Last Friday night, some friends and I were talking about a priest we know. His mother died on this day in 1996 and at her funeral, two of her sons, Frs. Jim and Paul, joked that it was just like their mother to die on Leap Day so they could only fuss about it every four years.
On Saturday night, one of those friends called me. "Paul is dead."
Saturday morning, he didn't show up for something at the parish and someone went to check on him. They found him dead at home, probably of a heart attack.
"We have another friend in heaven," was a message on my voicemail Sunday morning. It was Fr. Joe calling. Between Fr. Joe and Fr. Paul, I learned some of the best lessons about ministry. The overriding conviction that every person I meet is first and foremost a child of God--that's a lesson I learned from both these men.
Paul found great delight at every parish he served. He loved the people and made them part of his family, even as he and his family continued to love, play, and support each other through the years. I met Paul before he was ordained a deacon in 1977. Through his various parish assignments and my various careers in ministry, we talked often. He got to know a lot of the stories about my family and when my grandfather died in 1995, Paul was the natural choice to preside at the funeral. I think he was the only one who could sail the choppy dysfunctional waters that were my family in those days.
And after days of not wanting to believe it, last night and today we said the words, prayed together, and said goodbye.
There were many loving tributes last night and today, but one of his brothers said it best, "Paul's best work is right here, all these people gathered together." There were over two thousand people at the funeral, from every parish where Paul had worked, every group he'd given his time to, every walk of life. In Paul's life, he kept saying that the Church had to be big enough for everyone. There was room in his life for all of us and I know there's still room for more at God's great banquet table.