By Tony Gutiérrez, The Catholic Sun

The worst day in the late Father Stuart Long’s life was the day the rector at Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Oregon, told him that he would not be recommending him for ordination. Father Long’s inclusion body myositis — a rare, incurable autoimmune disease affecting the muscular system that eventually took his life in 2014 — had progressed to the point where the rector was concerned whether the seminarian would be able to carry out his sacramental duties as a priest.

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA – APRIL 08: Mark Wahlberg attends the Phoenix special screening of “Father Stu” at Harkins Camelview at Fashion Square on April 08, 2022 in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images for Sony Pictures)

An invitation from a friend for a burger and some beer turned his day around. That friend was his fellow seminarian, now Father Kilian McCaffrey, the pastor of St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in Sun City.

“I cried myself to sleep and woke up at about 5:30 when the telephone rang. It was a phone call from this guy here, Kilian McCaffrey,” Father Kilian recalled Father Stu preaching during his homily Aug. 4, 2009, the feast of St. John Vianney, patron of parish priests. Father Kilian was visiting his friend that day in Helena, Montana, and had never heard that story before.

“As he was telling this story in the church, the hairs in the back of my neck were really standing up. I didn’t know he had had a bad day before that,” Father Kilian told The Catholic Sun. The seminarians had just finished their finals on that December day in 2006. Because of his condition, the future Father Stu had received a dispensation from taking them. Stu was initially hesitant to go. “I said, ‘No, no, you’re coming with us.’ It took three of us to get him into the car because he was a really big guy, and he was struggling with the day.”

Seminary classmates

Father Kilian first met Father Stu, the titular subject of the new film starring Mark Wahlberg, while they were both attending Mount Angel Seminary in August 2003. Father Kilian was already enrolled, while Father Stu arrived as a part of a group of seminarians from Montana. Father Stu and the Montana boys were “a breath of fresh air,” recalled Father Kilian. He got to know them when they began organizing a weekly social hour with free beer and snacks in the third-floor common room in the newly renovated Aquinas Hall.

“That really brought that whole theology group together. There was no atmosphere in that building after it was remodeled, and Stu changed all that. Even the priests would come in, and the formators, they’d kick back and relax. It was amazing. Everybody then looked forward to Thursday night,” said Father Kilian. “It just came so naturally to him to bring people together. It was easy for him to do, just because he was so genuine. You want to bring people together? Free beer. Easy solution. Even guys who didn’t drink beer went along.”

Watching the film brought back a lot of memories for Father Kilian. During one scene in the movie, Wahlberg as Stu is able to keep the attention of a group of inmates by speaking in a way they could relate to.

“Somebody said he never did prison ministry, but that’s the way he would have done that,” said Father Kilian, laughing. “He was honest and practical — there was no BS. Even if you didn’t like him, he got your attention.”

Father Kilian remembers seeing that “straight talk” approach in action on multiple occasions. During their second year in seminary, students would rotate offering a reflection on the readings from Evening Prayer.

“They were trying to give guys experience getting in front of a group of people, speaking. They were pretty bad and boring. Stu’s turn came up, and I said, ‘Oh, it’s Stu! This should be good,’” he recalled.

“Oh, you want to stop sinning?” Father Kilian recalled Stu saying. “Just go out to Staples, get a bag of rubber bands, and think about sinning,” Stu said, while imitating pulling a rubber band on his wrist, “‘Ah!’”

“I’m sure he got flak for that, but he didn’t care,” Father Kilian said. “I thought it was hilarious.”

Father Stu’s background

Stuart Long was born July 26, 1963, in Seattle to Bill and Kathleen Long. Mel Gibson portrays Bill in the movie, while Kathleen is played by Jacki Weaver. The family wasn’t very religious, and there was a lot of “dysfunction” in the family, Father Kilian said. Although Bill was portrayed as an alcoholic in the movie, it was actually Kathleen who struggled with the addiction.

“She turned her life around going to Alcoholics Anonymous. Kathleen was a very kind lady, and a very strong, staunch AA person, a leader in that movement,” he said. “She conquered it and used it to her advantage and the advantage of many people.”

Stu attended Carroll College, a Catholic college in Helena, where he excelled at boxing and earned a degree in English literature and writing in 1986. Not being Catholic, he took an antagonistic view toward the Church leaders who ran the school. “I used to argue with the teachers all the time,” Father Stu recalled in a 2011 video interview with the Montana Catholic.

After college, he attempted a career as a boxer, having won the Golden Gloves heavyweight title for Montana in 1985, and being the runner-up the following year. After needing reconstructive surgery in his jaw, he moved to Los Angeles to attempt a movie career, where he starred in a few commercials and picked up bit parts as a “tough guy.” He continued to live recklessly, regularly getting into bar fights, as featured in the film.

“A typical Saturday night was getting drunk, going to bars and getting into fights. That lasted long enough and he got beat up by an even tougher guy,” said Father Kilian of Father Stu’s background. “He didn’t glorify it. I think he was more embarrassed by some things he’d done in his past.”

A motorcycle accident led him to explore religious faith, and the woman he was dating at the time insisted he become Catholic if he wanted to marry her.

“He jumped through the hoops: you want to get the girl, you have to get baptized,” said Father Kilian.

Father Kilian recalled Father Stu sharing how a friend asked him if he was going out partying, and he responded that he was going to church, instead. “Why are you going to church on a Saturday night?” the man asked. “I don’t know. I’m being baptized or something,” responded Stu.

Father Stu would later share that the night of his baptism, “I was hit by a tsunami of grace.” He heard a voice telling him in that moment: “You’re going to be a priest,” and “that freaked him out,” recalled Father Kilian. “He was fighting it. He heard this voice, and he said, ‘I don’t want to be a priest!’”

After breaking up with his girlfriend, he began discerning his vocation by teaching at a Catholic school in Mission Hills, California for three years. He then discerned a vocation with the New York-based Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, who sent him to study theology for a year at Franciscan University in Steubenville. Eventually, he was accepted as a seminarian for the Diocese of Helena.

His parents weren’t initially supportive of Stu’s new faith life and vocation. Father Kilian remembers first meeting Bill in 2005.

“It was a very different world for him to come to this seminary place. He thought it was weird,” Father Kilian said. “He’d say, ‘You’re living this lifestyle, and now you want to change completely.’”

Although Bill thought the seminary was strange, he eventually got to know and appreciate his son’s classmates.

“We got to know him because we knew Stu, and he warmed up to us,” he said. “Bill is a very astute judge of character, and he’d take some time to figure out you were OK.”

Life-changing diagnosis

“Towards the end of his first year, one of the Montana guys said, ‘We went to Walmart in the local town, and Stu was just there, looking at something and he fell over in the aisle,’” recalled Father Kilian. “He was a big strong guy. For this to happen was kind of weird. His legs just fell out from under him.”

Stu was eventually diagnosed with inclusion body myositis, which eventually required him to walk with crutches, then to use a wheelchair. Father Kilian’s room was near the chapel, and he recalled seeing his friend praying in the chapel often while he walked to his room. Stu was unable to attend daily Mass with the seminarians because they worshipped in the basement. He would attend Mass with the priests instead. One of those priests, a Benedictine by the name of Father Augustine, helped Stu gain peace about his condition.

“One day, Stu was feeling sorry for himself, and he said, ‘Well, what good is a priest in a wheelchair to anyone?’ And Father Augustine — who was very shy — just lost it, and said, ‘If God wants you to be a priest in a wheelchair, you be a priest in a wheelchair,’” Father Kilian recollected. “He wouldn’t say ‘Boo’ to a ghost, but he really got into Stu’s face.”

Bishop George Leo Thomas, who was bishop of Helena at the time, met with Stu during the Christmas break following his meeting with the rector.

“Bishop Thomas had met him over Christmas and said, ‘I got a letter from the seminary. They’re not recommending you for ordination,’” said Father Kilian. “He turns around and says to Stu, ‘Well, I’m not going to take their recommendation. I’m going to ordain you.’”

Bishop Thomas — who is now bishop of Las Vegas — ordained Stu a transitional deacon Dec. 16, 2006, at Ss. Cyril and Methodius Parish in East Helena, and a priest on Dec. 14, 2007. During his Ordination, he needed the assistance of friends to be able to lie prostrate on the floor and to get back up. Although Father Kilian couldn’t attend, as his parish was holding its Advent penance service at the time, watching that moment was powerful for him because he also knows the priests who helped carry Father Stu.

“A friend of mine from Seattle was able to make it, and he and another guy were charged with helping Stu down, then helping him up again,” Father Kilian said. “That was a very emotional moment for me. I’ve never had a reaction to a movie like it, because I knew the guy personally. There was an awful lot of tears in that.”

Father Kilian saw his classmates represented through the character of Father Ham, a composite character that served as a friend to Father Stu throughout his faith journey.

Another composite character could be found in Father Jacob, an overly pious and uptight seminarian and priest. This character wasn’t necessarily based on anybody in particular but served as a foil based on some attitudes people had, Father Kilian concluded.

“Some of us were trying to be like that, and Stu showed up and said, ‘Just be yourself, don’t try to be holy. If you’re holy, it will just come out,’” recalled Father Kilian.

During the summer in between his ordinations, Father Kilian accompanied Stu on a trip to Lourdes. Father Kilian assisted his friend as he approached the healing baths at Lourdes. Deacon Stu may very well have expected to have a physical healing on that trip, which didn’t occur, said Father Kilian. But he believes his friend found a spiritual healing.

“We really cemented that friendship when he invited me to go on that trip to Lourdes,” recalled Father Kilian. “He didn’t get a physical healing, but he had a spiritual healing, and that healing was that he understood he could carry the cross of this disease he had, and he could carry that with great dignity.”

Living saint

Every year during the week after Christmas, Father Kilian and other classmates would visit Helena to spend time with Father Stu, who by that point was staying at the Big Sky Care Center assisted living facility. On a normal day, visitors would line up outside the building to seek his counsel. When the classmates came into town, he’d let his visitors know that he would not be available.

“Sometimes people would show up, and he’d give people spiritual counsel and hear confessions,” recalled Father Kilian. “Even while Stu was still alive, Bishop Thomas had asked a lady to document stories about Stu’s life. He said, ‘I think I have a living saint on my hands.’”

Because of his condition, Father Stu required the assistance of an acolyte to help him hold the Host or the chalice. He would occasionally celebrate Mass at his alma mater, which also attracted students.

“He was giving everything he had, every ounce of energy, all the strength he had to do this. For a guy who didn’t want to be a priest, he accepted that yoke willingly,” said Father Kilian. “These people saw through his suffering. They felt something holy, something anointed in his suffering.”

Father Stu longed to see his parents become Catholic. That became a reality on Easter Vigil, April 19, 2014. He died less than two months later, on June 9. Kathleen died less than a year later, Jan. 9, 2015. Bill is still alive and maintains contact with his son’s classmates, including Father Kilian. The two reunited when the latter visited Helena for the premiere of the movie on Monday, April 4. Even with the reception afterward going until 11:30 p.m., Bill still made sure to attend daily Mass at 7 a.m. the next day at St. Helena Cathedral.

As Father Kilian reflected on Father Stu’s impact on his own priestly vocation, he said his friend called his classmates to authenticity.

“I learned from him that you have to be yourself. You have to be honest, and you have to know who you are. I’m not pretending to be Stu. Stu was Stu, and I’m me. I think he saw that in me,” said Father Kilian. “We gave of our time because we just loved him and thought the world of him.

“Honesty and authenticity in vocation is so important, and I learned that from Stu because he was nothing if he was not honest and authentic, the real deal.”