Wednesday, October 24, 2007

"A Brilliant Soul"

On a personal note, my favorite part of this experience has taken place behind the scenes (or, as it were, behind the page).

Over the 4,000-odd posts and close to 4 million visits these pages have racked up over the last three years, the unexpected gift of this readership has given me much, more than I’ll ever be able to justify or merit. Of it all, though – and this isn’t to discount any of the rest – what’s arguably been the greatest gift is to have gotten to know the many of you who’ve reached out, written in and given me something of a window into your lives, your stories, a piece of your minds and a piece of yourselves, all of which is a reflection of why we do what we do, but each in a unique and beautiful way.

Honestly, nothing has been more encouraging or inspiring, and no other part of all this has made me more grateful… not to mention more than a bit overwhelmed, as to know the great crowd of witnesses is to be reminded of how far along the path I have yet to travel... and how far I've already fallen short.

As some of you have come to learn, my ability to stay on top of the notes isn’t as great as I’d wish, but I do spend as much time as I can trying to keep up to the greatest possible degree. Even above the news, you see, I learned early on in this church that it’s our mutual task to keep an eye out for each other, and that doing so isn’t just among the things we’re called to do, but it’s a gift, and a life-giving one at that.

For a good while, one of the good folks keeping an eye out for your narrator has been a priest in Iowa who first wrote in to note his regret that Whispers wasn’t around “the last time Purple Rain fell” on the archdiocese of Dubuque. Over time, he’d fill me in on this or that – nothing that’d ever make the pages, but just an occasional musing on the joys of ministry and what was doing on his end.

But the one thing Msgr Ed Petty never disclosed was that he was suffering from the acute stages of multiple myeloma. Ever the good pastor, he just wanted to share a bit of news and make sure I was OK. And I didn’t learn the rest until it was too late – last week, not even a fortnight after his 60th birthday, the humble churchman with the great heart and gentle wit was called home.

Just as I didn’t know the degree of his illness, so, too, did his modesty conceal quite a personal story. The son of a casually-observant Methodist family, he swam the Tiber in his teens – and, after a stint as a high school teacher, got to live by the Roman river as a student at the Pontifical North American College, during which time he served on the papal Ceremonies Crew.

Not until the past week did I know any of this. All I knew were the things that, to him, were clearly the most important, the things he radiated: his love of God, his people, this faith and the priesthood.

On Monday, in the basilica church whose restoration he oversaw, led by three archbishops – including his ordination classmate Tim Broglio, now the apostolic delegate to Puerto Rico and nuncio in the Dominican Republic – these hallmarks and more were celebrated as over 1,000 gathered for Ed’s "Last Mass," with a young priest whose vocation he encouraged giving the homily.

Many of us are very sad today because know our loss is great so we’re here this morning to support each other and to offer prayers for a faithful priest, a dear friend and a brilliant soul. He would certainly have been overwhelmed at the great crowds that have come to Gilbertville and to Dyersville. He thought about this day quite a bit in the last month and dictated nearly every detail for his funeral. But he never could have guessed that the Basilica Angels who usually converge above the High Altar at Christmas time would make a special trip just for his funeral.

One evening late in August of 1967 a young man walked into Holy Trinity Church in Des Moines. He knelt down in front of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s altar. He looked at the statue of Our Lady. Earlier that day he had been diagnosed with malignant melanoma, the most deadly kind of skin cancer. He had been given five years to live, probably less.

He looked at the statue of Our Lady and said, “I’m only 19 – I can’t make you any major promises – and I don’t know what I want to do with my life. But I promise you this: If you can talk your Son into letting me live, I’ll at least consider the priesthood seriously. I’m not particularly pious – I’m only 19.” The 19 year old's name was Ed Petty. That night in Holy Trinity Church defined the rest of his life – his loyalty – his devotion – his sometimes light­hearted piety – and who he was as a Catholic and as a priest.

He’s remarked numerous times in the past year, “She gave me 40 years – it was a pretty good bargain….

He was ordained in Rome on May 19, 1977 and he describes his ordination as the high point of his life because Ed Petty loved being a priest….

The next morning said He his First Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, in the choir chapel, dedicated to Mary Immaculate. The holy card he designed for his funeral is a picture of from what he has called, “The happiest day of my life”. The set of vestments that he used for that occasion was the same set that was first used by Blessed Pope Pius IX in 1854 when he solemnly proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. They were again used in 1950 by the Servant of God Pope Pius XII as he solemnly proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption. And only Ed, could find a way to raid the Papal Treasury and get these vestments for his first Mass.

Regardless of what he did up to the time of his ordination, or whatever endeavors he has done since, it was always been about how much he cherished his priesthood. His assignments to and accomplishments at, Gilbertville and Don Bosco High School, then to Catholic University, then as Director of Catholic Charities and pastor of St. Donatus, then to Charles City, and to Dyersville, and back to Gilbertville were all just a part of the greater gift of the priesthood….

As you know Monsignor always opted for grandeur and splendor. The evidence is all around you in this magnificent Basilica, which he so carefully and beautifully restored. He wanted to engage all of our senses in teaching us the faith but always with the ultimate purpose of inspiring our minds and hearts toward heaven. For Ed, Catholicism was thoroughly fun. And real fun is being a part of something greater than yourself. Belonging to the church is fun because it expands beyond the limits of this world. Ed knew the thrill of being a part of something that brings us together with all the angels and saints—the worship of almighty God in spirit and in truth….

Always in charge, as he requested, he’s being buried in the traditional roman vestments, of his old friend Monsignor Dorance Foley, and he picked the music for this funeral Mass: at a little of the old, a little of the new; with many different roots, now all Catholic. That was kind of like his personality ­­ he liked to blend the best of everything he experienced. He was “Catholic” with both a capital “C” and a small one. But above all, he was a priest, who loved, and dedicated his life to, Our Lord, His Mother, and the Church.

His struggle with Multiple Myeloma Cancer during the last two years was difficult and he fought it bravely. His health declined rapidly during the past month. When his death was near he said, “I’m ready. And do not worry ­­ this is God’s will.” Monsignor was fortified by the sacraments of the church, and hours before his death Archbishop Hanus visited him to recite the prayers for the dying and give him the Apostolic Pardon. I believe that it was significant that Monsignor Petty, who was a great promoter of the devotion to the Sacred Heart, should die on October 16, the feast of St. Margaret Mary Alaquoque.

The Wednesday before he died, he realized he [was] dying and it was time to go on hospice. I spent most of the day with him in mercy hospital as he received his last transfusions. He spent much of the time meticulously going over the details of his funeral and making sure I understood them. He was a very detail­oriented person, as he would say “God is in the details”. We also had a chance to talk about the priesthood. I asked him, “Ed, do you remember the night we went out to dinner late in the summer of 2000 and you were trying to get me to finally go for the priesthood?” He nodded. I said “You told me that the priesthood was worth it. That it would be worth every pain I would ever have to suffer and every tear I would ever cry. The priesthood was worth all of it. ­­­ That was the night I decided to join the seminary.” He smiled and his eyes began to well up and he said, “Brian, it really was worth it all!”
They say Msgr spoke often of “home,” even using a Christmas homily to note that “all the happy home-comings and reunions that we experience in our lives -- especially at Christmas -- all of those homecomings are just a prelude to, if we are faithful, the great home-coming and permanent reunion we will have one day in heaven.

And on that “one day,” he said, “if we are faithful, we will hear from Him and everyone
with Him, those two most beautiful words a human being can hear: ‘Welcome home.’”

He’s just one of the many incredible folks I’ve met along the way, even if not in person. But each of these – each of you – have touched my life and guided the journey in ways bigger than any of us.

More than anything, what this speaks to is something that, in our daily lives, can be very easy to lose sight of: that each of us, all of us, share the great gift of this communion, not just with Above, but with each other, regardless of where we are, what we wear or what we’re up to.

So many of you have extended this gift to me, sight unseen, over the days, these years, and to call it a cherished and needed lifeline doesn’t scratch the surface; I’m the immeasurably changed, touched, better and much more blessed for it, and that's a pretty tough thing to put into words. And though one community’s lost one of its strongest links, as you can see, its effects have reverberated far beyond a handful of parishes in the Heartland.

In your lives and your daily situations, each of you – lay, professed, ordained, and everything in between – serve as the instruments of change and grace in the lives of more people than you’d probably ever be able to realize, simply in the gift of being yourselves and the gift of being “out there.” Keep it up and keep it going – and never forget that even in the smallest outreach, each of you are the face, the hands, the voice, the heart of everything that is the best of this church. Never underestimate what that best can give, never underestimate the impact it can and does have.

So, just as Msgr Ed did morning after morning, you're probably here for the news. I might've known him only from his notes, but something's saying that he'd want me to get back to "the goods," even though he's got a much better vantage with which to view it all now. Even so, I just felt the need to send up a word of praise and thanks, both for him and for all of you who do the work day in and day out in so many ways, often unsung, but always as the greatest treasure and asset this church can call its own.

I get thanked more often than I deserve, but merely covering the work is the easy part. God love and reward all of you who actually do it -- for which no words could say thank you enough.

...and, Monsignor, rest well... and welcome home.

Clint Austin/Dubuque Telegraph-Herald