A Vatican II priest for a Vatican II diocese
By Mallory Matt
The lively and rambunctious retired Msgr. James Dempsey, who determines the year of a photo by how much hair he sees on his head, has seen many changes, not only in himself, but in the Universal Church.
The 89-year-old calls himself a “Vatican II priest,” stating that all of the changes he’s seen were good changes.
Masses are celebrated in English rather than Latin, priests don’t have to wear their formal cassocks all day and they don’t have to pray three “Hail Mary’s” after Mass for the conversion of Communist Russia, he said.
The Second Vatican Council, which addressed relations between the Catholic Church and the modern world, made significant impacts in the Universal Church. The Diocese of Beaumont is a “Vatican II diocese,” meaning it didn’t exist before the Second Vatican Council that ended in 1965 — the year before the Diocese of Beaumont began.
“That I know of, the Beaumont Diocese is the second diocese to be formed after the Second Vatican Council,” said Msgr. Dempsey. “That’s how close the diocese’s birthday is to the end of Vatican II.”
He remembers the excitement the Council brought in the diocese. Some priests responded cheerfully while others were more hesitant.
“The celebrants used to have their backs to the people. Now, the celebrants face the people,” Msgr. Dempsey said. “Some priests said, ‘I don’t want to turn around and have people watching me chew the host.’ They started saying all the things they could think of about turning around. They really didn’t want to turn around.”
Many of the changes seen through the Second Vatican Council were designed to make the priest more accessible, such as standing outside of the church after Mass.
“I think I may have been the first priest to stand outside of Mass in Beaumont,” Msgr. Dempsey said. “I remember my spiritual director when I was in the seminary told me when I go to a parish, to stand outside of the church. He said nobody was going to stop and talk to me for a long time because they’re not used to it yet. So I started that at St. Anne when I came to Beaumont.”
Another dramatic change seen after Vatican II was that women are allowed on the altar. Today, there are female altar servers, lectors and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist.
While pastor at Our Lady of Sorrows in China in the ‘70s, Msgr. Dempsey remembers being approached by some of his female parishioners.
“They asked me if they could wear pant suits when giving out Communion,” he said. “I granted the permission knowing full well the next thing was going to be blue jeans. I knew it was coming and I wasn’t going to fight it.”
In his lifetime, Msgr. Dempsey has not been one to avoid changes — in the Church or himself. Had he avoided changing his mind, he may not have become a priest.
“I had been in the Navy two years, then I went to A&M, and then I said, ‘I’m going to the seminary and give two years of my life to the Church before I get married,’” he said. “I changed my mind while I was there.”
On occasion, Msgr. Dempsey said he has gone to public events without his clerical collar to go unrecognized as a priest so that people would approach him as an average, ordinary person. But he still believes there was no better vocation for him than the priesthood.
“I don’t think you can beat being a priest to be honest with you. I don’t think there’s a better job,” he said. “You’re offering the Eucharist and forgiving sins. Sometimes people will come to you and they’re crying because they lost something or someone, and some people come to you because they want to celebrate with you. I’ve found that the priesthood has really suited me.”
By Mallory Matt
When picturing a priest, people may not picture volleyball shorts and an athletic T-shirt, but for those who know Msgr. James Dempsey, this was not an uncommon dress for him.
He played competitive volleyball all the way into his 60s. He often ran to keep in shape, rain or shine, and also played racquet ball and tennis.
Now nearing 90, he “showed off” by pushing his walker a few feet in front of him, threw his hands up and walked without any assistance, “I have to prove to the young’uns I still got it!”