Tuesday, July 25, 2006

McGowan, Undoer of Knots

The lion of Scranton is laid to rest amid yet another outpouring:
The mother church of the 11-county diocese brimmed with family and friends, as well as scores of current and former elected officials and dignitaries. Clergy flanked both sides of the altar and took up an entire bank of pews at the far-right of the cathedral.

In a moving homily laden with Scripture, the Rev. John A. Walsh conveyed the sense of communal loss left in the wake of Monsignor McGowan's death.

"We feel and bear some of your grief and your sense of loss and the emptiness that human death so often visits upon all of us," Father Walsh, a longtime friend and colleague of the monsignor, said to the large contingent of McGowan family members in attendance.

Focusing on Monsignor McGowan's love of scripture and of God, a side sometimes lost on those only familiar with his quick, biting wit, Father Walsh chose one word from the New Testament to describe his friend: Astonishing.

"He spent his life and he exhausted it out of the love of God," he said. "He was astonishing, and those around him became astonished at his life and the work of that man. He helped me untie the knots in my life.

"Love is stronger than death," Father Walsh added. "It's the one thing we take with us."...

"The rest of us will have to split up his jokes," said former Scranton Mayor Jimmy Connors. "We all stole them anyway. He didn't mind."

Mr. Connors, who was often introduced by Monsignor McGowan as "the captain of the Titanic," said the priest helped guide his life both publicly and in private.

"He tried to see everything in good cheer. I never forgot him saying to me, 'The more they criticize you, the more you smile,'" said Mr. Connors. "We should all keep our sense of humor."
Some might be curious as to why you this story has been appearing regularly on these pages. Well, there are a few reasons, most importantly two:

1. Faced with the obstacles of the times -- many of which don't just come from outside, but ex intra as well -- a lot of priests out there have a tough time remembering the good they can accomplish in ministry. This crisis of faith and morale has been manifested in many ways, but the tribute of the town is an example that, for all the prophecies of doom out there, a priest who lives and dies in the saddle and consistently gives his life for his own can be and is a wellspring of life and grace, not just for the church but the wider community.

It's not hard at all... that is, if you just try.

2. The timing of Joe McGowan's passing was almost providential. For the past two weeks, The Times-Leader of Wilkes-Barre, a paper in the Scranton diocese, has been running a series on the Catholic future with all the customary alarm bells and re-dredging up of everything everyone knew to begin with. It's caused some pain among the locals. But, in the midst of it all, in death, here came McGowan, again, to effectively save the day, take some wind out of the litany of ecclesiastical misdeeds and failures and remind the gang of what the church can do at its best.

Lastly, it was initially noted -- whether rightly or wrongly -- that Scranton's retired Bishop James Timlin was to celebrate yesterday morning's funeral liturgy. In the end, the diocesan bishop, Joseph Martino, took his chair... and provided a bit of an unusual coda to the manifestations of grief:
"Monsignor McGowan remains a priest forever. But there is a huge vacuum of the priesthood in his passing," Bishop Martino said before the packed pews at St. Peter's Cathedral. "We may have someone here who could be as humorous as Monsignor McGowan."

But, in a series of statements that seemed more like nonsequiturs, the bishop also acknowledged some of the criticisms levied against him, by those both within and outside the Diocese of Scranton, saying they have weighed "more heavily on my thought." Explaining that he was in need of rest and a respite, he did not attend a luncheon after the funeral or the burial at St. Mary's Cemetery in Hanover Township....

The brief address at the end of Mass appeared to ruffle some feathers.
Give Martino credit -- on top of being a brilliant mind, he can be quite candid, a quality which earned him a fair bit of scorn as a priest and auxiliary bishop here in his hometown. As said candor is more often seen as vice than virtue in the local ecclesiastical culture, I've always respected him greatly for this.

But that he did so on this occasion -- one when, um, it's not about him -- does lead one Philadelphian to worry about another, and hope that everything's OK....