By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Several weeks ago my older brother George died. His death was somewhat of a shock since he had been in relatively good health until a week before he died. His story is worth telling. No community, Mircea Eliade once said, should botch its deaths.
Although highly intelligent and motivated, George never got the chance for higher education. Our family was large and living on a small farm that could not support us. He, like other older members of our family, ended his schooling early to enter the work force to help support the family. In this, he was not unique. In the second-generation immigrant community where we grew up, a lot of his generation, both men and women, had to do the same. His story, like many others like him, was one within which he had to renounce his own dreams for the good of others.
His story is a story of dedication to faith, to family, to church and to community. For the most part, he was conscripted by circumstance. Although he was very bright, perhaps the brightest in our family, circumstances dictated that he leave school after the eighth grade to help support the family. Consequently, he never really had a chance do what he wanted in life, both in terms of a career and in terms of getting married and having a family; and for him the great sacrifice wasn’t career, but marriage.
George was never meant to be life-long bachelor, but his life and commitments never quite allowed for marriage and led instead to a life of celibacy (in much the same way as this plays out for a priest or a vowed religious). Nevertheless, as for a vowed celibate, in the end, it served him well. He ended up with a very large family, that is, with people from all over the world considering him their brother, their mentor, their trusted friend. Since his death, there has been a flood of letters, emails, texts, phone calls and messages from people everywhere expressing what George meant to them. He died celibate, but he died a loved man.
However, all of this came at a price. Those of us who were privy to his private frustrations, know the price his soul paid for his dedication. He needed, at times, simply to vent at a safe place vis-à-vis the frustrations and tensions he was carrying, times when he couldn’t fully emulate the patience and selflessness of Jesus. However, he always expressed his frustrations at a safe place, where his venting couldn’t hurt anybody. He was always bigger than his frustrations. The deepest part of him was always gracious and laced with humor. He brought laughter into every room he entered.
Moreover, he was a man of faith and of the church. The church was an integral part of what he thought of as family and he gave himself over fully, both to the little rural faith community within which he lived and to the larger church. For more than twenty years he helped lead a Lay Formation program and assisted in the youth ministry in his home diocese. The dedication and talent he brought to those programs were recognized by many. Indeed, at one point the local bishop came up to him and said, “George, I have only question for you, do I ordain you now or do you want to go to the seminary for a few years first?”
Ministry as a priest would have been a dream come true for him, but those of us who knew him also know why he turned down that invitation. He still had some commitments inside of family and community that he felt he could not abandon. That choice might be questioned; but again, it was made out of dedication and selflessness, putting the needs of others before his own.
In the Gospel of John, the author describes how, after Jesus was already dead, soldiers came and pierced his side with a lance and “immediately blood and water flowed” out of his dead body. An interesting image! Life flowing out of a dead body! After Jesus died, his followers felt themselves nourished by him in an even deeper way than during his life. From the spirit he left behind, they sensed a rich outpouring of life and cleansing.
George also left behind that kind of a spirit. Everyone who knew him will continue to drink from his spirit – his selflessness, his sacrificing his dreams for family and church, and his willingness to carry frustration and tension for the sake of others. Not least, we will be nourished by his humor and the lightness he brought into a room, a quality that manifested both his intelligence and his zest for life.
He lived a good life. He died a loved man. He will be remembered fondly by a large family – for whom he sacrificed his own chance for marriage and having a family of his own.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is a theologian, teacher and award-winning author. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com.)