Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Story of a Soul

Even in the midst of pain and loss, God is good and God is love.

The moon over Philadelphia shone incredibly bright last night, as shockingly radiant as I have ever seen it.

Normally, the occurrence would lead one to wonder, but heaven speaks to earth in signs, and on this night its message was clear: that one of the great figures of our local scene, a leading light of my own journey, had been welcomed home to the Father’s house.

Our faith impels us to remember God’s goodness always, and if you’re lucky in this life, you get to learn that goodness – easy to invoke, but tough to imitate – from the example of a master teacher. If you’re really lucky, you get a handful of these intrepid souls, each worth their weight in gold. I’ve been blessed with more of them than I’ll ever deserve, but last night, all too suddenly, the Lord called the best of the best unto himself.

I’ve said repeatedly over time that the voice with which these pages are written isn’t so much my own, but that of the saints of the trenches who, through the years and their presence in my life, wove a tapestry of words and witness that showed me what it means to truly love the church. Two weeks short of his 58th birthday, Dan Parrillo was big in body, but even bigger in heart – and until his last breath, his Lord and his church were the great love of his life, the spring from which all the rest flowed.

To say his homegoing comes as a shock is the height of understatement. But one of the many things Danny taught me was that the Lord always knows what he’s doing, however much we can’t understand it in the moment. And to know Dan was to know that, though he would never seek the credit for it, he was always right. Any great teacher is first and foremost a great student, and he always sought to learn well: not so much for himself, but that his would be the joy of passing the lessons along to others that, indeed, “they might have life and have it to the full.”

The first of these lessons was a steadfast faith. For four decades, Dan devoted himself to the work of Catholic education and the community of St Nicholas of Tolentine – “St Nick’s,” the Augustinian church on South Philly’s 9th Street that, more than any other, is my spiritual home. In more than a few cases, his thousands of students over the years included three generations of 7th and 8th graders from the same family – one of whom would, to his ecstatic joy, grow up become his home pastor at St Monica’s, the great South Philly bastion on the other side of Broad Street.

Danny knew that the mission of Catholic education wasn’t something to be left at the classroom door at twenty ‘til 3; on most nights, he could be found holding court on the church steps, surrounded by students past and present and joined by his pastor of a quarter-century, Augustinian Fr Nick Martorano, the native son whose now-elderly parishioners, sensing what lie ahead, knew him in his boyhood as “Nicky Priest.”

While the girls kept to custom and called him “Mr Parrillo,” to the boys Dan was always, simply, “Parrillo” – an accolade with a message: that they saw him as one of them.

And nothing made him happier.

Walking the streets with Dan, you were lucky to get 10 or 15 seconds of movement between his sightings of the people he knew, calling out to him or vice versa. When his gravelly voice would boom out a name or his trademark greeting of “HOW ARE YOU?!” it could be heard no less than two blocks away. Every family member he knew was asked for, the sick or suffering were prayed for, all the time anyone needed was theirs, and no matter what their age or how long they had moved on from his classroom (populated by scores of statues of saints alongside his secular patron, Goofy), they – and, for that matter, the rest of the community – saw themselves as he saw them: always his students, his friends, his fellow-travelers.

Beyond his roster of teaching Social Studies and Religion, if there was a job to be done, Parrillo usually ended up doing it. From supervising the yearbook to planning every school liturgy down to the most minute detail, his many years as Baseball Czar for the archdiocesan Catholic Youth Organization, a beloved and respected leader among his peers and – one of the things he loved the most – the creator of the ritual that became his signature: the annual Crowning of Christ the King on the liturgical year’s closing Sunday.

The girls had the May Procession, he thought, but what about the boys? And so, ever the worker, he decided to stop mulling and do something about it. As its fruit, year after year of St Nick’s 8th grade guys can recall going through weeks of regimented rehearsals, each being entrusted with the task of either placing some piece of regalia before an oversized Sacred Heart statue, or processing the crowned statue around the church at the end of the rite, which bookended the homily of the day’s big Mass.

Right behind them throughout was Danny and – just as importantly – his meticulous eye… and if one step ended up out of place, the young man who made it would hear about it afterward.

Well, after the lunch.

What made Parrillo so beloved by so many was their ability to sense with the wise eyes of simple people that the great faith which marked everything he did was never simply an external exercise, nor did he ever feel that it, nor his intense spirit of devoted labor for the good of the church, entitled him to an attitude of superiority over others. If anything, the beauty of Danny was that he was, always and everywhere, completely human, completely humble, always and everywhere himself – and unceasingly, unceasingly, committed to seeking out and doing God’s will in his life, finding the pointers in the people and circumstances that popped up in his path.

To have this example in my life through my formative years is one of the greatest gifts I’ll ever receive, and I can honestly say that, if there weren’t a Danny in my life, there wouldn’t be a Whispers, either. From the stories he told, the larger-than-life presence he brought to them, to his spirit of prayer, his contagious joy, warmth, oft-biting humor (but with the palpable undercurrent of affection always evident) and, most of all, his commitment to the good people he served, always with great love, and often at great sacrifice. All of it, and experiencing it all at close range for a decade and more, became my master-course in the art of churchmanship and what, at its sincerest, most exemplary core, it means to be a believer, to be a Catholic, to be a leaven in the world, and that taking on the work can only begin it by living it out oneself.

The memories have been flooding through my head all through these hours, and there are hundreds more whence they came. However, and especially for this audience, more than a few stand out: how the Parrillo-mobile would rarely roll up to my house without him screaming “PANEM DE CAELO PRÆSTITISTI EIS!” out the window; the nicknames he had for everyone and everything (a particularly zealous Charismatic woman, for example, was christened “Barker”; a difficult music director earned the moniker “Bonkers”); his love for the garish – including a fully-detailed statue of John Paul II carved for the Jubilee Year, complete with papal throne, that pontificates from one of my bookshelves; the Saturday morning pro-life marches; free-for-all dinners he’d whip up for days in advance in the kitchen he could barely fit into; the confluence of his surprise 50th birthday party with the first hurricane to hit Philly in 26 years – and, of course, the way the folks at Ambasciata d’Abruzzo, L’Eau Vive, Turella Adriana and every other one of his Roman haunts would greet him like a family member every time he rolled back into town, even though the only language they had in common were frenetic hand gestures.

(And then there was the time when, thirty years ago this summer, on his first trip to the Eternal City for the canonization of Philadelphia’s “little bishop,” to whom he was so immensely devoted, Danny carried with him a petition signed by the archdiocese’s elementary teachers in which, citing the social Magisterium of the church, the educators appealed to Pope Paul VI for the establishment of a union – a move which, for the parochial schools, had been fiercely opposed by the great John Krol.

(In a characteristic move, armed with nothing but the document and his fervor, Parrillo maneuvered the basilica crowd and slipped the petition onto the sedia gestatoria as the Holy Father was carried by.

(Three weeks later, he received a phone call from the diocesan counsel of the time – a friend of his – which began as follows: “The shit has hit the fan, Danny! What did you DO?!”

(Suffice it to say, they didn’t get their union.)

Dan sure loved teaching, but there were three things he loved even more: the Eucharist, the Mass and the priesthood.

At least through his years of teaching all the way to yesterday, I doubt he missed Daily Mass once – and, some days, even with every other plate he had spinning, he’d go twice. Always laughing and/or screaming the rest of the time, the liturgy was, for all intents and purposes, the only time I ever saw Parrillo fall silent for more than 10 seconds at a time. A quiet intensity overtook him, except during the responses (when he’d try and beat everyone else to the punch) and the singing parts when – despite having what anyone who ever heard it would’ve judged, hands-down, as the world’s worst singing voice – he’d let loose, piena voce.

The latter is especially something none of us will forget anytime soon. Then again, it was another of his lessons: God doesn’t love the artistry of one’s voice so much as the song of a joyful heart.

Every Holy Thursday morning for a number of years provided Danny with one of his favorite singing moments of the calendar. Longstanding custom held that as many people as could pile into his car – clergy and faithful alike – would hitch a ride with him to the cathedral-basilica here for the Chrism Mass. And every year, like clockwork, at the stroke of 8.30 he’d make a point to drive up 18th Street, where, just past the front doors and across the way, he’d roll down the window in front of the women’s ordination protestors as they began to gather outside.

And, as if to reprove, The Voice would launch into the River City's time-honored warhorse:
“Long live the Pope/
His praises sound/
Again and yet again/
His rule is over space and time/
His throne the hearts of men…”
He'd sing the whole thing.

The annual performance was the closest thing to an uncharitable gesture I ever saw him commit. But even so, it always made for a sight as priceless as it was catty.

* * *

One Saturday afternoon a couple years back, Dan called my cellphone and asked if I had a minute. As the conversations traditionally began with his invariable “HOW ARE YOU?!” from which he’d usually veer straightaway into a raucous commentary on something or other, the atypical question indicated that something important was up.

“Rocco,” he began, “there’s something I’ve been wrestling with for a very long time….”

Never married, Parrillo was in his mid-50s by then, still sharing his childhood home with his father, a retired cop who kept a spryness belying the reality that he was halfway through his ninth decade. Still, the two doted on and cared movingly for each other, just as Dan and his dad had together helped his mother through her final years. (And every year at the parish festival, during the video horse races, he’d bet without fail on a horse he’d call “Lala” -- his mother’s nickname.)

His “revelation” was the least surprising thing of all: that, for longer than he hadn’t, the object of his struggle was the call to the priesthood. In many ways, his years of serving as 24/7 leader, counselor, mediator, mentor and teacher for so many had prepared him impeccably for it – and you can only see someone rifle through vestment closets so many times before you think to yourself “He’s fighting it.”

In an age that, some say, is unfriendly to the call to ordained ministry, that he had finally resolved, at 55, to go for it was met by with an immense outpouring of encouragement and support from all sides, even the allegedly-cynical young, and plans were quickly made for a huge farewell bash at the end of the year.

And then, out of the blue, everything was stalled in its tracks. Dan’s intended course of entering formation for the archdiocese of Philadelphia was scuttled when, after a process that he found hurtful and a spiritual trial, the local church he loved intensely and served selflessly for 40 years in a myriad of capacities rejected his application for the seminary, citing his age and issues of health.

Just as the parishioners, his students and friends were overjoyed at his decision to seek the priesthood, so the archdiocese’s refusal was met with palpable discontent – and at a moment when, among its people, the already-diminished credibility of its central administration could afford no further incitements of public outrage.

En masse, the cadre of Danny’s priest-friends, students, alums and admirers stormed the chancery with letters, asking for the denial to be reconsidered. The bosses even got an emotional appeal from his dad – one that, apparently, minced no words.

Yet at the center of the storm that surrounded him externally and disheartened him spiritually, Parrillo told me that all he wanted was a chance – not a fight, and especially not any kind of reaction that would lead to anyone’s loss of faith or a lack of love for the church and all its richness.

Though no ordination can take place without the consent of the people, something the outpouring of appeals had expressed beyond a doubt, a further review was denied. But the veteran pilgrim would soon be reminded that, for those great in faith, Providence’s plans always trump the designs we make for ourselves.

Once Philly’s final verdict came across, Dan asked me if he should try again, this time for another diocese. The prior experience would’ve crushed the spirit of a weaker soul, and he had a tough time picturing himself anywhere that wasn't his lifelong home, but he wanted to know for sure if the Pharaoh’s “no” was, indeed, the Lord’s, and the only proof could come from trying his hand elsewhere.

I told him he had no choice but to go for it again, and not only for his own peace of mind. His worthiness for the call and the good of the church warranted nothing less than one more try, however painful another refusal would be.

And so, Parrillo applied again, this time going across the Delaware to the diocese of Camden. Just as the Psalmist promised that “those who sow in tears will sing when they reap,” not only did Bishop Joseph Galante accept Danny in a heartbeat, he – and, for that matter, the whole Jersey crowd – showered the new seminarian with every last bit of the affirmation, support and respect the man and his vocation deserved.

After an emotional farewell to teaching and his beloved St Nick’s, Dan began his formation a year ago this week at Seton Hall’s Immaculate Conception Seminary. And there, in our occasional phone calls, he sounded as if he had been born again – in love with the place, energized by his (much-younger) confreres, the relaxed atmosphere, the challenging content of the classes and the vibrant, enthusiastic community spirit.

Even from a few weeks in, he spoke of his gratitude for the way things had worked out; despite the pain of his rejection, Dan said, he realized in retrospect that “God brought me here,” to only the second place he ever lived. And though he no longer faced the students but sat among their number, his peers saw him just as the St Nick’s family did – as a leader, a trusted counsel, a wise observer and faithful friend.

“The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” saith the Psalm. And, in our own time, it remained true.

From what I’ve been able to cobble together, the end came yesterday afternoon as Parrillo was returning from a welcome Mass for Seton Hall’s new seminarians. Heading back to the old neighborhood for a few more days with his dad before the start of classes, he was involved in an accident on the road. Still alert at the scene, he was rushed by ambulance to a Camden hospital, where the High Priest called him home at dusk.

I find several lessons in Dan’s life and, hard as it is to believe, his final “yes” to the Lord’s call of “follow me.”

Firstly, the timing of all this couldn’t have been more strangely providential, even consoling. Danny left us on the night between the feasts of St Monica and St Augustine – arguably, the two members of the heavenly host who most marked his own life. It was only on his departure for the sem last year that he resided for the first time outside the shadow of his home parish of St Monica’s, and his eons of teaching and ministry were chiefly carried out alongside the Augustinians of St Nicholas and the sisters of the Religious Teachers Filippini, who held such a special place in his heart.

Second, unlike Augustine, who famously wrote of discovering the “ever ancient, ever new” beauty of faith only belatedly, Parrillo took to it right from the start. But even so, that never meant his journey had ended until last night. Not only did he know this instinctively – he conveyed it with every fiber of his being. “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” St Paul wrote, and Danny integrated this completely into his life. It didn’t mean he was without his faults, nor the habits only he could make charming, nor was he without his excesses – his years-long struggle with his weight, with the added difficulty of diabetes in later years, had long been a concern expressed to him and others close to him – but each of these only contributed to remind him always that, as much as he had mastered the Christian life and exemplified it for so many, his need for God’s love and mercy only became greater, as did his desire to reflect these just as they had been given to him. Much as he taught them, lived them and knew them like the back of his hand, Dan never claimed to be the master of the church’s teachings, but their grateful servant who always strived, day by day, to do better by them. And in doing that, he left us one of his most powerful lessons of all.

Third, Dan once told me on the death of a family friend that “When someone dies, people only cry when they have something to regret.” And, candidly, I do. Two years buried in a workhole had the unintentional effect of cutting me off from more regular contact with a lot of important people in my life. And Parrillo was one of them. As noted on Friday, I’ve been spending a good bit this summer trying to catch up with as many of my long-lost ones as I can, and over the past couple days I’ve been thinking to myself “I need to call Danny…. I need to call Danny,” but got sidetracked by one or another thing that would pop up. And now, much as I want to call him, I can’t. And I have to live with that now. And that isn’t easy. And I can only hope that whatever distracted me from getting to it hasn’t been in vain. This is the second time this has happened in my circles this year and I just pray it doesn’t happen again…. Moral of the story: if you’re thinking of someone, REACH OUT NOW. Everything else can wait, especially as you just never know. It seems this is one of those things you only learn from the pain of experience.

Please God, please, no more warning shots.

And lastly, and most importantly, there’s this: Dan Parrillo didn’t leave this world a priest, and his passing deprives the long black line of a guy who would’ve been a damn good member of it, a tremendous asset. But even in that, Someone’s telling us something: that Danny’s greatest contribution and most lasting impact for the life of the People of God wouldn’t be wrought by means of the vocation he had taken up in Camden last summer, but the one that was his for forty years at 9th and Pierce and all over his beloved South Philly. God might’ve called him to priesthood just as he called him to teaching, but even more than this, He called Danny to be Danny, and the titles by which he accomplished that weren’t the end, just the means. To call his own to faith, to encourage them, support them, help get them through the rough patches, cook for and visit anyone and everyone, call on the phone and go off about whatever and let you know that he cared – he didn’t need the grace of orders to do any of that to the hilt for the thousands upon thousands of people he touched in his life, and the rich fruits of his sterling witness, always as nothing more and nothing less than himself, warts and all, won’t be fading anytime soon from those places where he sowed the seeds given him from above.

Sure, he didn’t make it to ordination, but this I know: Parrillo went happy in the knowledge that he was on his way, as part of a diocesan family that welcomed him and his vocation with open arms, a people he quickly came to love just as much and burned to serve in that new mission, yet with the same energy that kept him buoyant throughout.

Bottom line: God called Dan home as he followed His call. And if there’s any better way to go, let me know – I’m terribly hard-pressed to think of one.

That doesn’t mean this hasn’t been a very, very rough day. But the moon was shining like the sun, like it never had before, for a reason last night, and it was to say that – even though things panned out as none of us would’ve ever expected – a faithful light had completed its mission on earth and now would shine eternally from beyond… where, already, he’s probably commandeered a small kitchen to cook one of those famous dinners for the whole cast of characters he loved so much who had gone before to prepare a place for him.

Suffice it to say, his friends up there’ve been waiting a long time to share the feast with him, and I've got a funny feeling -- motivated by my greatest hope -- that at the close of a life punctuated by his constant repetition of the famous greeting that exemplified his concern for one and all, God's first words to him were nothing other than, “Danny, HOW ARE YOU?!”

So, I know, it must feel as if this post has gone on for half a century, but two last things… just two. Promise.

More than anything, even before he ‘fessed up to wrestling with the call to priesthood, Parrillo longed to say the Mass; I can recall not a few occasions from his my high school days when, behind the wheel, he’d launch into the Roman Canon, verbatim, from memory. He burned to be up there, even just once in his life, and to bring everything he had to it – and if there’s a tragedy above the rest in all this, it’s that the many who’ve supported him along the way, most especially his dad Al and brother Joe, will never get to witness it.

However, my dear priest-readers, that’s where you come in.

If there’s one favor I'd ever wish to seek from you men in black, it’s this: say the Mass that Dan never could… for him. If at least a couple of the clerics who get a little something out of these pages every once in a while could offer a Mass intention in the days to come, both in thanksgiving for his life and in supplication for his happy repose, it’d mean the world – remember, if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be here and these pages would never have existed, so if you’re grateful for this work, please consider doing this.
For those who are able and willing to offer one of these, drop me a line with your name and where you’re at. As you’d expect, his dad is having a tough time with the news, but Al’s faith is just as great. The bond of communion we all share, whether across the globe or across time and space, is one of this faith’s greatest gifts, and I’d like to get a list together of the Masses offered so that Al can see that, just as Dan always came through to love and serve the church, the church has come through in this difficult hour to pray for him and his closest ones who remain.

And for everyone, please pray for Al, Joe, Fr Nick and all of us who mourn this tremendous loss in the sure and certain hope of his rising in glory, with all the departed, at the last day.

Finally, among the habits only he could make charming, Dan had a unique penchant for being able to fall asleep, sitting up, at the drop of a hat.

He did it practically everywhere – on the couches of friends’ houses, during dinners, movies, Masses (even whilst sitting in the sanctuary as a commentator), in the front row during a performance of Nick’s beloved “Les Mis” and even in St Peter’s Square during the canonization liturgy of St Katharine Drexel. One minute, he’d be awake, the next you’d see that gruff head nodding up and down, until you hit him with a gentle elbow and he’d pick up right where he left off – until, usually within five minutes, the cycle would repeat itself.

Now, our beloved Parrillo, South Philly’s teacher and Camden’s cleric-to-be, who taught, formed, loved and changed the lives of so many, sleeps a sleep none of us can wake him from. It’ll never be the same without him, and he will be missed beyond all explaining, but his new rest is the one he always sought at the end of his work – a timing which wasn’t of his own making, but the last of the many unexpected calls he accepted readily from the Lord.

On numerous occasions over the years, he’d remind me of his favorite hymn, his favorite verse its final one – and never, ever, without the reminder that he wanted it to be the closing song of his funeral.

I never thought I’d have to disclose his choice publicly so soon, but it was his among his favorite prayers, and the one he asked for when this moment came.

So with a heart full of memories and gratitude, as the sun rises on a new day and the dawn of Dan’s new life, for him, I make his prayer my own:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Blessed Jesus make us rise,

From the life of this corruption

To the life that never dies.

May your glory be our portion,

When the days of time are past,

And the dead shall be awakened

By the trumpet's mighty blast.
Well done, and thank you, thou devoted and loving friend, thou good and faithful servant.

Rest well, memory eternal, in Paradisum deducant te angeli.

God love you forever, Parrillo. We will miss you… we will miss you so much.

Danny, pray for us!