September 30, 2016

Renowned priest, canon lawyer celebrates 50 years of ordained ministry

Msgr. Frederick Easton, center, elevates the Eucharist during a May 1 Mass at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Bloomington that celebrated the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination. Assisting at the Mass are Deacon Marc Kellams, left, and master of ceremonies Father Joseph Newton, second from right. Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin is seen at right. (Submitted photo)

Msgr. Frederick Easton, center, elevates the Eucharist during a May 1 Mass at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Bloomington that celebrated the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination. Assisting at the Mass are Deacon Marc Kellams, left, and master of ceremonies Father Joseph Newton, second from right. Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin is seen at right. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

Msgr. Frederick Easton had been a priest for less than a year in the spring of 1967 when he was asked to consider serving in the Metropolitan Tribunal, the archdiocese’s canon law court.

Little did he know at the time that his acceptance of this invitation would change his life forever, and reveal what he has called his “vocation within a vocation.”

The tribunal primarily works with Catholics in central and southern Indiana seeking a declaration of nullity of a previous civil marriage, commonly called an annulment. In his ministry in the tribunal, Msgr. Easton also dealt with a wide range of other cases, from clerical sexual abuse to the beatification and canonization causes of St. Theodora Guérin and the Servant of God Simon Bruté, the first bishop of the Diocese of Vincennes, which later became the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Since May of 1967, Msgr. Easton has continually either studied canon law or served in the tribunal, including leading it as archdiocesan vicar judicial from 1980 until his retirement in 2011. And after retiring, he continues to minister as adjunct vicar judicial and assists in canon law matters both in the archdiocese and beyond.

“In retrospect, after having been in the work for a while, it seemed that I did have a vocation within a vocation, a vocation to canon law, as it were,” said Msgr. Easton, who lives in retirement in Bloomington.

It was at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Bloomington where Msgr. Easton was the principal celebrant of a May 1 Mass to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination.

Those who filled the church included Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, Bishop Charles C. Thompson of Evansville, Ind., Bishop Gerald A. Gettelfinger, retired bishop of Evansville, and 27 concelebrating priests.

“It was an exciting time,” Msgr. Easton said. “It was wonderful and memorable. The liturgy was just superb. I was feeling the inspiration of the moment, if you will.”

Msgr. Easton has inspired many people over the years in his ministry in the tribunal, including Father Joseph Newton, the archdiocese’s current vicar judicial, who was born 10 years after Msgr. Easton was ordained.

“He has a pastor’s heart, is a thoughtful homilist, and a deeply empathetic listener and has been one of my two great mentors in the priesthood,” Father Newton said. “Msgr. Easton vested me on the day of my ordination, and as I continue to develop as a priest and canonist, I still look to him as a model of what it means to serve in the ministry of the tribunal and the priesthood.”

Msgr. Easton also guided the ministry in the tribunal of Father Robert Gilday, pastor of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus (Little Flower) Parish in Indianapolis and archdiocesan vice vicar judicial.

In addition to serving in parishes, Father Gilday has ministered in the tribunal continually since 1980.

“He was very quiet,” said Father Gilday of Msgr. Easton. “He was very kind. He really was a student of canon law. And integrity was another thing. There was no compromising on principles, no shortcuts.”

Msgr. Easton’s dedication to canon law and his broad knowledge of it led to a national and international reputation in the field. He played a lead role in the development of the Canon Law Society of America’s guidebook for the implementation of the U.S. bishops’ 2002 “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” and received the society’s top honor, the Rule of Law Award, the following year.

“I was happy when he was getting larger recognition,” Father Gilday said. “It validates everything he stands for.”

Although respected around the world for his knowledge and application of canon law, Msgr. Easton doesn’t take well to the praise that is heaped on him. He instead turns the focus on God.

“It proves that there is providence,” he said. “I’ve been able to do a number of good things for the Church by being in the right place at the right time. And sometimes, it’s a snowball effect. The more you do, the more you’re asked to do.”

One of the reasons that Msgr. Easton and the archdiocese’s tribunal has such a strong reputation in the broader Church is that, unlike most dioceses, it has had staff members who have remained there for decades.

“Indianapolis has a different tradition than a lot of other places—and that is stability,” Father Gilday said. “Because of Msgr. Easton and the staff, it was very easy to want to stay.”

Through all his years in the tribunal and in his continuing ministry in canon law, Msgr. Easton has always sought to keep a close connection between this ministry, which he describes as cerebral and intellectual, to the pastoral ministry of the Church to ordinary Catholics.

“We were really helping the parish priest and the people who work with him to do his ministry,” he said. “Law is about the enshrining of the values of the institution. Well, the values of the institution and the promoting of those is what pastoral ministry is all about, too.

“Law has to foster the communion of the Church. That’s a cornerstone value of the Church.”

During his decades of service in the tribunal, Msgr. Easton continued to provide weekend sacramental assistance in archdiocesan parishes, serving from 1995-2011 at Holy Trinity Parish in Edinburgh and St. Rose of Lima Parish in Franklin.

Pat Rose met him at St. Rose, where he is a parishioner and has come to value his friendship with Msgr. Easton over the past two decades.

“He is one of the most cerebral people you’ll ever meet. He’s an extremely intelligent man—and that’s downplaying it,” Rose said. “But the thing that is his special gift is that, whoever he talks to, you’re on the same level with him. He puts people at ease on just about any topic. He has a genuine interest in what people have to say.”

Rose was at Msgr. Easton’s jubilee Mass at St. Charles on May 1.

“The way everybody came together to celebrate him was just amazing,” he said. “There were smiles from ear to ear in every corner of the church and at the reception.”

Father Newton was also present, serving as master of ceremonies for the liturgy.

Like Rose, Father Newton has a close friendship with Msgr. Easton and keeps him “on speed dial” to consult with him on canonical matters.

“Msgr. Easton leaves a lasting legacy that is difficult to live up to but easy to follow,” Father Newton said. “That the tribunal of [the Archdiocese of] Indianapolis is one that is highly respected and held up often in other dioceses as a model of how a tribunal should function is due to the gifts of Msgr. Easton and the staff of co-workers that formed me in the vocation of tribunal ministry.”

In looking back over his 50 years of priestly life and ministry, Msgr. Easton had words of advice for men considering a possible vocation to the priesthood today.

“We are to know the history of our Church,” he said. “We are to bring forward the values of the Church, to know them from the inside out and then to share that wealth of information with the people. That’s what priests do.

“You should consider yourself like fine wine. You get better with age.” †

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