Before reading The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots, the memoir of Archbishop Philip Hannon, I knew nothing about this man. Chaplain to a paratrooper unit during World War II, close friends with the Kennedy’s (he delivered the eulogy at President Kennedy’s funeral mass), participant in the Second Vatican Council (coordinating the Vatican press panels), Archbishop of New Orleans during times of racial strife – Archbishop Hannon has led, in the words of the subtitle of the book, “an extraordinary life.”
As a lens through which to view historical events, the book is wonderfully engaging. For example, reading it conveyed a sense of what it was like to be in Italy before the beginning of World War II, a sense of the texture of Europe there. It equally effectively painted a picture of France and Germany during World War II. The same is true for descriptions of other events (albeit ones of my lifetime) – DC in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination or New Orleans after Katrina.
The Archbishop also effectively conveys what it means to be a priest and something of his own growth over the years. Perhaps he could have been more self-reflective about some issues – I felt myself pausing at some of the advice and answers he gave to soldiers who came to him for counsel – but always I had the sense of a spiritual person who was living out his calling to serve God.
I was less enthralled with the last forty or fifty pages of the book, which treat a number of subjects in fairly short order. For example, Hannon’s brief treatment of the sexual abuse crisis sounds more aimed at conveying his sense of what a good job he did in New Orleans (and defending his handling of a particular priest over which he received some criticism) than anything else. That is just not a subject that can be usefully addressed in two and a half pages. On another matter, I suspect part of my negative reaction to his discussion of the liturgical changes following Vatican II is that I see a number of things very differently from the way he does. Nonetheless, it seems to me difficult to claim so breezily as he does that it was the change from Latin to English that is responsible for emptying the pews in Catholic churches. I also found some lack of balance in his unadulterated praise of Pope John Paul II.
Despite my reaction to the last pages of the book, it is a really good read and I was happy to learn what I did about the life of Archbishop Hannon.
I reviewed this book as part of the Catholic Company reviewer program,