My father died alone in a hospital room four days after suffering a series of strokes. Earlier that evening my family and I gathered around his bed before heading out to dinner. I told him that his two living sisters granted their permission for him to die. He never made any major life decision without the approval of at least one of his five sisters. I told him that my brother and I could manage life from here. We all told him of our love. I thanked him for being my dad. Dad had accomplished his goals, he battled Parkinson’s disease for years, he was tired and he was ready to let go.
As we prayed around his bed on that cold December evening, he remained barely conscious. Dad responded to our presence, forming his lips into a silent, “thank you.”
I treasure his sacred last words to us. His farewell gift of gratitude has formed and changed me in these past years. I now see more clearly my own life as a man and as a priest. I inherited on that cold night a gift of gratitude and I will spend the rest of my life interpreting that gift in all I do and accomplish in the world. I look back now from that moment of gratitude to listen again to his other words throughout his lifetime. His words and phrases now open me up, challenge me, and create in me a place of strength and love. I believe Dad’s phrases which he often spoke in life also speak now to other ministers in the church who strive to live the same message of gratitude and encouragement.
My parents owned and operated a grocery store for forty-five years. My only brother managed the business after his military service. I worked reluctantly during summers stocking shelves with canned goods and bagging groceries for familiar customers. Dad’s business was his school of life. Through this small, neighborhood business, he learned how to be a man, how to relate to the world, and how to face the struggles within himself.
His familiar phrases, his one-liners, motivated all of us who worked long hours to make ends meet. His words were his mantras, like refrains to the morning psalms. The older I become the clearer Dad’s words ring true especially in the context of my pastoral ministry. I hear his phrases differently now because I heard him admit his gratitude. I first heard his words as an awkward teenager unmotivated to be working in the family business, and didn’t understand their significance at the time.
Dad woke up each morning with more ideas than he could ever implement. Morning was the time to paint new signs on white butcher paper for the latest sale items. He prepared a dozen varieties of homemade sausage. He organized, made lists, and swept floors before employees arrived. His first phrase that I remember from childhood was, “Get it done early.”
He prepared for his day because he respected his customers and he wanted to offer them his best work. He felt every morning his life’s call, his mission and purpose in the world. He knew personal hunger as a child and he really respected food and its purpose in family life.
This explains why I pray at 4:00am, write essays before dawn and decorate the church before breakfast. I unveil every morning my own call to be a man of integrity and hope for other people. The early morning hours strip away pretense and they help me discover my mission from God. I confront my own demons and the uncertainty of my priesthood before I see the sun. I strive in the new day to be grateful for everything.
We could all learn from Dad’s business that our ministry depends largely on our preparation and reflection. We need better preparation from all of us who serve in the church. Being prepared is also costly. It takes time away from family, self-care and often from relaxation. However, “get it done early” for us may mean that we sit in the early hours and encounter God in the daily Scriptures. It calls us to confront our sin and mistakes. Being prepared for us means that we sort out before dawn the real reasons we stay in the church working, loving and serving people with often very little thanks for those pre-dawn efforts. This is the hidden life of the minister. Being prepared is to accept our call from God to get His work done on earth.
My father butchered meat for a living. He mastered huge meat-cutting saws, sharp cleavers, and wrapping up meat packages with white paper and string. With blood on his apron and sawdust on his shoes, he mastered the tools of his trade. However, in an instant he could wipe his dress shoes clean, whip off his apron, roll down his sleeves of his starched white shirt and be prepared to meet people or discuss products with salesmen. He expected the rest of us to be ready for customers. He would yell to us stock boys, “We need help up front!” This meant we were to drop what we are doing because we were needed to bag groceries at the cash register or help an elderly woman to her car.
This phrase always yanks me out of my solitude and stubbornness and reminds me of my authentic call to be in relationship with people who need God. I often hear Dad’s words when I see priests hiding in the sacristy before Sunday mass. When I witness ushers, greeters or other hospitality ministers telling jokes to each other or reminiscing about former pastors, I hear Dad’s plea to make sure people are greeted and acknowledged. I feel his dissatisfaction when people entering the church doors have questions about how to plan for marriage or simply want to know the locations of the restrooms, and they remain ignored.
“We need help up front,” is a radical call for contemplation by all ministers. Being with people is the reason the church exists. This grace-filled act is faith lived in the moment. Each person deserves our attention because God calls us all into prayerful action. People entering our church doors depend on us believing in something more than our self-centered piety in which some people belong and others feel ignored.
The family-run business often overwhelmed my father. Worry often got the best of him. He did not possess all the answers to how to make ends meet or the best way to advertise or what products to put on sale. When he realized he could not control the outcome of his day or when he grew tired of worrying about something in the future he would say to the rest of us, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”
I find in this statement profound love and honesty. I, too, get caught up in many ideas and worries about my ministry and what it could become. What I miss so often is ordinary life, people and their needs sitting in front of me. I cross one bridge at a time when an elderly man needs medications or when a woman needs diapers for her infant or when the addict needs to talk to someone right now.
The poor teach me the sacredness of Dad’s words. I learn to take each day of grace as it comes. I ground myself in daily life, one person and one need at a time. I make sure I am not living ahead of reality, not feeding on tomorrow’s bread. People who search for one meal at a time or ask for a clean blanket to make it through the night teach me all over again to deal with life as it comes, one bridge at a time. I realize in Dad’s statement that I cannot control life or peoples’ reactions either. I depend on God to help me make appropriate decisions. I wait like everyone else for God’s initiative and presence.
Dad made financial mistakes. He cut his losses and moved on. He fretted much about making the correct choices and he stressed over people who were difficult to please. His worry became more evident when his Parkinson’s became more obvious to us. When he was exhausted from his worry, he would utter, “That’s the way it goes.”
Even hearing the exasperation in these words, I never took this phrase as Dad giving in to despair. I heard it then from a man who recognized with clarity his limitations. Now I hear it in the truth of adulthood myself. I say it under my breath when I feel my dreams slip away. I scream it to God when I know members of my religious community or parish do not understand me or my new ideas. This mantra becomes for me a new reliance on God, a trust when all else fails. Dad’s phrase speaks relief when my plans crash or it gives me courage when I finally understand I was wrong in the first place.
Many of us compulsively complain that we are never heard or understood in the church. Our energy runs out as we blame everyone when life does not work out from our plans. We blame everyone, including bishops, parish councils, the poor, consumerism, and even school parents, for much that goes awry in parish life. I hold on now to Dad’s words because I am confident it was his phrases and what remained underneath those phrases that brought him to his gracious thanks. I do not want to miss out on that gratitude. I want more than ever to appreciate life, to find it deep in my soul, and to let my gifts speak as they will. That’s the way it goes, when love finds a home in us.
Dad’s phrases race around in my heart daily, too many to speak about here. It was through his phrases that I learned to be a stock boy in a small grocery store. Now I hear them as a seasoned adult, a man searching for authentic priesthood, yet still my father’s youngest son. I learn from his mistakes. I put my own spin on antique phrases. I wallow some days in my own regret. I take chances and dream dreams and I believe that God never abandons us.
My parents and my brother liquidated the family business in 1991. Dad was never the same as his Parkinson’s disease, cancer and his pride took a great toll on his health, his mind and his perspective. He remained faithful to his many simple sentences, verbal reminders of his working days where his dreams once stood.
I preached my father’s funeral having received his words of thanks before he died. His gratitude helped to ease my pain. His phrases, the Gospel and my words seemed to all intermingle in my mind. I anticipated that day for many years, but nothing really prepared me. It was also on that day that I became a man, his grown son. I felt noble, taking the rein of life. I felt my priesthood standing in fire, a moment of purification, a place of passage.
At the end of the Eucharist, during the Final Commendation, I slowly pulled out from underneath my alb Dad’s white butcher’s apron. I held it up and my mother and brother sobbed. Everyone recognized it as his garment of service. They all remembered the baptismal white apron he wore behind the meat counter. I laid the garment on his casket and we prayed our goodbyes. My father’s business prepared me for my Father’s business, the two intertwined. Now I pass on in my adult priesthood what I learned as a youth and I long for the gift of my father’s gratitude, my earthly inheritance.Albert John Raab, Jr. (1920-2000), Ronald Patrick Raab, C.S.C., Bishop William McManus, Rosemary Raab