Outliers

Sunday 4 October 2015 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — St. Francis of Assisi Day

You know me, dear readers. I may be monolingual, but I find the one language I do speak to be fascinating. Tracking the emergence of new English words and rediscovering old ones is a joy.

This week I discovered the word “outlier.” It was new to me, but outlier, it seems, has been around for a long time. In the field of mathematics, it refers to numerical data that is well beyond the average. An outlier will throw the median out of kilter. The statistical results will need to be recalculated to accommodate the outlier. 

People, too, can be outliers. The 2008 best-seller by Malcom Gladwell popularized the use of the term outlier to describe exceptional people who break away from the pack and go on to achieve legendary success. 

In the world of nature, an outlier is an animal that runs apart from the herd. In humans, outlier can refer to a political maverick, a musical prodigy, or anyone who is far beyond the rest of us. These are exceptional people about whom others love to talk.

Outliers are far more interesting than their opposites, “inliers” (a geological term from the 19th century that never really caught on). For example, in the current political debates, much is made of those outside the political orbit who are running for party nomination. The pundits refer to them as coming from “beyond the Washington Beltway.” They are outliers and, of course, people are fascinated by them — at least for the time being.

The Church, too, has its outliers who challenge the rest of us to live exceptional lives, to be something more than ordinary. Everyone knows the saintly outlier Francis of Assisi, but most Church outliers are not certified saints. Additionally, some Church outliers may be less well-known to many of us. 

Have you ever heard of Father Alphonse Stephenson? No? Well then. He was educated by the Congregation of the Resurrection at St. Mary Seminary in Kentucky. I was educated by the Congregation of the Resurrection, but at their seminary in Canada. He attended St. Mary Seminary in Baltimore. So did I, but not at the same time. 

Having survived the seminary, the gregarious Father Stephenson was ordained and has been a priest in good standing for the Diocese of Paterson, N.J., since 1975. He’s also an acclaimed maestro, having studied under George Schick of the Metropolitan Opera and Robert Abramson of Juilliard. He has served as music director for the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta.

Father Stevenson founded the Orchestra of St. Peter by the Sea. The 42-piece ensemble is now in its 29th season. It’s the Jersey Shore’s answer to the Boston Pops. The orchestra performs at the Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove, N.J., 60 miles off Broadway. The orchestra’s Christmas concerts especially are renowned — so much so that some call Father Stephenson “Father Christmas.” Indeed. I am called the same. 

After ministering in a parish, Father Stephenson (with encouragement by his bishop) became the music director of a touring company of the musical “Chorus Line.” During the early 1980s, he was tapped to conduct the smash hit at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre. “Chorus Line” is the longest-running Broadway musical ever. Father conducted more than 3,000 performances. Some call him the “Super Conductor.”

Then he joined the Air Force as a chaplain. He rose through the ranks to brigadier general and became director of the Joint Chaplaincy Staff at the National Guard Bureau at the Pentagon. As such, he commanded all Army, Air Force and National Guard chaplains. 

Father Stephenson, in his spare time, founded the Cecelia Foundation, a not-for-profit organization promoting music education and purchasing musical instruments for deserving Catholic school students. He also co-authored a cookbook of Neapolitan and Sicilian family recipes. 

After 25 years of military service, Father Stephenson retired just a year ago. “I’m not just going to go off and do nothing. I’m going to retire to something,” he said at the time.

I have never met Father Stephenson and I don’t know what he’s doing in retirement, but, from what I hear, nothing would surprise me. Father Stephenson is an outlier, going where none have gone before. And he’s only 65 years old. 

Priests are well-educated men. Priests are innately empathetic, caring, and understanding. Priests work long hours for little pay because they love what they do. As a sign of the Kingdom, priests choose to live celibate lives, foregoing Marriage and family. All of this is exceptional.

Every once in a while, though, there comes along a young seminarian who is even more exceptional. He has some rare intellectual or artistic gift that sets him apart from the rest. He is an outlier. 

There must always be room for creativity in the priesthood. It’s the outliers who call us to be more fully alive.

“Earth’s crammed with Heaven, 
And every common bush afire with God, 
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.” —
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

© 2018 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing   †   Fall River, Massachusetts