Many people know the story of Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson, who lay the groundwork for those struggling through alcoholism to move toward recovery. Much less is known about the Catholic priest who served as Bill W’s spiritual sponsor, Father Ed Dowling. In the early-to-mid 20th century, he embodied the love of Christ not only to alcoholics, but to anyone who was suffering or marginalized: from African Americans to those with mental health issues to married couples in need of counseling.
Author Dawn Eden Goldstein has now done a deep-dive into Father Ed’s life to explore the personal suffering which grew his compassion – and the deep faith that motivated his work. Her book is called “Father Ed: The Story of Bill W’s Spiritual Sponsor,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below).
When Father Ed was 19 years old, before he entered the Jesuit seminary to study for the priesthood, his younger brother James died because of the 1918 flu pandemic. To make things even worse, Father Ed suspected he might have given the disease to his brother, with whom he shared an especially close bond.
Dawn said, “When you have a wound like that – whether it’s grief or another kind of trauma, particularly trauma that hits you when you’re young – it can make you question, ‘Does God exist? Does God care about me?'”
As Father Ed’s faith grew deeper over the years through the practice of saying daily Mass and meditating in front of a crucifix, he believed that Jesus brought him a level of healing from his emotional wound. He also came to see the “suffering Christ in his suffering brothers and sisters” and made it a part of his mission to reach out to them.
“I think that anytime someone suffers,” Dawn explained, “they have a choice to fold in upon themselves and be wrapped up in their suffering – or to turn outward. Father Dowling’s whole philosophy was that suffering should turn a person outward.”
When Father Ed first encountered the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, he found that philosophy reflected there as well. The 12 Steps were based on Bill Wilson’s achievement of sobriety after having a spiritual experience. He devised the Steps so that alcoholics could recognize “that they’re powerless over alcohol and that only a higher power can relieve them of this great thirst for alcohol.”
“Then,” continued Dawn, “what Bill discovered – and what he passed on through the Steps – was that he could only maintain his sobriety through…helping other alcoholics. I think Father Dowling must have recognized that this is also a very Christian idea: the idea that our salvation is not meant only for ourselves. If we think it’s only for ourselves, we may find our souls at great risk, even though we believe that we’ve accepted Christ’s saving grace…Every Christian has a mission. This is part of the message of the Second Vatican Council. We have a mission to be Christ among others and to spread that fragrance of Christ wherever we go.”
One of the aspects of AA that appealed to Father Ed, who was not an alcoholic himself, was that it involved the members of the group supporting each other. This reflected his belief in the power of lay people to bring about the Kingdom of God in this world, a belief that was not at all widespread in the 1940s and 50s.
Dawn explained, “[Father Ed] emphasized that a layperson could be just as holy as a religious person. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, I won’t say that teaching was absent from Catholic theology, but it certainly was hard to find…It was only with the Second Vatican Council – when it spoke about the universal call to holiness – that we emphasized in the Church this understanding that even though the religious life for those who are called to it is objectively a higher state of life because of the sacrifice it entails, a holy lay person can be as holy or holier than someone who is in religious life or the priesthood. Father Dowling understood that very early on, and he incorporated it into all his work with lay people as a Jesuit, as a priest, and in the recovery movement.”
As he got older, Father Ed experienced an ever-worsening arthritis that was turning his body to stone, as others used to describe it. Getting around for him became quite painful, yet he always exuded joy amidst his suffering.
In writing “Father Ed,” Dawn interviewed several people who spent time with him and their recollections confirmed this point. She said, “Every time I interviewed someone who knew him, even if they weren’t a particularly happy person, they would start talking about his joy, and Father Ed would come alive for me…I interviewed his niece and nephew…What I picked up from them was that Father Ed, even though he suffered, including from his own experiences of depression and anxiety, he just so loved people that he could not be unhappy when other people were around because he was interested in them. He was interested in their lives. Even when they were going through difficult times and he was suffering with them, he felt so honored that they were sharing their lives with him and that they were honoring him by this intimacy. He felt joy in their presence, and this joy made them feel important. Every person he encountered, whether it was the drunk just off the street or the high society person, they each felt that they were the most important person who Father Dowling saw that day.”
One person who benefited from both that support, as well as Father Ed’s supernatural timing in showing up for people just when they were in greatest need, was Ed Lahey. Shortly before Father Ed’s death in 1960, he found himself in Washington, D.C., though the trip wasn’t on his official schedule. He contacted Lahey, the friend who had first introduced him to AA many years earlier, to see if they could get together for dinner.
Soon after, Lahey learned his daughter had been in a serious car accident while vacationing in Italy, and they didn’t know if she would live. Though Father Ed had recently gotten out of the hospital himself, he remained with Lahey all night to make sure he wouldn’t start drinking again to calm his anxiety. According to Lahey’s daughter, who survived the accident, her father credited Father Ed with keeping him sober that night.
In closing, Dawn holds these hopes for people who read “Father Ed“: “I want people to open this book and to have Father Ed come alive for them…because I knew that if I could ensure that they encountered Father Ed, then…they would encounter Christ through him and Christ’s healing.”
(To listen to my full interview with Dawn Eden Goldstein, click on the podcast link):