Car ride leads to lifetime of service in canon law for Fr. Morrisey

July 1, 2019


It was a providential car ride from Ottawa to Montreal that put Fr. Francis G. Morrisey, OMI, on the road to a long and illustrious career in canon law.

In March 1965, Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger of Montreal — in anticipation of the final sessions of the Second Vatican Council — called all canon lawyers in Canada for a study day and invited canon law students in the country to come along.

Fr. Francis G. Morrisey, OMI
Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr./© CHA

Fr. Morrisey, then a student at the University of Ottawa, drove three of his professors to the gathering. During the ride and at the study day, conversation turned to the idea of establishing the Canadian Canon Law Society. Fr. Morrisey ended up on a four-man steering committee charged with setting up the organization, eventually becoming its first secretary-treasurer.

"I didn't even have my degree yet!" he said. "I had no idea what I was getting into."

That car ride also turned out to be opportune for Catholic health care. Fr. Morrisey, now 83, became an expert in how church law affected hospital finances. Through the years he has offered legal guidance on the emergence of non-traditional business models and lent his considerable expertise to religious communities who sought to preserve their sponsored works through transfer to a public juridic person.

In recognition of his generous use of that expertise on behalf of health care professionals in the U.S., Canada and the world, Fr. Morrisey is the recipient of CHA's 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award. The award was presented June 10 at the Catholic Health Assembly in Dallas.

In addition to his work as a canon law professor (now emeritus) at Saint Paul's University in Ottawa, a Vatican consultant and an international lecturer, Fr. Morrisey has served as the general editor of a series of columns on canon law in CHA's journal, Health Progress. He has taught the canon law component of the CHA Sponsor Formation Program that helps prepare leaders for sponsorship roles.

"Church law can be pretty dry," said Sr. Jomary Trstensky, OSF, chairperson of Hospital Sisters Ministries in Springfield, Ill., the public juridic person of Hospital Sisters Health System. Sr. Trstensky has served with Fr. Morrisey on the CHA sponsorship and canon law committee for the past decade.

When Fr. Morrisey addresses participants in the sponsor formation program, "he speaks for a whole afternoon on canon law. One might think that would be a difficult thing to sit through," Sr. Trstensky said, "but he absolutely mesmerizes the room. He makes (canon law) live in such a reasonable way by giving examples. He makes it interesting because he is talking about our lives."

Wisdom figure
Sr. Peggy Ann Martin, OP, is executive vice president of sponsorship and governance for CommonSpirit Health, the company that resulted from the merger of Dignity Health and Catholic Health Initiatives early this year. She first encountered Fr. Morrisey in the classroom beginning in 1998 and said it was his reputation that drew her to Saint Paul's University for canon law studies.

"He is a major, major wisdom figure, a wise, wise person," said Sr. Martin.

The main message Fr. Morrisey said he tries to communicate in the classroom is that canon lawyers should "use the law to free people, not to put a burden on their shoulders.

Fr. Morrisey teaching in the early 1980s.

"I often say, 'If someone asks can we do something, and the law says no, try to find another way, give them some positive insights," he added. "That has been my mantra."

In nominating Fr. Morrisey for the Lifetime Achievement Award, Sr. Trstensky wrote that Fr. Morrisey's work has been foundational to changes in sponsorship models and business structures within Catholic health care. Although his focus is on canon law, he regularly made parallels between church law and social justice and the call to advance the dignity of the human person. Sr. Trstensky said, "He not only wrote and spoke of these matters, he called canonical sponsors and board members to make sure that policies and procedures reflect a commitment to these values, particularly when forming partnerships."

Keeping it real
Sr. Martin said Fr. Morrisey brought canon law alive in his classroom by exploring real-world dilemmas. "He'd say, 'Today on my fax machine I was asked this question. How would you answer that?'"

Fr. Morrisey said his goal was to demonstrate to students how canonical principles apply in everyday life situations. "Some canonists refer to canon law as a toolbox; the tools have to be applied to a situation for it to be addressed," he said.

Beyond the classroom, he's tried to help ordinary Catholics understand the differences between canon law and moral theology. "Canon law is related to the 'external forum' — things that can be seen, measured and evaluated," he explained. "Moral theology is related much more to the 'internal forum' — the sphere of conscience. For instance, no canon in the Code would say that it is a sin to do such and such, or not do such and such. This is a judgement call where conscience intervenes. The church's teaching provided guidance for a properly formed conscience, but it does not replace it. "

Fr. Morrisey thinks the biggest challenge facing Catholic health care today is how to preserve and defend Catholic identity at a time when "there is such public pressure against certain positions that the church is taking," such as its opposition to assisted suicide and abortion.

"We can't withdraw into a fortress," he said. "The Catholic Church is the largest provider of health care in the world, by far, and we don't want to give up that heritage, which is based on Christ's actions of healing the sick."

Forward thinking
Fr. Morrisey still teaches one course a year as an emeritus professor and finds it important to "keep up-to-date with new literature," noting that canon law is "not just frozen in the past."

He has played a role in many of the changes in canon law over the years, helping to prepare the 1983 Code of Canon Law and, more recently, serving on a Vatican commission charged with revising the sections of canon law related to procedures for the annulment of marriages.

During that stint as the only commission member not living full time in Rome, Fr. Morrisey "commuted" to the Vatican every 10 days in order to continue teaching at Saint Paul's University.

Born in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and raised in Ottawa, Fr. Morrisey has traveled to 50 countries over the years and finds New Zealand to be one of his favorite spots. "I love the geography and the people," he said.

Although he knew as a child that he wanted to become a priest, he joined the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate almost by happenstance. His mother wanted him to learn more French, but the nearby LaSalle Academy high school deemed his French not good enough to admit him. Instead he attended an Oblate school a couple of blocks away, learning about the religious order and eventually being ordained an Oblate priest in 1961.

Sr. Martin said the hallmark of Fr. Morrisey's career has been that "he's always challenging us to think ahead. What is the next step? But not giving any answers, which we'd like to have. He wanted us to be continually alert and aware of what could be next."

Sr. Trstensky describes the Canadian canon lawyer as "a pathfinder" in Catholic health care. "His role was to look at the arrangements we were proposing (for mergers or collaborative partnerships) and to help us see how they could be done in a way that aligned with church law."

And as a teacher, she added, "now he's prepared many others who can assist us."



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