A Broken Sacrament A Reflection for Father's Day

By: Thomas J. Neal, Ph.D., Academic Dean

I had a profound experience today visiting Fr. “E.J.” Flanagan’s Boys Town in Omaha. I really don’t know how to express the power of what it represents other than using the word “love.” If you ever are able to visit it, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Among other things, Boys Town reunites children with their families, finds children foster homes and, most remarkable of all to me, provides in the Town a family environment for boys (and girls) with nowhere else to turn.

But today I just wanted to share one thing. While I was there on my pilgrimage for about five hours, I had an overwhelming and almost disconcerting awareness of the presence of fatherhood. I don’t know how else to explain it. Of course, the looming presence of the charism of Servant of God Fr. Flanagan was no doubt a part of that sense. But there was an even deeper sense that this fatherly presence transcended Fr. Flanagan, and the many other fatherly figures that I met throughout the day. There was a tangible sense of God the Father’s nearness to these grounds. But there was a particular moment when this was so overwhelming that I almost felt like asking the people around me if they also noticed. It was in Fr. Flanagan’s house. There was a painting there depicting him fishing with one of the Boys Town boys. Here it is:


Here’s what I later wrote in my journal about the awareness of I had of the Father’s presence:

I cried as I looked at this — quintessential fatherhood. The expressive faces. The unforced intimacy. The intentional wastefulness and uselessness of the time spent together — with love alone to justify. Such waste confirms dignity, worth, value. Steady, strong, selfless. You can’t see it in my photo, but with Fr. Flanagan’s crossed feet and the boy’s playing feet, both look like boys. Beneath God the Father, both are truly sons, and brothers. But together, side by side, they are father and son. It’s just amazing. I felt God the Father’s presence very powerfully, like a Sacrament somewhere nearby had accidentally broken open, allowed more of the Kingdom in than usual. Intimations, tiny inklings of what His unbounded love must be like. I kept thinking of Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” Even as I wanted to ask others if they sensed it, this presence made it hard for me to speak to anyone. I feared I would burst into sobs. All good, though. An unsought grace. May it bear fruit in my life. Deo gratias.

About the Author: Thomas J. Neal, Ph.D., Academic Dean

Dr. Thomas J. Neal is originally from Providence, Rhode Island. He received his B.A. in Philosophy (’90) and M.A. in Systematic Theology (’96) from Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary and University, and wrote his Thesis on the theology of grace in the works of eastern bishop-theologian Gregory Palamas. He pursued his Ph.D in Florida State University’s department of Religion, specializing in the evolution of Christian mysticism in early-late medieval Europe. He wrote and successfully defended his dissertation (’08) on the question of identity construction in the Carmelite reform in the writings of St. John of the Cross.

Dr. Neal has spent most of the last 17 years serving the catechetical mission of the Church in Florida, serving in various administrative roles, most recently in Des Moines, Iowa where he served as Director of the St. Joseph Educational Center. He taught undergrad courses for six years at FSU in the history of the Christian theological tradition, and served as assistant editor for the Journal of Religious Ethics. He has led hundreds of retreats, workshops and catechetical events throughout the country and is an active blogger. He was involved in seminarian and deacon formation programs in Florida and Iowa.

Dr. Neal was hired last July to serve as Professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary, and as Director of the Co-Workers Leadership Institute, while this past July was appointed to serve the Seminary as Academic Dean.

Dr. Tom and his family live in the New Orleans area.

Office Location

Shaw Hall – 1st Floor


Phone: (504) 866-7426 Ext. 882

Email: tneal@nds.edu


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