Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Valentine for Father Jack

Some people are probably reading the last post about “Gloria” and her telenovela and are thinking: “Wow, that Rebel Girl is one hard-hearted woman!” But I learned from the best – Fr. Jack, OP. He was our chaplain at Vanderbilt and when we complained to him of the aches and pains of adolescent love, his usual response was: “Come and follow me behind “The Wall” (the Tennessee State Penitentiary) and you’ll see what real suffering is.”

Without Fr. Jack, I might never have become a Catholic. My Quaker high school planted the intellectual seeds by introducing me to Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, the Berrigan brothers – those whose thinking and actions would shape my faith, but Fr. Jack tended those seeds so that they blossomed.

I remember stepping into the Catholic Church on Ash Wednesday and seeing a man who looked sort of like the singer Jim Croce and preached “as one having authority” – prophetically and fearlessly. I immediately asked to meet with him and Fr. Jack and I discovered kindred spirits in each other. One hour became two, became three, became several years of working together for justice until I graduated and flew away.

For the next four years, I curled up in a corner of the chaplaincy office, soaking up every opportunity to learn about hunger and poverty, about prisons, about human rights in Latin America and above all, about what the Catholic Church was doing to address these problems. I learned that the Church was not just the Vatican but also Christian base communities in the favelas, not just the Pope but also Dom Helder Câmara and other courageous men and women who lived the preferential option for the poor.

Ours was a small, nomadic Catholic community. We worshipped wherever the university would give us space. From Fr. Jack I learned that a baking pan makes a dandy baptismal font and that some dinner rolls begged from the cooks on the cafeteria line and properly consecrated were every bit as much the Body of Christ as those communion wafers (of which a Catholic Worker friend of mine famously said: “The real act of faith is not believing that bread is the Body of Christ but that these dry cardboard-like hosts are bread!”).

To this day I don’t have much tolerance for liturgical purists who prioritize form over the substance of love, who have become “like whitewashed tombs beautiful in appearance, but inside there are only dead bones and uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:27)

Fr. Jack lived his beliefs to the fullest. He did not believe it was OK for us to spend money on luxuries when others were lacking basic necessities. And he was a keen observer. He noticed that his other “flock” behind “the Wall” needed a place to stay when they were paroled in order to rebuild their lives. So we started the first Dismas House, paid for with money that the diocese had been saving for a Newman Center that we didn’t really need.

And Fr. Jack didn’t just set up the house and go home to some comfortable accommodations provided by his order. He lived in a small room in Dismas House, sharing a bathroom, simple meals, and household chores with the students and ex-convicts who formed that first Dismas community.

Fr. Jack is now in Heaven and there are many Dismas houses throughout the country. Fr. Jack, thank you for showing me what it means to be a good Catholic, for nurturing my faith without pressuring me to convert, and for the trust you placed in me even when I didn’t always deserve it. Te quiero mucho and I hope that some day – assuming I don’t screw up my life too much – I’ll curl up in a corner of your cloud and we’ll chat. We have a lot of catching up to do.

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