‘I’ll Never Tell’: Memoir of a ‘rock & roll’ priest
December 13th, 2016
By Christina Gray
“I’ll Never Tell: Odyssey of a Rock & Roll Priest” is a new memoir from Sand Hill Review Press by retired Archdiocese of San Francisco priest Msgr. Harry G. Schlitt, a self-described small town boy from Missouri whose vocation as a “radio priest” was shaped by his formation in Rome during the Second Vatican Council and led to an international communications ministry going on 50 years.
But Msgr. Schlitt, or “Father Harry” as he is often called, does tell. He tells us in an easy conversational style that sounds very much like a real conversation with the 77-year-old raconteur, about his simple beginnings, his family, his early dreams of priesthood, his mentors, his methods and his mistakes.
Central to the story of his life is the impact of Vatican II. Father Schlitt was ordained in Rome in 1964 in the middle of the Vatican II years of 1962-1965 and was an enthralled, behind-the-scenes witness to a changing church.
“The Second Vatican Council was that breath of fresh air that we all needed for the church,” Father Schlitt writes in the prologue of his 317-page book. “For years the church was all very vertical. The new definition of ‘church’ coming out of Vatican II was ‘the people of God,’ a horizontal understanding of church.”
Msgr. Schlitt is well known in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, where he was incardinated in 1974. He served as pastor of St. Gabriel Parish in San Francisco before completing a 12-year term as vicar for administration and moderator of the curia in 2010. His religious nonprofit God Squad Productions, produces a weekly Mass televised locally and nationally. Proceeds from the book will benefit the television Mass.
Father Schlitt said the book’s title comes from the name of a radio show he started as a young priest in 1968 while teaching Latin to high school boys and marriage preparation to high school girls in Springfield, Missouri.
Father Schlitt’s program, “I’ll Never Tell,” was an unexpected hit with young listeners who tuned in to the Top 40 music station to hear the priest weave together lyrics from the music of the day – Crosby Stills & Nash, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, to name just a few – into an upbeat, nondenominational homily of sorts.
There always was a Gospel message, he said, but it wasn’t necessarily “Jesus, Mary and Joseph.” He knew that he would not get air time on a rock station or reach as many young people with an overtly religious message so his show cast a much wider net.
“I never made it plain that it was theological or religious,” he said. “That’s how I reached across the board to so many people. It was not just a Catholic talking to Catholics.”
Radio proved to be at once a public and personal channel for callers who asked Father Harry questions or advice they were not prepared to bring to a parent, teacher or even a friend.
“Kids would talk to me on the radio because I didn’t know who they were or where they went to school,” he said. It was not based on the sacrament of reconciliation, he said, “but it was an anonymous confessional of the airwaves.”
His radio popularity made him a celebrity of sorts and in 1969 he was offered a chance to become “The Pepsi Priest” for the “Pepsi Generation” advertising campaign. For a million dollars he would visit high school and college campuses dispensing bottles of Pepsi and his trademark advice and wisdom.
Father Harry said he prayed about it and the Holy Spirit told him to pass. “I knew myself well enough at to know that at that time in my life I would have let it go to my head, I am quite sure,” he said.
The show ended in 1975 with the advent of the disco era, but his reputation as the radio priest led to his own television show, a talk show and a 20-year stint with Armed Forces Radio and Television Network.
Msgr. Schlitt also was a popular broadcaster in San Francisco. He is a member of the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame, which features a sample of one of his 1978 KFRC-AM broadcasts on its website at sfradiomuseum.com/audio/kfrc/.
“I’ll Never Tell” is available at Barnes and Noble bookstores for $19.95 and for the same price online at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. Personally autographed copies are available through Father Schlitt for $20. “My signature is worth a nickel!” he said.
Order by contacting Jan Schachern at firstname.lastname@example.org or (415) 614-5698.
From December 15, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.