Fr Jim Polich was my boss, my mentor and my friend while I was the director of the St. Joseph Educational Center in Des Moines, Iowa. Over those four short years, I came to love him with a deep and heartfelt filial affection.
He was a priest of 40 years, a brilliant Scripture scholar, a powerful orator, and a highly cultured man. And he was a character. He had a frighteningly accurate memory, what he called “an-amnesia,” the inability to forget even small details. He was raised on a farm (what he called ‘bovine country’) as one of ten children, and was marked by that unique Iowa character that is without pretense, understated, hard-working, self-effacing and very, very direct.
He came down with liver cancer in 2011 and over about 6 months he rapidly declined in strength. The chemo ravaged his body, and eventually his mind. My wife and I would visit him regularly in the hospital, then in the nursing home, and eventually in hospice. Whenever we would visit him, he would ask about our children by name, about my Mom and would always end by saying in his deep and resonant voice, “Now, let me give you a little blessing. It’s all I have left to give these days.”
One of those times he blessed us, he prayed this prayer, which I later jotted down so I wouldn’t forget it:
Dear Lord, you always like to remind us that you are God and we are not; that we depend on you for everything; that without you we can do nothing. Help us see even in sickness, Lord, a call to trust you, and to trust in you just like Patti and Tom’s children trust in them. Help them be good parents, help me be a good priest. And may Almighty God bless you…
A few days after that prayer, my 84 year old Mom, who had recently fallen face-first onto a concrete sidewalk outside St Pius X church and was injured pretty seriously, came with me to visit Fr. Jim in the hospital in her wheelchair. At the end of our brief visit, Fr. Jim said to my Mom, “Now Peggy, let me give you a little blessing.” She wheeled over to his bedside, and there was a scene I will never forget: a dying, emaciated and weak-voiced priest blessing my battered mother. Three days after that blessing – and my Mom claimed this as his first miracle for canonization – her face healed without a scar or bruise.
Truly a wounded healer.
A few days before Fr. Jim went unconscious and entered the hospice where he’d live out the last nine days of his life on earth, I visited him alone in the nursing home. We sat mostly in silence. He said that the hardest part of his decline was the loss of his memory. I thought of all his vast knowledge. He said, “The hardest part is that I know how much I have forgotten, but I can’t tell you what it is.” Then he said to me words of beauty I will never forget, that make me cry as I type them:
Tom, look at me. I’m left here in this tiny room with only a bed and a night stand and a Breviary that I can’t pray well because I’ve forgotten how to use it. How silly. But I can still bless you. Now just kneel down and I’ll give you a little blessing.
I knelt, feeling so small, as if at the feet of Atlas who bore the heavens on his shoulders; as if at the feet of Prometheus who had stolen heaven’s Fire just for me by his own embrace of his powerlessness. He was the shepherd become Passover lamb, he was the priest become victim. He was for me in that moment the emblem of Christ’s gentle mercy.
It’s the memory of moments like that that carry you through life.