He stood tall before me and looked majestic. To a fifteen year old, the overwhelming presence of the House Director, who literally “called the shots”, became both overpowering and necessary. I had heard of the “punishments” he imparted on the “not-so-good” boys of St. Raphael’s Hall because they broke the curfew or simply did not adhere to rules. But I also heard that the use of “la paleta” was done with utmost care and responsibility (even I was called to his office once and got to experience one “hit” from la paleta). He cared for each of the boys as a father for his children. And, over the years, they responded to that care and concern, even if at the time, during their adolescence, they wore the robe of immaturity to hide the pain of separation from their families.
As time went by, I became aware of his concern for others in many ways. He attended my graduations from St. John Vianney and St. Vincent de Paul Seminaries, and when I was ordained a priest he was my “padrino” (the priest-friend-father who vests the newly ordained). We attended weddings, baptisms and funerals together of some of the people we knew in common, who had been part of that period of our lives. He attended many more, of course, as many as he could, of the many Pedro Pan children who, as adults, called him to share a significant or a sad moment in their lives.
Father/Monsignor Bryan O Walsh was involved in the personal concerns of “his” children and in the social concerns of Miami-Dade and many other areas of our country. His presence in Catholic Charities became a symbol of “care” for all who needed assistance, as witnessed by all who saw him involved in the plight of the Haitian community long before they became so visible in South Florida. He represented the Catholic Church well, despite the criticisms of those who resented his leadership, or who displayed more insecurities by dissenting with him when he persisted in whatever he believed needed to be done.
Father/Monsignor Walsh did not need his robes to feel secure. He did not hide behind his titles and accolades (many of which had been given to him by civic and ecumenical leaders throughout the years) to be an honest and selfless leader of the needy among us. He displayed a clear sense of direction in his decision-making process and was never afraid of the consequences that such decisions carried. In most cases, he had already calculated the consequences before the decisions became public.
At St. Raphael’s Hall, at age fifteen, I had spoken with three other Chaplains about my vocation. They all suggested that I should wait another year before choosing the vocation to the priesthood. Some of my friends were already going to the Seminary, and I had decided on this choice late that summer. In retrospect, I now believe that the original recommendation of the Chaplains was wise; maybe I was just entering the Seminary because my friends were entering as well. Was it a true vocation? Time would tell!
But when I went to see Father Walsh about my interest in the priesthood, his face beamed with joy and excitement. He must have seen right through all possible arguments against it. If I was sure, he was sure. Although I had already been accepted to conclude my senior year at Archbishop Curley High School, I entered St. John Vianney Seminary that fall (September 1962) as a junior in High School (I was too young to be a senior). At St. John Vianney, I lived through the Cuban-missile Crisis in the news and television, and began to miss my family much more. It was then that I began to understand that the journey toward reunion had been delayed indefinitely (it took five more years for my parents to arrive in Miami).
Father/Msgr. Walsh visited Cuba only once, in 1963, and just for a day, accompanying Bishop Coleman Carroll, the first bishop of Miami, to the funeral of Cardinal Manuel Arteaga. Later on, he would share the story of how, at the Cathedral of Havana, after the Funeral Mass, he perceived the anxiety and despair of those attending and thought of the children who were already in Miami or dispersed throughout the United States. Who were these people?; probably, the parents and/or relatives of the many Pedro Pan children. How did they know that he was there in Havana for this special occasion? How did the word spread that he was coming? No one knows to date how so many knew, but he brought many envelopes with him when he returned to Miami with Bishop Carroll. He always spoke of this experience with emotion and affection.
My first year at the Seminary, in 1962, I realized how much longer the journey toward priesthood would be: ten long years of study and formation. In more than one occasion I reflected on whether I would reach my goal or not. It seemed so far ahead and so many things could happen. Today, after thirty-nine years as a priest, I give thanks to God for the prayers of all who saw through my own limitations and weaknesses and saw me as a priest in the service of God and His people. Even after many years later, when we worked together with Archbishop McCarthy, I know that Msgr. Bryan O. Walsh was always one of them. For his joy and excitement, for his concern for others, and now for his intercession, I will always be grateful!