Archbishop Hannan, 98, ‘dreamed big’ to spread Gospel

I walked into Archbishop Philip Hannan’s Covington home late last year — it was 7 p.m. — and the then-97-year-old archbishop, in crisp black trousers and white clerical shirt, was seated with his back to me at the glass-topped table in his small dining room. 

About an hour earlier, he had put away a dinner of steak and potatoes and ice cream. In front of him was a blue binder with a large-print version of the Daily Office, the daily readings from the Old and New Testaments, including the Psalms, which each priest commits to reading and reflecting upon every day. 

He did not know I was there. 

Archbishop Hannan, 71 years a priest, was not simply reading the Scripture passages — he was proclaiming them, in a voice so powerful and with diction so crisp that if you were to close your eyes, it was 1965 again, and he was this dashing, intelligent, daring, engaging, confident, whimsical, self-deprecating, street-wise 52-year-old bishop from Washington, D.C., striding off the Eastern Airlines jet at Moisant International Airport into an unknown, exotic and partially submerged city.

Seeking to do God’s will

Yes, he had the family genes to live a long life — both his mother and father lived until they were 93 — but at his core was the absolute desire to do God’s will daily and to inspire others to see what he saw and commit to that vision. 

He feared nothing. 

Crisis — in his, case World War II — doesn’t really form character as much as it identifies it. As a paratroop chaplain for the 82nd Airborne, Father Hannan, then 32, held dying American and German boys in his arms, and the last rites he administered provided spiritual graces and consolation to all, whether they wore an American dog tag around their necks or had a Soldat Buch (soldier book) tucked away inside the pocket of their uniforms. 

He liberated a German POW camp and lifted up with one hand emaciated men who were little more than skeletons. The horrors of war confirmed his belief that without God, anything is possible. Because of God and the goodness of God’s creation, life is precious. That’s why he was such an American patriot and such a defender of human life and dignity. 

He dreamed — big and often. His teachers, including a Brother Luke at St. John’s High School in Washington, caught on to that very quickly. “Hannan,” Brother Luke told him one day, “you get too many ideas. Skip every third idea.” 

But that’s the trouble with dreamers. They keep dreaming, and if they have enough conviction, it becomes a reality. 

Great judge of character

Archbishop Hannan had the rare ability to size up a person within 30 seconds. While many bishops tended to shy away from politicians to avoid potential entanglements, Archbishop Hannan reveled in working with elected officials to collaborate on projects, such as elderly housing or supplemental food initiatives or educational programs for children, that would help the entire community. 

The first question he always asked any politician was: “What are the biggest challenges you face in doing your job?” How that person answered the question gave him an insight into the politician’s personality and motivation. 

Shortly after coming to New Orleans, he paid a formal visit to Mayor Vic Schiro. Inside Schiro’s office were framed, honorary proclamations from all manner of civic organizations and photographs of him receiving special honors. The citations were everywhere. 

“When I saw that, I knew that all I had to do was flatter him, and he’d be very agreeable to working with us,” Archbishop Hannan said, smiling. Schiro, did, in fact, help with zoning issues when the archdiocese wanted to build the first of its Christopher Homes senior residences. 

He built 2,900 apartment units for seniors and the poor, with a lot of the funds coming through the government. He tried to share his ideas with fellow bishops to show them how easy it was. 

“That’s OK, Phil,” said Archbishop John Cody, who had moved from New Orleans to Chicago. “I’ve got my own plans.” 

You win some, you lose some. 

Taking action

Archbishop Hannan was never afraid to ask the question, which is why he spoke up to Pope John Paul II during a planning meeting in Rome for the 1987 papal trip to New Orleans when he urged the pope to use the occasion of his visit to speak directly about the historical struggles of black Catholics. 

“The worst he could say was ‘no,’” Archbishop Hannan said. 

The pope said yes. 

Perhaps the reason he has been known since 1965 as the archbishop of New Orleans has been his conscious decision to take action — to witness to the Gospel. He put on his Army combat boots to slosh through flooded streets on the West Bank after Hurricane Juan in 1987, and he helped fill and stack sandbags. 

Preach the Gospel always, and, if necessary, use words. 

“I always thought that if people saw you doing something to help them, even if the idea didn’t work out, they would give you credit for trying,” Archbishop Hannan said. 

He was a terrible driver, with a lead foot and white-line fever, because he was always in a hurry to do the next “thing.” That’s why his drive across the closed Causeway after Katrina at age 92 was so easy — there was no one else on the bridge, thank God. After riding out Katrina by himself in his TV studios with peanut butter, crackers and water, he had to get to the north shore, because that’s where his people needed him. 

When he showed up and gave a pep talk to first responders, grown men cried. 

A few days later, the papal representative from Cor Unum, several other bishops and reporters took a helicopter tour out of Baton Rouge and flew over submerged New Orleans and landed in a grass field in Biloxi. As we emerged from the helicopter, there was Archbishop Hannan to greet us with a microphone, his white hair flapping in the breeze. 

At 92, he somehow had beaten the helicopter to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. 

The tiny man seated at his table late last year and powerfully proclaiming his fidelity to God and neighbor taught by offering his life as an oblation. 

One of the great blessings of my life was to sit with him over the course of two years, beginning in 2007 when he was 94, and let him tell his stories. Those stories and the ones he told his first cousin Nancy Collins formed the basis of his autobiography, “The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots.” 

The title fit the man. 

In Latin, the language in which he studied during his four years in Rome, he would be known as sui generis (one of a kind). And now we pray, requiescat in pace. 

Peter Finney Jr. is the executive editor of The Clarion Herald and collaborated with the archbishop on “The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots” (OSV, $24.95).