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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Thanks to Joe

In an October 2004 America magazine article, Robert Maloney writes:

I entered St. Peter’s Basilica yesterday just after the gates swung open at seven in the morning and found myself drawn to the altar of Blessed John XXIII. Each day a priest preaches there who does everything wrong and everything right. He didn’t disappoint me. Having once taught homiletics, I’m terribly critical of him. In yesterday’s brief homily he mentioned Michelangelo, the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, Moses, Aaron, Jesus, of course, and Catherine of Siena. Unity, the lesson I used to drill into my students, is surely not his strength.

But I go to St. Peter’s to listen to him again and again, because, apart from all the rules he breaks, he does everything right. Today I noticed how he prayed before he preached, his head bowed reverently. His love for God’s word radiated as soon as he launched into the homily. As he spoke, I saw that he had prepared well, meditating on the Scriptures. In spite of all his digressions, some of which were intriguing, his main point hit me forcefully.

I remember smiling when I read it. I knew that priest. No, not that priest precisely. But another who fit the description. I forwarded the article to my friend Fr. Joe Doyle, S.J., noting "when I read this I thought of you." Joe's masses were like a circus. His homilies would be all over the place, he would randomly call people up to the altar ("everyone over 65 come on up"), he would single people out and talk to them, reminisce about experiences when he taught their parents, while some of the more liturgically astute would cringe at his rather loose sense of the rubrics. Yet, his masses never failed to inspire, even if as an aspiring priest you knew you would never say mass that way. Often people would say they were the best masses they'd ever been to. And, on a personal level, Joe would never fail to remind you that he loved you. At the same time, he was no teddy bear. He could be as stubborn as hell. But it was always in the service of what he thought to be the right thing, even if it meant sometimes people thought him unreasonable (and sometimes they were right). Yet no one was as aware of his limitations as Joe was, he prayed always that God would help him to be better. Though as a priest there are many ways I don't resemble Joe (my masses are a bit more sedate and generally stick to the rubrics), I hope in those important ways, the ways in which he did "everything right," I one day will.

I received news of Joe's passing this afternoon. I regret we didn't have the opportunity to have that one last conversation. But I'm glad he was able to be there with me on the day of my ordination and a couple of days later, when I last saw him. We talked for a few minutes and he insisted on a few pious gestures from the new priest, both awkward and special. Now it's my turn to ask him: Joe, pray for me.