This time last week I had the privilege of playing the organ for the Mass of Christian Burial for Father Joseph Francis Reilly. Since then I turned 36, developed Ulnar Neuritis (which is slowly healing; I couldn't type very much over the past couple of days), spoke for a few minutes to Msgr. Charles Pope about his experience as a prolifically blogging diocesan priest, and carried on each day's given labors.
Last night my Facebook news feed displayed the blog of seminary classmate Fr. J. C. Garrett, a close friend of Fr. Reilly who also attended his funeral. Fr. Garrett wrote this insightful post in tribute to Fr. Reilly. My decision to write about Joe feels like a case of "monkey see, monkey do," but I know in my heart it isn't. The feelings and ideas have been stewing since Joe's death.
Joe and I graduated from Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary High School (Pottsville, PA) in 1994. Three of us from a class of 64 students entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary that fall. While two of us became Catholic priests, we also have one Orthodox priest and perhaps one more on the way. Need I mention that the NBVM classes of 1993 through 1997 provided three other Catholic and Orthodox priests besides me and Joe? It must have been something in the water.
In reality, I would attribute these priestly vocations to: the fidelity and joy in our families; the strong religious climate in our communities; the holiness and humanity of the priests, religious, and laypersons who formed us in our parishes and schools. Ultimately the inscrutable call of God accounts for such a bumper crop.
In a high school as small as ours, it was hard not to be associated somehow with someone. Joe and I came from different towns and didn't participate in many of the same activities, but both of us had been well formed in the faith and were very much involved in our parishes. Activities such as the National Catholic Youth Conference (Indianapolis, 1991) and World Youth Day (Denver, 1993) were, I believe, pivotal moments in our respective faith journeys. We had a mutual teacher and friend in Fr. (later Msgr.) Bernie Flanagan, our sophomore and junior year theology teacher. Joe and I were sacristans, responsible for caring for the school chapel and setting up the gymnasium for school Masses. Proximity to the Sacred Mysteries is a tremendous benefit of Catholic education. It is hard for me to understand how Catholic school students can become nauseated by divine things! To be sure, neither of us was ripe for canonization, but we made it through high school relatively unscarred by the world. As the events surrounding Joe's death have reminded me, the class of '94 is a good bunch.
Joe and I traveled together, would go to dinner together, and otherwise enjoy each other's company in our eight years together at Overbrook. There our friendship grew beyond the confines of the high school experience, for it was enriched by what we learned, how we worshipped, how we strove to live, and how we prayed; in a word, by the Catholic faith. Seminary was more of a fishbowl than high school. Tensions were inevitable. I can speak more credibly for my own defects, which never abated despite the quality of our formation ("Grace builds upon nature," said Aquinas). In the later seminary years, Joe and I gravitated toward other classmates. Distance especially increased when Joe's formation was extended by an additional year in a parish setting; nonetheless our interactions remained enjoyable and enriching, if less frequent.
I knew that Joe had a difficult time in his parish assignments, before and after ordination. None of us have had an easy time, free of challenges. I myself am no stranger to "taking things hard." People's limitations (mine and theirs) are often difficult for me to tolerate. Early in life I developed a very strong dependence on others' opinions of me, real or perceived; only in the past five years or so have I been making progress with that.
In the summer of 2007 Joe took time and space away from active ministry for personal growth; only months before, I had returned from the same program in which he was participating. We would talk on the telephone and run into each other at diocesan functions--the same level of contact that many priests maintain with each other. I knew that Joe began to feel alienated from fellow diocesan priests, and my own attempts to reach out diminished over time. My last attempt fell around his birthday five months ago, when I met up with his dear mother and she gave me his phone number (the one I had was out of service for some time, and I didn't know whether he'd received my last couple of e-mails...or my last voicemail).
Having reviewed the footage, this Monday Morning Quarterback attributes the outcome of the final quarter to several possibilities: misperceptions, passage of time and proliferation of responsibilities; fear of rejection; and/or practical indifference. Now people have reminded me that the choices in a friendship "go both ways," but I render no judgment on his part. Time has run out; eternity is another matter.
Msgr. John P. Murphy, pastor of St. Thomas More (where Fr. Reilly completed his pastoral year), preached the homily for Joe's funeral. He offered valuable insight into Joe's struggles and hopes for a return to active ministry. I never knew firsthand where he stood in that regard, not that it would have made any difference in my heart and mind. Both Msgr. Murphy and Bishop Barres noted that Joe's death (of natural causes, though still quite unexpected) offers us diocesan priests the challenge to keep in touch and to offer support, especially when a brother is struggling; and who isn't at some point?
|(L to R: Fr. Zelonis, Fr. Reilly, and Fr. McFadden of Phila. Rome, 2003.)|
As I receive links to other people's accounts of their friendship with Fr. Reilly, I shall post them here. A diamond's brilliance should be appreciated from many angles.
From Robert Badger
From Fr. J. C. Garrett