‘Faith in God, that’s what propels me’:
Father Duffy looks forward to partial retirement

Father Michael Duffy baptizes Alexander Luther at St. Jude, Mineral. Alexander’s parents, Vinny and Elena Luther, said Father Duffy baptized most of their eight children. (Photo/Chet Luther)

Father Michael Duffy grew up in the Church. He didn’t just make a weekly visit to kneel within the four walls of his local parish. He carried the Church with him wherever he went. It was a part of him and a part of his family that was inseparable from their lives.

He was ordained a priest 47 years ago and served as adjutant judicial vicar in the diocesan tribunal from 2008 until December 31, 2022. Effective July 1, he retired from his role as pastor of St. Jude, Mineral and Immaculate Conception, Bumpass.

Though his busiest days are behind him, he will continue his work as a judge in the marriage tribunal at least through 2026, and he is still at St. Jude as pastor-emeritus.

‘Golden Age’

Father Duffy, who is one of ten children, said his childhood benefitted from what he called the “Golden Age of Catholicism,” a time when his neighborhood was infused with his faith: his Catholic school, Catholic church, and a Catholic convent were all within his Catholic neighborhood in New York City.

Though his family hopped from borough to borough, they always brought their faith along with them and found others who did the same. At the age of 13, Father Duffy entered a high school seminary, one of many that were scattered across the country at the time. He sang in the choir, was a voracious reader, and became proficient in Latin.

After high school, he continued as a seminarian in Chicago. His days were punctuated by prayer and study, following the Benedictine motto of “pray and work.” He was ordained at 24, holding tight to the traditional conservative Catholicism of his youth.

“Faith in God, that’s what propels me,” he said. “There is a God. He is personal, and he is real, and he works with me. I am called to do the Lord’s work. How well I’m doing it, let the jury decide that, but I’m doing my best.”

In the 1970s, Father Duffy became the pastor of Sacred Heart, Danville, the only Catholic church in town. Father Wayne Ball first met him there in 1979. At the time, Father Ball was not Catholic, but Father Duffy helped him decide to join the Church.

“There was something very inspiring about the way he treated both the people and the parish there,” Father Ball said.

“Danville is a small town. And yet he brought to that little church a sense of reverence and a sense of grandeur to what was otherwise a tiny little country church. He treated that little parish like it was St. Peter’s Basilica. His time there was sort of the Golden Age,” said Father Ball, adding that under Father Duffy’s pastorate, parish membership and the parish school’s waiting list grew and grew.

In the 1980s, hundreds of Latin American migrants would travel to Danville for seasonal work at tobacco farms. Father Duffy started to journey to the migrant camps to say Mass in Spanish. Though Father Duffy was not fluent in Spanish, Father Ball was, and he would translate Father Duffy’s homilies. Over time, Father Duffy learned more of the language. He was one of the first in the area to offer Spanish Mass, something he would continue to do in other parishes where he served.

Studying canon law

In 1986, Father Duffy began a two-year stay in Rome, where he studied canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University, graduating in 1988. He said his time there was very impactful to his vocation. “It was the sense of meeting so many priests from around the world. It was so refreshing to see the universal Church firsthand,” he said.

Pouring over texts spanning centuries gave him a new appreciation for Latin and law. He recalled being told by someone he met in Rome that “Scripture scholars tell you what God said. Canon lawyers tell you what God meant.”

Father Duffy applied his education and expertise to his work in the tribunal. He explained that the tribunal, which receives around 300 cases per year, is made up of canon law scholars. It is a type of court in which Catholics’ rights and their status in the Church are identified and protected. Examples of cases include those seeking marriage annulments, concerns over the validity of sacraments, disputes between Catholic institutions over church property and other contract issues.

“Marriage is the only sacrament that is constituted or affected by the consent of the couple. It is a contract. During the trial, the Church presumes that every marriage by anyone anywhere, regardless of religion, is valid until it is proven that the contract made by the couples was defective and therefore the bond of marriage does not exist. A person requesting nullity from the tribunal has the burden of proving what they claim is the reason for the defect of invalidity,” he said.

Father Duffy is known in the diocese for his ability to remember minute details of a myriad of events and seemingly endless knowledge of local and world events, laws, and religious and scholarly texts.

Father Brian Capuano, a younger priest serving the tribunal as judicial vicar and chancellor, said, “I have found him to be a wealth of knowledge about the history of the diocese and a keen student of the law who loves to discuss the intricacies of the pastoral situations that impact the faithful – the ordinary situations in the parish, and the complicated situations that arise.”

Facing the future

Father Duffy acknowledges the challenges the Church is facing, with waning Mass attendance and decreased ordination numbers in the United States. He attributed some of the decline to a culture that he believes has lost its way. “My family never criticized the Catholic Church. They observed it faithfully,” he said.

“We never thought outside of that box. You go to confession frequently, you participate in the Mass every Sunday, and daily Masses during Lent,” the priest added. “There was a sense of accountability to your soul. The culture has changed.”

“As the Western culture becomes more self-centered, ego-centric, many have placed themselves at the center of their own reality instead of God,” Father Duffy added. “It is what they personally perceive as a value, not so much what the Lord reveals. Such a pervasive ideology ‘poisons the well’ for youth and young adults as they discern their vocation in life. Every vocation to marriage, to religious life, and to priesthood must have its starting point in God.”

Despite this, Father Duffy is still optimistic about the future of the Church. He would like to see more adult education opportunities as well as training for more deacons.

“When you’re a priest for a long time, you know life is not a bed of roses. You expect to see a lot of problems and a lot of darkness. The Church is the ‘emergency room’ for the human race, as the Holy Father once said,” Father Duffy stated.

“Being a priest is like being an emergency room doctor or a first responder. You’re there because the world sees that it is ailing and it needs medicine. God is the doctor and we work with him,” he explained.

Father Duffy plans on still “scrubbing in” from time to time. Otherwise, he plans on taking time to travel and visit with his many siblings, continuing his work with the tribunal three days a week, and making sure his days are still punctuated by prayer.


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