An Ordinary's Extraordinary Life: The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots
January 16, 2011

The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots: Memoir of an Extraordinary Life
Archbishop Philip Hannan with Nancy Collins and Peter Finney
Our Sunday Visitor Press, Huntington, IN 2010, 455 pages

Ninety-eight-year-old Archbishop Philip M. Hannan of New Orleans is a member of a large Washington, DC Catholic family who, as someone once quipped, "all look alike down to the fourth generation." A couple of years I helped organize an annual banquet in His Excellency's honor and I attended his DC 80th-birthday celebration. I also knew his brothers Denis and Gerry who serve for the ages as altar boys in a large mural over the three front doors of St. Matthew's Cathedral. It was charming, I thought, how Denis referred to his brother as "The awchbishop."

However until I read "the awchbishop's" autobiography, I had no idea that the now-retired ordinary of New Orleans had led such an extraordinary life. As a chaplain in World War II with the U.S. Army's storied 82nd Airborne, Hannan lived, marched, said Mass, heard confessions and administered last rites in a Europe stomped and kicked to a bloody pulp by evil genius. This book contains a picture of him standing over bodies at Wobbelin concentration camp.

Thus, unlike many of his contemporary bishops, Hannan knew that there really are such things as bad boys, that they are not merely boogeymen who are dreamed up and feared by peasants. This is why he is the only bishop who favored a nuclear deterrent. It is also why, when Hurricane Katrina was falling on New Orleans in 2005, he, at age 92, hauled on his old combat boots, took rations of peanut butter and crackers, drove himself to the Catholic TV station that he had founded and locked himself in it alone, armed with a club to protect it from looters.

In Camelot

Younger Catholics who are products of the JPII/B16 renewal may find it curious that an orthodox, pro-life archbishop would recount fond memories of his relationship with Kennedys, principally President John F. and Jacqueline. Hannan's reminiscences are not stretching a relationship to sell books. He had encounters with the Kennedy and Shriver Families when he was a young seminarian/priest in the 1930s.

As auxiliary bishop of Washington, Hannan gave JFK advice on Catholic matters, perhaps thinking that he was helping a president to be informed by the Catholic faith. In reality, the Kennedy camp probably just took the help as enabling it to say and do things to keep "the Catholic vote." In those days there was such a thing.

Without reading the whole text, Hannan also contributed material to the now-infamous (among pro-personhood thinkers) Kennedy campaign speech in Houston wherein the candidate declared his independence from the Catholic Church. Looking back across the decades and the wasteland of values-neutrality, Hannan writes that he now thinks that Jack went overboard.

The younger folks who find the archbshop's Kennedy reminiscences curious should understand that:

A) Old loves die hard. For many elderly Catholics who remember JFK, he beat odds to become the first Irish-Catholic president (although this is thanks to Richard Daley getting Illinoisans to vote late in the day and often). JFK was young, charming. He and Jackie lived the life-style to which the American middle class of the 50s aspired. He was assassinated, leaving a widow and small children.

B) In The Kennedy Era, abortion was still regulated by the states; it was simply not on the radar as an issue nor did any political party advocate it. Many older Catholics whose minds were set decades ago still have difficulty understanding that life and personhood issues have become of primary importance. Archbishop Hannan understands that clearly. He also deplores JFK's marital infidelities, but he clearly retains his fondness.

Those who have fond memories of The Kennedys should understand that for younger orthodox Catholics, the Kennedy narrative starts on a Chappaquiddick River bridge and has as its main character "Catholic" abortion advocate, Teddy. After the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the late Congressman Henry Hyde tried to persuade the Massachusetts senator to use his power and moral authority to lead a fight to illegalize abortion. Teddy was not interested.

Hannan devotes a few paragraphs to Teddy and about four pages to Bobby. Not mentioned in these is that Bobby was a member of The Washington Lay Association, an early group of public dissenters who gave Washington's Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle a hard time ca. 1965-67. Also not mentioned is that JFK, who did not want to appear in media with Catholic clergy, ducked out the alley exit of St. Matthew's to avoid being recorded with O'Boyle after The Red Mass. Upon learning of the escape, O'Boyle declared that the first Catholic POTUS "can go to Hell!"

Indeed between the lines of Hannan's account one reads a confirmation of the modern pro-life Catholic's conception of The Kennedys: not really a Catholic family and a scandal to the church. There are hints that Jack did not agree with Catholic teachings. Jackie was not a regular church-goer. I got the impression that she would not have been interested were the prestigious old school, Georgetown Visitation Prep not available as a charming venue for daughter Caroline to learn catechism. She also had no use for meat-and-potatoes Scrantonian Archbishop O'Boyle in her dinner-party world.

It's a shame because--few people know this--Jackie was a cousin, a few times removed, of St. Katherine Drexel.

Catholic Television Pioneer

Archbishop Hannan beat Mother Angelica by a year in founding a Catholic-entity-owned TV station, WLAE. I've often wondered what he, as a bishop, thought of the old nun running her network just up the road from N.O. and trying to stay independent of U.S. bishops. Before becoming incapacitated, Mother even directed that control of her empire go to laypeople who were not bound by a vow to obey their shepherds.

As it turns out, the archbishop admires the Poor Clare sister: "She got good ideas." Certainly Mother's were better ideas than the U.S. Bishops whose Catholic Television Network of America (CTNA) was a $17-million dismal failure that died in 1995. Now, this merely means that Mother's talking heads are more interesting to an elderly, traditional-Catholic audience than the establishment's talking heads. Catholic TV is still about preaching to the choir and only that choir is watching.

I think that the archbishop, who declares that Catholic TV must be good TV, would agree with me when I say that good TV is about motion, emotion, drama, comedy, entertainment. The church needs more than a network; it needs a movie industry.

He recounts that Mother Angelica even offered to run USCCB programming as long it was not too heavy on "social justice issues." Of course, you can bet that it would have been. An anti-abortion audience fed preaching about racism and peace, not to mention the cotton candy of evangelization experts, would have quickly excused itself from the table.

The Archbishop Wrote Dangling Modifiers

One final comment, and this is intended to be good-natured, constructive criticism for archbishops and all other book authors, including and especially myself. The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots happens to be the latest newly published book I've read that really could have used more editing.

Examples: In the chapter on Katrina, it was repeated twice in neighboring paragraphs that the people of Louisiana are resilient. Earlier chapters had many dangling modifiers [p. 89: "Being a popular handsome priest, I took his advice to heart."]. These had me wondering what purpose the archbishop's co-authors had served.

The kind of editing that would have prevented bruises such as these is an art that is being killed. Let's all say a prayer that it is resuscitated soon so that good books such as Archbishop Hannan's can be even better.

Big-Government Conservatives

Archbishop Hannan laments the passing of the "good will and common sense that marked church-state relations in the post WWII era." This qualifies him for inclusion in's gallery of conservatives who have a positive view of government and who believe that it can be a perfect gentleman if the Catholic church and other faiths dance with it.

In these times such a notion is pretty much a zoot suit. You can read about the others in the gallery at these links:

Patrick Cardinal O'Boyle Patrick Cardinal O'Boyle: If Only He Had Known
Daniel J. Flood
"One Flood Against Another:" A Review of Dapper Dan Flood
Philip M. Hannan Philip M. Hannan Philip M. Hannan Philip M. Hannan Philip M. Hannan

Copyright 2011 by Neal J. Conway. All rights reserved.

About this site and Neal J. Conway

Make homepage appear in this window