The Death of a Priest

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Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

It is often said that death comes in threes, and in the Providence Diocese we’ve had that, plus one more, in recent weeks. Four of our priests – Fr. Joseph Besse, Fr. Anthony Carmone, Fr. John Carty and Msgr. Norman Metsy – have completed their earthly pilgrimage and have returned to the Lord. Our four senior priests had long and good lives, serving the Church with devotion and love in a variety of ministries.

We thank God for their priestly service and we pray: “Lord, you gave your priests the privilege of a holy ministry in this world. May they rejoice forever in the glory of your kingdom.”

Perhaps because of the number of priests who have passed in recent days, I’ve recalled the funeral of one of the priests of the Pittsburgh Diocese a good number of years ago. I don’t remember many of the details – in fact I don’t remember which priest it was – I just remember the homilist saying rather matter-of-factly, that “there’s nothing deader than a dead priest.”

For many of us in attendance it was a pretty startling statement and a rather grim assessment of the life and impact of a priest. The point the homilist was making though was that when a priest dies, he doesn’t leave a lot behind, at least not in earthly terms. He leaves no children or grandchildren, often not a lot of material possessions, and not even a large hole in the fabric of the Church. The mission of the Church continues beyond the life of any one individual; other priests went before him, and others will come after him to carry on the work of the Lord.

But the fact is, and the point the homilist got to eventually, is that a priest does indeed live forever, not in measurable secular terms, but in the faith of the people whose lives he touched in the course of his priestly ministry. And it’s true, isn’t it?

In his sacramental ministry a priest has welcomed individuals into the Church and touched them with the grace of God in the Sacrament of Baptism. He has celebrated Holy Mass a thousand times, offering thanksgiving to the Lord on behalf of God’s People and making God present among them in the Eucharist. He has forgiven the sins of God’s people, freeing them from guilt, and giving them the blessed opportunity to make a new beginning. He has prepared couples for Holy Matrimony, witnessing their vows on behalf of the Church and bestowing God’s blessings as they begin their journey together. He has accompanied frightened, vulnerable people during times of illness, anointing them with oil, assuring them of the presence and compassion of Christ. He has celebrated many funerals, sending holy souls to eternal life with the prayers of the Church and giving comfort and hope to those who mourn the loss of their loved ones.

The lasting contributions of a priest can also extend well beyond his sacramental ministry. Perhaps he has spent hours in a classroom, instructing young people about their faith, answering their questions, easing their doubts and anxieties, and giving a good example of a life well-lived. Maybe he has preached Sunday homilies that touched a troubled soul or gave a particular insight to someone seeking the truth. Perhaps he has been present to a family on social occasions – becoming a true friend, accompanying them in good times and bad, without intruding in their lives or demanding a lot in return. Perhaps he has been called out in the middle of the night to comfort parents who just learned of a terrible accident, a health crisis or other emergency.

And even in his work of temporal administration, a priest might leave a valuable and permanent legacy. Maybe he has built or refurbished a church home where God’s people can gather to worship the Lord and be strengthened in their faith. Perhaps he has labored quietly to provide sufficient material resources for his parish so that the ministry can continue and flourish. Maybe he has assembled a wonderful staff of workers and volunteers who carry on the work of the Church and respond to the pastoral needs of the people. Perhaps he has touched the hearts of people by his availability and simple kindness while answering the phone or greeting people at the door, patiently dealing with their little questions, concerns and worries.

How impressive is the example of a holy and hard-working priest who in his own life completely reflects the words of Jesus to His disciples at the Last Supper: “I have called you friends . . . I appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain.” (Jn 15: 15-16)

It is said that every man has the inherent desire to do three things – father a child, write a book, and plant a tree. The point is that every man has the desire to leave behind himself something of permanent value.

When a priest dies he may not leave behind much of earthly value, but what he does leave behind is far more valuable than the passing things of this world. He leaves behind the witness of a good life that was informed and directed by the love of God. He leaves behind an example of generous sacrifice and commitment that made a positive difference for others. And he leaves behind a legacy of faith, hope and love in the people he served, planting in them the very seeds of eternal life.

Nothing deader than a dead priest? On the contrary – the memory of a good and faithful priest who sacrificed his life for God and His people lives forever.