Recently, a priest who served on the formation faculty at Notre Dame Seminary died of complications arising from a rather routine surgery. His name was Father John Arnone. He was only 49 years old when he died and had served as a priest in the Archdiocese of New Orleans for 17 years. He had anticipated the possibility of his death by putting his affairs in order before his surgery, preparing all the details for his funeral and penning a profoundly beautiful farewell to all whom he loved and served — including a plea that those he had offended in life kindly forgive him.
He was a jolly and kind man, very personable and relate-able. It seemed to me that almost everyone in the area knew him, even the lady who cuts my hair at Super Cuts. When she found out he had been transferred to the Seminary from her parish, she said (with her fantastically thick NOLA accent): “Oh, dawlin, let me tell you about Father John. He’s a trip. What a good man. You know, when my cousin was sick in the hospital, he…”
He was, from all accounts, an icon of hospitality who made everyone feel at home. I heard quite a number of stories from people who said that he had been instrumental in their return to the practice of the faith and had provided in their lives, at a crucial time, the healing and reconciling presence of the church. From my own limited experience with him, but more with the litany of testimonies I listened to, it was clear that Fr. John served as a sign of the humanity of the church and of the humanity of a God who is not only above us and beyond us, but for us and with us. Fr. John’s humanity was not merely an instrument of grace, like a cipher, but a bearer of grace, like Mary, revealing in his own life that holiness makes us not less but more genuinely human. Yes, people want God from their priests, but they want “God with skin on,” as Venerable Fulton Sheen loved to say.
After attending the Vespers wake service at the Seminary, which was deeply moving, I stood outside across the street from the Seminary and watched the procession of humanity stream into the church. On and on and on. I thought of how many lives he had touched as a spiritual father, brother and friend to so many people. Baptisms, weddings, confessions, Masses, anointings, funerals, blessings, homilies, kind words, smiles, advice, late night visits to the hospital. I then thought of the tremendous power of every human life to impact others’ lives, for good or for ill, and how that legacy will await us in the next life. Glory to you, O God of justice and mercy!
I imagined, as I prayed for him, all those to whom he had brought good in this life were waiting to greet him in Paradise, in a similar procession, filled with God-joined gratitude. Whatever sins he had committed in life, it seemed to me, would be covered amply in death by the endless echoes of love resounding from all those people (1 Pet. 4:8!) whose voices would at once be the very voice of Christ (Matt. 25:31-46!).
But it was just before the funeral began, as I sat in the only available space — the cry room! — that I would receive what I considered to be the most remarkable compliment about Fr. John’s ministry. A gentleman with a long white beard, who appeared to be in his late 70’s, asked me if I knew Fr. John personally. I explained to him our work together at the Seminary and my admiration for him. The man then said to me:
I knew him as well. Though not well. But enough to know the man. I’m a good read of people, good at a quick size-up. You see, I’m an old crotchety fellow, not too pleasant to be around. But Fr. John, well, he was genuine. The real deal, you know? And one of the only people I’ve ever known in life who listened to me. Not just heard me, but listened. You know, so well that his advice back to me struck me hard. And I’m a better man for it, though I don’t think he ever knew that. Does now. It’s just amazing what can happen when you take the time to listen to someone, you know? You be sure to tell the seminarians that. And tell them to look out for old geezers like me and don’t write us off. We may seem tough on the outside, but we need religion just like everyone else. But we’ll be the last to admit it. But when he sat with me those times he did during some rough times — and let me tell you Fr. John always made time for you — it was as if God Himself was listening. And I’m here today to thank God for him.
Thank God for him. As Alexander Pope wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast” — where charity and love prevail, that is.