My academic grades at LaSalle Academy in Providence, Our Lady of Providence Seminary in Warwick and St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester, N.Y., were almost invariably As and Bs. There was no A+ but on the other hand no B-. There was, however, one egregious exception to this proud record. At the conclusion of my first year at OLP college seminary, my final mark for English Composition was an embarrassing C-. Visions of my father’s fallen face when the report card was brought home did little to ease the situation. The professor awarding this sad judgment was Father Robert Randall who then had freshly returned from graduate work in England and much more recently has celebrated seventy years in the Catholic priesthood. The patent irony in my receiving a C- in composition writing in my early years can be easily appreciated. The reader can recall that I have been submitting an English composition (aka “The Quiet Corner”) to the Providence Visitor and now RI Catholic weekly for 47 years! Of course there might be some who consider that my efforts at writing still deserve a C-.
Father Randall’s instruction and influence on the many priests of my era continued when he became our English literature professor at OLP during our final year before going off to major seminary. Four volumes of The Viking Portable Poets of the English Language still rest on a nearby book shelf. The publications extend from Medieval authors like Chaucer, through Elizabethan poets like Spencer and Restoration poets like Milton, up to Romantic poets like William Blake and Samuel Coleridge. Of these abundant writers, my favorite was, and is, George Herbert (1593-1633), a Church of England clergyman, who is recognized as “one of the foremost British devotional lyricists.” Of Welsh background, he was raised in England, attending Trinity College, Cambridge. He became the university’s public orator and served in Parliament briefly in 1624-25. Herbert gave up his secular ambitions in his mid-thirties and took holy orders in the Church of England, spending the rest of his life as the rector of the rural parish of Fugglestone St Peter, outside Salisbury. I once visited this rustic chapel. He was noted for unfailing care for his parishioners, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill and providing food and clothing for the needy. Never healthy, he died just short of 40.
Herbert’s brief poem “Trinitie Sunday” is my daily selection for the breviary hymn for Midday Prayer. Allowing for some archaic expressions, read it for its clever triple phrases and for its succinct summary of the spiritual life: “Lord, who hast form’d me out of mud, And hast redeem’d me through thy bloud; And sanctifi’d me to do good; // Purge all my sinnes done heretofore: For I confesse my heavie score, And I will strive to sinne no more. // Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me, With faith, with hope, with charitie; That I may runne, rise, rest with thee.” Father Randall’s studied delight in our literary ancestors happily enriched his students as well.
Father Randall’s influence over my education extended far beyond my schooling. A few years ago I wrote a “Quiet Corner” column on Christ upsetting the Jerusalem temple. My point was that the end of the Temple heralded the end of Judaism and the arrival of Christianity. Father Randall pastorally and properly wrote a Letter to the Editor of the then-Providence Visitor correcting my faulty, but common, notion that Christianity had superseded Judaism in salvation history. Vatican Council II’s official document “Nostra Aetate” formally puts to rest this notion that God had transferred his favor from the Jewish nation to the Christian community. The Fathers of the Council recall this profound thought from St. Paul: “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable (Rm.11:29).” The Council courageously instructs: “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues.” The Council continues, “Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.” The Council gladly admits the centrality of Christ to salvation history but it refuses to second guess God’s Providence: “The Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and ‘serve him shoulder to shoulder’ (Zeph 3:9).”
Jesus’ words to his disciples in this Sunday’s Gospel passage certainly apply to Father Randall both as priest and as professor: …”whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve…” Seventy years of priestly service! His many lifelong students are most grateful!