.
After celebrating Mass to mark the anniversary, Msgr. Campion said, “We had a very nice leisurely Italian lunch, and I came home.”
Msgr. Campion was ordained in 1966 by Bishop Durick, who was then serving as the apostolic administrator of the diocese, at his home parish of the Cathedral.
His first assignments were at St. Jude Church and Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga and then at Holy Ghost Church in Knoxville.
The funeral for a young priest, Father William C. Sherman, while Msgr. Campion was serving in Chattanooga, was the first time in the diocese that the new rite for a funeral Mass, unveiled following Vatican II, was used for a priest, he recalled. Joe Sweat, then the editor of the Tennessee Register, asked Msgr. Campion to write an article about the new funeral rite.
“So, I wrote the story. Joe published it, and Joe liked it,” Msgr. Campion said. “He started calling on me to write stories.” He became a regular contributor to the Register.
In 1971, Msgr. Campion was at the Chancery Building in Nashville when Bishop Durick joined him on the elevator. “He said, ‘Well Joe Sweat has taken a new job. Do you want to be editor of the Register?’ And that was that for the next 17 years.”
Witness to history
As Register editor, Msgr. Campion worked closely with Bishop Durick, who was very active in implementing the changes spurred by the Second Vatican Council and in the Civil Rights Movement, two topics that received a lot of attention in the diocesan newspaper.
He also became involved in the Catholic Press Association, ultimately serving as its president. It was that experience that brought him new friends among editors of Catholic publications across the nation and other priests who would go on to have important positions in the hierarchy.
Among them were Cardinal O’Brien, who was the Communications Director for the Archdiocese of New York and trying to start an archdiocesan newspaper when he befriended Msgr. Campion, and the late Cardinal John Foley, who was the editor of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s newspaper, the Catholic Standard & Times, and later served in the Vatican as President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
He left the Register to join Our Sunday Visitor, and was tapped by the Vatican to serve as an Ecclesiastical Assistant to help establish relationships between the Holy See and Catholic publishers around the world.
“They would call me and say we would like you to attend a meeting in Sao Paolo or Hong Kong,” sometimes with only a few days notice, Msgr. Campion said. “I did that for nine years.”
He is grateful to Our Sunday Visitor for supporting him in that role, allowing him to travel the world on behalf of the Church and paying for every expense.
One area of the world that he visited often was the former Soviet-bloc countries of Eastern Europe. “One year, I was in Poland seven times.”
As the Soviet Union was breaking up, nations like Poland, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia were coming out from under repressive governments for the first time in generations. It was the same for the Church in those nations, which were trying to rebuild their communications infrastructure, such as diocesan newspapers and radio stations. Msgr. Campion was one of the people the Church called on to provide technical assistance and advice.
“Eastern Europe for a period of several years very much dominated my interest,” Msgr. Campion said. “It also put me in contact with people around the world.”
One of those people was St. John Paul II, who was interested in the situation in Eastern Europe and how communications efforts could help the Church there, Msgr. Campion said. He was invited to dinner with the pope several times to discuss the topic.
During one lunch, the pope, realizing Msgr. Campion was from Nashville, mimed strumming a guitar and asked, “Do you play the guitar?”
“I said, ‘No, Holy Father, I only listen.’”
He also spent time in Latin America working with dioceses there. St. John Paul II appointed him to the Synod of Bishops to discuss the Church in the 21st Century, one of only 13 priests from around the world appointed.
Msgr. Campion has also covered the elections of three popes: John Paul I, Benedict XVI and Francis.
Witness to change
During his priesthood, Msgr. Campion has seen a change in the relationship between the Church and the people.
“When I was ordained, the Church as an institution was still very important to people,” he said. “There were institutional representatives of the Church almost everywhere you went. You could live your life and every major human event would have occurred not only within the Church or under the umbrella of the Church but with an ordained or vowed person of the Church involved.”
Throughout his education as child and a seminarian, all of his teachers were either priests or religious sisters. The Church and religious orders established hospitals and universities to serve Catholics who many times didn’t have access to secular institutions, Msgr. Campion said.
Not only were Catholics educated by the Church and taken care of by the Church when they were ill, but they were baptized in the Church, married in the Church and buried by the Church. “The identity of the Church was reinforced at every important event in life.”
“There was a bond that was established between the Church and the people,” he added.
But that bond has loosened over time for a number of reasons, Msgr. Campion said. One is the declining number of priests and religious sisters has meant they are no longer as present in institutions like schools and hospitals, he said.
Also, as social attitudes toward Catholics have changed over the last century, Catholics no longer have to rely on the Church for access to things like health care and higher education, Msgr. Campion said.
“That’s the biggest change I’ve seen,” he said.
But the many friendships he has made remain. “The thing that has sustained me,” Msgr. Campion said, “is the wonderful people I’ve known.”