Msgr. Gregory Haddock (left), a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei, died on January 4, 2018 in Toronto. Charles Lewis attended Fr. Haddock's funeral and parallels his life to the 1962 Pulitzer Prize winner "The Edge of Sadness". Left photo from Opus Dei Canada

Charles Lewis: Priests take the plunge into a heroic mission

  • January 17, 2018
Earlier this month I attended the funeral of Msgr. Gregory Haddock, a priest of Opus Dei. The homilist at St. Michael’s Cathedral said pain had been Fr. Greg’s constant companion, but he never complained. Parkinson’s disease slowly ended his life.

Fr. Greg gave 52 of his 83 years to serving God and us. And from what I can gather from those who knew him well, he did it with nobility and courage.

The few times I saw him we usually talked about growing up in New York City or our particular pain pill regimen.

For a man wracked with pain he managed to retain something of his boyish good looks. I suspect his elegant visage was a result of an inner strength and holiness. As a Catholic I’m sure he contemplated the Cross and reflected on how Christ’s redemptive passion turned suffering into something leading to salvation, for himself and others.

A large number of priests attended the funeral Mass. When they processed into the cathedral they reminded me of soldiers marching home after a battle to usher a comrade into the next life. As individuals I know them to be decent men. As a group they seemed greater than the sum of their parts. They looked heroic.

We all know priests are run off their feet. Many man large parishes with little help. They must always be “on.” I imagine the last thing many of them want at times is to preside over another funeral or answer the door late at night to that one parishioner who always seems to show up just as sleep comes.

They sit in the confessional listening to our repetitive sins and our promises to sin no more. I can’t imagine what it’s like to listen over and over to our worst moments. They must wonder why we all do the things we shouldn’t rather than the things we should — but then I’m sure they remember that even priests need confessors to wash away their own sins.

One of my favourite passages in the Gospels is when Jesus presents Himself to John for baptism. Everyone knew that Christ was not in need of forgiveness. But I always see that moment as Jesus saying, “Now it begins. I am stepping into my mission.” This is the moment when Christ publicly aligned Himself with all of broken humanity and began to show us the way. It also began His march to the Cross.

I think that when a priest is ordained he makes his own plunge into the Jordan. At that moment he declares his life a sacrifice for others. Not to imply this is done without joy; most of the priests I’ve known have a great sense of humour and of the absurd. Many also have a wry world-weariness, not cynical but knowing. Often the only sane way to handle the weight of so much sin and pain is to laugh.

A few years ago I wrote about one of my favourite novels, The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor. It’s about the struggles of a priest returning home after a period at a facility for alcoholic clergy.

The main character, Fr. Hugh Kennedy, is given a second chance by his bishop. However, instead of returning to his tony parish he is given the dregs of the diocese. And from there he must rebuild the parish and himself.

I’ve read the book three times because Fr. Hugh is one of the great heroes of American fiction. His heroism is quiet, lived in the shadow of a broken-down parish and in his relationships with old friends who knew him when he was considered a priestly golden boy.

He could have walked away but instead decided once again to walk into the Jordan to carry out his mission. No matter his own personal pain, which is legion, he chose to do his duty. He climbed out of his despair and transformed his pain into something holy.

Fr. Hugh of fiction did what Fr. Greg did in real life.

He could have marched with the priests at St. Michael’s who saw a beautiful old man into the next life, carrying the burdens of all of us as they march to the Kingdom of Heaven that Christ assured us was the true home.

(Lewis is a Toronto writer and regular contributor to The Catholic Register.)

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