Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Philadelphia's Loss, Heaven's Gain

The history of the church in the United States has always been a chronicle made most beautiful by its silent souls who spoke not in fleeting words, but great and lasting deeds.

For a cleric, there's a name for this calibre of eminence which is slowly, sadly, fading into eternity: the churchman. And one of this town's finest to ever earn the distinction, Msgr. James McGrath, passed on to his eternal reward last night, days after his 89th birthday.

Jim McGrath -- known around town as "Cat Eyes" for his almost-superhuman competence in canon law, which was widely sought -- is one of those names you won't find in the history books unless you look deeply. However, for what he lacked in a wide public profile or in the renown of high ecclesiastical office, like the greatest of churchmen the fruits of his immense body of work manifested over 63 years of priesthood will remain evidenced and alive for all time.

While I was familiar with Msgr. McGrath only through the legend of his quiet service and the eminence of his reputation, his wide circle of friends around the world mourn the loss of a mentor, fellow-traveler and wise counsel.

To provide a fitting tribute, I've asked one of those dear friends, Fr Milton Jordan, to put some words together. A priest of the archdiocese of Washington, Fr Jordan is currently pastor of Our Lady of Victory parish in the District. For several years, he served as executive director of the Papal Foundation, the Philadelphia-based entity which assists the humanitarian work of the Holy See. I'm honored to share Jordan's reflections with all of you:
In each priest's life there is more often than not the experience of meeting extraordinary people. Rare, however, is the occasion when there is the gift of not only meeting but of becoming a dear friend of a great man, a great priest. Monsignor James McGrath was a classic example of a man of God in the twentieth century.

After teaching high school in Reading, a career began that would bring this man not only into contact with priests, bishops, cardinals and even Popes. At the same time, through his years of compassionate adjudication in the Philadelphia Marriage Tribunal, which he headed for 20 years, he met what some would call "the ordinary folk." For him these were the hidden pearls; these were the lost coins he was sent to find. A man of refined style but a priest who could talk to anyone regardless of station in life.

Few knew that rare was the day when his "Holy Hour" did not light up the small chapel at St. Bridget's church. This was his daily practice that only doubled and almost tripled during the winter days of his life.

An aficionado of learning, the good Monsignor never simply wrote a letter or canonical opinion. Next to his desk stood his army -- the five or six tomes against which he would test his writing. He left no doubt that he would use his skill to craft not just a letter but a work of intelligence, leaving no doubt as to the intent of the writing.

Throughout his canonical work, Msgr. McGrath became for many Bishops the private consultant who could carefully and precisely weave the strands of intricate legal theory. He was respected and loved in this work because he forever strove to balance the law with the love of God for each individual. And it was his love of the language that fostered the confidence that churchmen placed in his thinking and evaluations. Cases in French, German, Spanish or Italian often were brought to him because there was no one in a local office who could combine the testy idiom of another language with a canon.

Of great joy was the tiresome but uplifting work to bring to the minds and hearts of the members of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints the evidence that John Neumann, the Little Bishop of Philadelphia, was indeed what he personally believed: a genuine saint. Msgr. McGrath made more than 150 trips to Rome to meet and meet and meet with canon lawyers, medical doctors, members of the Congregation and others because Cardinal John Krol had told him: "This man is a saint, make them understand that."

And despite the acclaim that was tendered when John Neumann was canonized, he did not rest on his accomplishments. Immediately, he took up the beginning stages of the process for the canonization of Sr. Katherine Drexel. However, when the days of retirement came upon him, he quietly and peacefully entrusted to others the mission to help in bringing to the Church of Philadelphia yet another saint.

To have known him well, to have been with him often, was to know a man, a priest who was on the one hand quite complex but on the other one like the rest of humanity -- always struggling to be good at his vocation, to be a priest of God for the people. Rarely in parish work due to his role at the chancery, he was the weekend priest for so many parishes throughout his entire life, even until the week before he died. Those duties of office work, meetings, interviews, searching for "miracles" and weekend work were only a part of the energized bunny. How strong was his dedication for almost twenty years to St. Joseph's Hospital and the Sisters.

What a wonderful birthday, his last, on Holy Thursday, the day he renewed his priestly life for a final time in a parish. If you had to opportunity to know him well, saw beneath whatever he was doing, whomever he was helping, wherever he was going that there is one message that we have been recently reminded to revisit: Deus caritas est -- God is love.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has produced a number of great priests who have touched the heart of the Church and the hearts of God's people. Those who knew Msgr. James McGrath -- fellow priests, laity and especially his very large family -- all came to know this: God came to them through this man in so many unique and very personal ways. Theif lives are forever different because this one man touched them.
May the great and beloved "Cat Eyes" -- the likes of whom we shall never see again -- rest in the peace and joy of the risen Christ, our High Priest.