By John Heuertz
Special to the Catholic Key
“I didn’t embrace it out of personal ambition or prospect of gain. I decided to go ahead because I thought it was what God wanted me to do.”
No one who knows Diocesan Chancellor Monsignor Bradley Offutt has any trouble believing these words about the priesthood from this surpassingly humble man.
Born in 1960 into a Platte County Irish and Sugar Creek Eastern European family at school in Indiana, he was the oldest of three boys and a girl when a memorable thing happened in 1966.
“We were living in Florissant, Mo. and my parents decided to send us to Catholic grade school. I remember my mother telling me we would be going to Mass every day.”
“I didn’t like that. In fact, I thought she was kidding.”
Much to his surprise, he came to love daily Mass. “I knew that whatever was going on up there, it’s the truth and it’s important and I was supposed to be a part of that somehow.”
His thoughts turned to the priesthood, but they were mixed. Nor was the family enthused.
“They were intelligent people and realized how countercultural the priesthood is. I stewed and stewed for years and got down to 119 pounds thinking about it.”
Then one summer day he was cutting his grandmother’s lawn when something happened to change his life.
“Seven words just came to me out of the blue: you have nothing to gain by it. It was like the clouds parted. It was a moment in life you never forget.”
“I guess I came to determine that there are some things in life more important than what I want,” he says. “I felt this sense of going forward with the priesthood was correct.”
That sense had hardened into conviction over eight years of seminary formation, with top grades, by the time Bishop John Sullivan ordained him a priest on July 5, 1976.
The bishop assigned him to St. Bernadette’s parish in Kansas City. From there he went to St. Therese (north) in Kansas City, and then in 1993 to Our Lady of Lourdes in Harrisonville and St. Bridget in Pleasant Hill.
St. Bridget’s was a mission parish, and the Chancery told Fr. Offutt the community wouldn’t be allowed to build a new church there. “’Why spend this money on an inky-dinky place?’ they asked me” – a reasonable question at the time.
But for most of the 1990s, Cass County was the fastest-growing part of the metro. And Fr. Offutt had arrived just in time for the population boom.
Our Lady of Lourdes went from 175 to 525 households, and St. Bridget’s went from 75 to 300 households. Both had a lot of young people.
St. Bridget’s became the biggest mission parish in the whole diocese by far. It grew even bigger than some freestanding parishes were.
“One thing about the priesthood is, you’d think the career path would be kind of easy to plot. But I found myself called on to do things I never thought I’d be doing,” Msgr. Offutt says.
For him this meant building new churches, among other things, and new churches were needed for both of his flocks.
Bishop Raymond Boland readily gave his permission, and the Catholic community in Pleasant Hill opened the new St. Bridget’s church under his leadership on December 4, 1999.
“It was a Saturday night. The next morning, Mass attendance doubled instantly and it never went back.”
The new Our Lady of Lourdes in Harrisonville opened in 2004. “I’d like to have $10 for every trip between Harrisonville and Pleasant Hill,” he says. “Those were very active days and good people.”
He describes new church building as a messy, painful process, but “I’d have to say I’m proud of what we did.”
“Not what I did, but what we did.”
Then in 2005, Bishop Finn asked him to be the next Chancellor of the diocese.
“It was out of the blue. The bishop gave me a choice. I was reluctant at first.”
“If I’d known what it was going to entail I might not have said yes. But he said if he could figure out working in a chancery, he thought I could too.”
Canon law stipulates certain duties for a diocesan Chancellor, mostly to do with paperwork and record keeping. As an example, a diocesan marriage tribunal is under the Chancellor’s purview.
Other duties are sometimes added, which Msgr. Offutt views with characteristic modesty.
“I call myself the chief diocesan customer service representative,” he says.
He spends a big part of every day on the phone answering questions. “Marriages, annulments, organ purveyors, where to find people, parking lots, diocesan personnel and real estate policies, planning issues, you name it,” he says. “But everybody at the Chancery is a CSR to some extent.”
Sometimes it means meeting people where they are physically. He describes one parish meeting as “a room full of people yelling at me in two different languages at the same time.”
Sometimes there’s a pastoral dimension, and the job means listening to people with painful subjects to discuss.
“My job is to try to hold the center together, and that’s difficult to do. In the current climate where here is so much confusion, anger and sorrow out there it’s especially difficult to do.”
“You need to be patient. You need to be a careful listener. You need to be rather highly organized. You need to not mind working long hours.”
“You need to have at least a modicum of intelligence. You need to have a rather developed sense of discretion. You need to know when to say something and when not to say something.”
“I hasten to add I have failed in all those areas.”
Not everyone agrees with his performance assessment. “Through challenges of all sorts you have aided me with holy and wise counsel, and an amazing quantity and quality of time and dedication,” Bishop Finn wrote to Msgr. Offutt in a public letter in June.
So a phrase like “banjo-playing Model A enthusiast” might not be the first one that springs to mind when describing a man of such obvious dedication to duty. (He collects railroad watches too, but that’s another story.)
“I think every priest should have some hobbies,” Msgr. Offutt explains with a slightly self-deprecating laugh. “When you’re constantly about church, church, church, you need some hobbies to stand some chance of growing a more correct perspective on life.”
“The day they tell me they want to replace me as Chancellor they will not have to drag me away kicking and screaming. There will be no laments, no laments at all.”
Being a pastor in a small town in the southern part of the diocese is what he’d like to be doing in five years. “But it’s possible I’ll be sitting right in this chair then.”
“Thank God I’m a big sinner, and I mean that. Because when you know that, it’s easier to be patient with people. You can be more compassionate.”
“In fact, to be a priest Jesus has to matter more to you than you do to yourself. I don’t know how a reasonably emotionally and intellectually equipped person could make an attempt at this job otherwise.”
When asked what keeps him going through the hard times, he pauses to consider before talking about God’s providence.
“It’s a mystery but also not a total blank. We have indications of God’s’ goodness even in the natural world.”
“There’s so much beauty in the world. If you learn not to take it for granted, you might learn to see the hand of God in it.”
“God is alive and well and working. He’s calling us through some pretty tough stuff but I do believe He is calling us.”