‘Ahead of his time’: Father Ed Dowling and the great gift of accompanying others
Reviewed by Lindsey Weishar
Dawn Eden Goldstein’s 2022 book, “Father Ed: The Story of Bill W’s Spiritual Sponsor,” tells the story of Father Ed Dowling, a Jesuit priest in the Archdiocese of St. Louis whose passion for accompanying the suffering led him to friendship with Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Demonstrating mercy, kindness, and others-centeredness in his interactions with the faithful, his desire to activate and equip the laity to serve the church in the mid-20th century was, as Goldstein says, “ahead of his time.”
The first part of the book tells the story of Father Ed’s life before his encounter with Alcoholics Anonymous. Readers learn of his Irish-American Catholic upbringing at the beginning of the 20th century, his early work with the newspaper industry and passion for social justice issues, his seminary experience, and the onset of the painful arthritic disease that would make it harder and harder for him to move freely.
Father Ed saw a connection between the Twelve Steps that guide A.A. and the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. He found in the road to recovery a path for holiness.
The second and third parts of the book turn to Father Ed’s priesthood, his involvement with Jesuit publication “The Queen’s Work,” and his friendship with Bill Wilson.
Goldstein notes that Father Ed became a priest at a time in which priests and the laity often occupied two separate spheres. However, Father Ed’s particular priestly vocation led him to draw close to the lives of the laity, for he was a priest “whose passion was to help people with problems.” He was drawn to those suffering with alcoholism and/or mental health problems, and through the Cana Conference movement, sought to help strengthen couples in their marriages. Father Ed’s ability to relate to and identify with the sufferings of those living in different states of life and through different struggles than his own were qualities that endeared him to many.
ALL STRUGGLE WITH ADDICTIONS
One of the lovely things about Goldstein’s biography is that it not only highlights Father Ed’s life, but also the ways in which his life was deeply affected by those to whom he ministered. Father Ed saw a connection between the Twelve Steps that guide A.A. and the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. He found in the road to recovery a path for holiness.
Goldstein notes that “although not an alcoholic, he demonstrated total identification with the A.A. member.” He was allowed to attend meetings as a “special friend” to the group and to address attendees at A.A. gatherings, and often used the pronouns “we” and “us” in his talks to these groups. He believed that every person struggles with addictions of some kind and that the A.A. model offered a way to overcome them: “If you can’t stop biting your fingernails, growling at your mother-in-law, or are obsessed with any other deteriorating habit, just substitute your vice for alcohol in following twelve steps and see if you have the courage even to start the program. It’s very practical for men and women who are drinking too much loneliness, anxiety, and discouragement these days.”
Father Ed wrote these words in 1944; they seem even more relevant today.
“WONDERFUL COUNSEL, INFLUENCE”
In Bill W.’s life, Father Ed arrived at a time of depression; Goldstein notes that “(Bill W.) referred to his first meeting with Father Ed as his ‘second conversion experience.’” Though he did consider Catholicism and even received instruction in the Catholic faith by the now-Venerable Fulton Sheen, Bill Wilson didn’t join the church. Father Ed accompanied his friend through his spiritual search and offered continued friendship and support, even when Bill stopped pursuing Catholicism.
A snippet from one of Father Ed’s letters from 1947 shows how he met Bill where he was, addressing Bill’s doubt with an A.A. analogy that would make sense to him: “Just as the non-alcoholic must not be scandalized at the human in A.A. and even the sub-human selfishness, so you must not be scandalized at the human in Christ’s followers.”
After Father Ed’s death in April 1960, Bill W. said in a letter, “Since Ed’s passing, I frequently see his face and feel his presence. His wonderful counsel and influence will be with me for life — and, I trust, for life everlasting.”
“Father Ed: The Story of Bill W.’s Spiritual Sponsor” has reminded me that accompaniment is sometimes the greatest gift we can give a “fellow traveler” on this journey of life. Father Ed seems to have been one of those special souls who accompanied a great many individuals for long portions of their journeys. Their testimony rings throughout this book, constructing for readers a portrait of a priest who not only journeyed with but activated the laity to embrace both their struggles and vocations as a means of drawing closer to the Father — in humility and in community.
LINDSEY WEISHAR is a poet, freelance writer, and native of Champaign who has a master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is executive assistant to the president at Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.