Mourning the death of an ordinary priest…
“Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.” – Father Brown, The Hammer of God (G.K. Chesterton)
Tonight I learned that the parish priest of my childhood, Fr. Patrick McGurk of the Diocese of Helena (MT), had passed away, moving on, God willing, to his eternal reward in heaven.
It was from Fr. McGurk that I and my classmates received our First Holy Eucharist and our First Reconciliation. We served Mass for him from fourth grade through Junior High. Every Easter we still fondly recall our annual Vigil Mass, where he would light the “bonfire” outside on the parish steps, before processing in darkness with the Paschal Candle, chanting (slightly out of tune) “Chriiiist Ouuur Liiiiggght.”
Fr. McGurk was an Irish Catholic from Butte, who though small in stature carried a booming voice that could resound through the largest cathedral. His voice, though, was the only imposing thing about him. He was otherwise a humble man, serving a humble parish, in one of many humble towns in a humble state.
After hearing of his death, I began to reflect on the impact Fr. McGurk had had on my life, and more so the impact an ordinary shepherd has on the life of his flock.
St. John Vianney, on the importance of the priest, once wrote:
If we had not the Sacrament of Orders, we should not have Our Lord. Who placed Him there, in that tabernacle? It was the priest. Who was it that received your soul, on its entrance into life? The priest. Who nourishes it, to give it strength to make its pilgrimage? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, by washing that soul, for the last time, in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest — always the priest. And if that soul comes to the point of death, who will raise it up, who will restore it to calmness and peace? Again the priest. You cannot recall one single blessing from God without finding, side by side with this recollection, the image of the priest.
I was startled to discover how closely this resembled every memory of Fr. McGurk, and undoubtedly many reading this know a priest for whom this is similarly true. There are many ways in which a priest can toy with the liturgy, the sacraments, his very ministry, to suit his own ends. And yet, this is precisely what a good priest does not do.
The Church preaches the reality of Her sacraments, even if those receiving them are unaware of their power. This struck me, that even though I wouldn’t understand the gift I was receiving in the Eucharist, nor the graces present in the Sacrament of Confession, until I had left the parish of my youth, I nevertheless received the same grace of God through Fr. McGurk’s hands week after week, in my most formative years.
A priest for well over 50 years, one can only imagine how many baptisms, anointings, marriages, Masses, and confessions were realized through his ministry.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote about the vocation to marriage and family life, “The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.”
Could not the same be said about a priest? It surely is extraordinary, the life of an ordinary priest.
St. John Vianney would go on to say:
The Holy Virgin cannot make her Divine Son descend into the Host. You might have two hundred angels there, but they could not absolve you. A priest, however simple he may be, can do it; he can say to you, “Go in peace; I pardon you. ” Oh, how great is a priest!
Fr. McGurk was a simple priest. A simple priest of the best kind. He was quick to laugh, had plenty of quirks (like applying chapstick for a full 20 seconds while listening to the readings), and was a terrible driver. He used to work in Butte’s mines. He smoked. In short, he was just a man. A sinner, like you and me.
May the same humility be a goal to which those called to priesthood aspire. May it be a challenge to those priests who currently struggle with a sense of self-importance. And may it be most eminently an encouragement to those priests who already embody that humility, that they might know the impact their ministry has on us, their lowly flock.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord
And let perpetual light shine upon him
May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed
Rest in peace, Amen.