The Priestly Echo From America’s Happiest Martyr

On this brokenhearted day 20 years ago, my uncle Monsignor Thomas Wells was stabbed to death in his rectory. The assistant state attorney called it the most violent murder scene she had ever seen. 

Though the murder was of Satan, the circumstances surrounding it holds as much demonic weight. Homosexually-active, credibly accused priests resided in the rectory prior to my uncle’s arrival. Two years later, priests confirmed, Theodore McCarrick barred priests from attending my uncle’s murder trial.  

This piece will not drag you down; there’s been too much of that lately. This piece is meant to lift, to provide hope. On this somber memorial of Msgr. Wells’s murder, it’s my desire to resurrect my uncle’s cheerful and intentional voice; the voice of the most joy-filled priest in the history of the Archdiocese of Washington.

One last thought, though, of this Golgotha-like hour in American history: if you fail to apprehend the shifting shadow and weight of Satan at this hinge point – re-evaluate your Catholic faith, grasp on spiritual warfare, and the colluding motivations of spiritual and governmental leaders. In the public square, Gehenna’s winds have blown down virtually every single one of God’s Natural Laws over the past half century, and if silence is an indication of consent, many bishops seem to have ceded to it. Their response to the heresy of Modernism has been tepid if not silent. 

So it is a ripe time to dig up the grave of “Tommy,” as he was affectionately called by his large extended family. Because he was a shepherd attuned to souls, he’d made thousands of friends throughout his 29 years as a priest. He’d led more than a dozen men to the priesthood. Often, when old friends and former parishioners speak of the power of his love for them, even today, they begin to cry. 

What would this happy martyr say to a shell-shocked nation on June 8, 2020? Better yet, what would he share with his brother priests, whom he would have known were as vital now than at any point in their priesthood. 

I traveled the world with Tommy and lived in his shadow for close to three decades. I can still hear his distinctive voice. And I can hear him now encouraging and cheering on his fellow priests at this dark hour.

Here is his echo:

Tommy to priests: “Your flock is dispirited. Bring them back to the joy of Jesus Christ – grab them by the face mask if necessary – but you must find every single suffering family in your parish and lead them back to joy.”

Tommy knew what Mother Teresa did: “Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.” You’d walk into his presence brokenhearted or ready to pick a fight, and then walk away wringing personality and cheer out of your clothes. “He was the most joy-filled priest I ever knew,” said his best friend Fr. Jim Stack.

His joy would accomplish the inconceivable. Tommy pumped his gas at a station down the street from his first parish, where he often sought out the Vietnam soldier-turned-drifter who was employed there. Dozens of lively conversations eventually sparked in the young man – now Fr. David Russell –  the desire to enter seminary. Tommy once picked up an agnostic-musician hitchhiker, who’d abandoned the Catholic faith of his youth, on the side of a Kentucky road. The man, Doug McManaman, later became a deacon and the president of the Canadian Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. “The joy I saw in Fr. Tom’s eyes that day was living proof that what he was saying to me in that car was truth. I wanted what he had,” Doug said.

A friend called me three days ago to share that his college-aged daughter now believes him to be racist (my friend requested I share his story). Nine months ago, before she took off for college, she adored dad; on this day, though, she is temporarily not speaking to him. Sister Lucia, one of the seers of Our Lady of Fatima, wrote before dying, “The final battle between the Lord and the kingdom of Satan will be about marriage and the family,” Tommy understood this battle because he saw the invisible and he knew the power that a prayerful, Christ-centered family had in mocking Satan’s designs. 

Accordingly, many hundreds of times, the cross of his long days were spent in homes just like my friend’s, where Tommy would have raced to console, crack-up, and charitably challenge to bring a family back to harmony. Tommy navigated past thick walls of cynicism, loneliness, and addictions that had formed in homes. He loved the challenge of healing these places of pain, because he knew homes were battlefields in which travailed souls could be healed by the light of Christ. “I wish I knew a priest who had Tommy’s joy now,” my suffering friend told me. “But I don’t know where he is.” 

Tommy to priests: “Know your identity – you are the Slaughtered Lamb. Do not be afraid. Lay down your life now.”

Throughout the Spring, the Blood of Christ stopped being poured into souls. Satan, of course, took a foothold within the void. The past three months, I’ve often considered if one craned their neck and could see spiritual warfare, the blue skies would be covered with black flapping wings. Emotions today have gained the upper hand over reason – even though pre-Christian thinkers, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and all Christian philosophers since then have understood that a formed conscience always governed the will. 

At least one bishop and growing numbers of priests are marching and carrying Black Lives Matter placards. It has been reported that priests in Washington DC have been invited by Church leaders to assemble in their cassocks “or blacks” today to march to the White House to “pray for a change of heart, an end to hatred and institutional discrimination.” The gesture will be viewed by many as noble-hearted, but this type of public display is not the priest’s identity, burden, or primary duty. 

The priestly response to this seismic societal upheaval is mostly spiritual. Archbishop Gregory should call his priests together not to march, but to gather and pray and speak together as brothers. His Church is at war with Satan now, and Satan will not be overcome by marching priests. The underworld will be overcome, though, by devoted prayer and increased fasting and sacrifice. Of course priests should fight against racial injustice and protection of a vulnerable people, but they should do so primarily in the spiritual realm. Priests are intercessors; their strength isn’t theirs; it is given to them by God – accordingly, priests are ordained to become martyrs, warriors and saints – none of which will occur without prayer. 

Emotions are roiling today. Tommy would have been compassionate to priests’ pastoral instinct to engage in forceful material ways or in marches. But in Gethsemane, it was Christ’s blood-soaked prayer that pushed Him past his doubts and anxiety. It is this type of intense priestly prayer that will eventually tilt the balance.

It’s fair to say that Tommy did not love prayer; in fact he could not stand it at times. Prayer was a perennial fight for him. However, he never once abandoned it. It was a paradox for him – like being pulled into the majesty of Chartres Cathedral but being asked to kneel on planks of hardwood. Still, he prayed the Breviary five times a day, made a daily Holy Hour and celebrated Mass each day of his life. If he didn’t consistently oblige prayer, he knew he was dodging the burden of his identity. His own prayer, Tommy knew, strengthened his parishioners during their anxious days. He was their mediator. He was the gatekeeper, their ever-pacing Bethlehem shepherd. 

Msgr. Wells and his nephew, author Kevin Wells.

Tommy: “Bishops, please raise up the Eucharist now – everywhere.” 

Never would Tommy reject the vow of obedience he took to his bishop, even to those suspect due to their behavior. He would have, however, worked with great vigilance – within the constraints and contours of the vow he took – to push now for the reopening of Masses without restrictions. He would have fought because he would have known that reception of the Eucharist was the lone cure for the fear and anger that mark these days. 

“The Body and Blood of Christ was his entire priesthood,” Fr Greg Shaffer said. “And because of that, he saw everything with a heavenly vision. If he trusted what happened with the Eucharist at the altar, then he was going to trust God with everything else.

“Fr. Wells would have pushed hard for the Eucharist now. He would have seen the evil all around us. And that’s why he would have pushed for the Mass. The Eucharist, he knew, held everything the world needed today.”

All images are courtesy of the author.


Kevin Wells is a former Major League Baseball writer, Catholic speaker, and author of Priest and Beggar: The Heroic Life of Venerable Aloysius Schwartz (Ignatius Press). His best-selling book The Priests We Need to Save the Church was published by Sophia Institute Press in 2019.

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