This weekend I was asked to do the reading at the funeral of Fr. Christopher Rengers, OFM Cap. In preparing for it, a reflection of my experience of him formed in my mind. I decided to write it down, in hopes that it may be a witness of how great a man Fr. Christopher was.
"I like how you read."
The voice was barely audible over the oxygen maching running behind his wheelchair. Apologetically I asked him to repeat himself. With some strain he repeated himself: "I LIKE HOW YOU READ." He never showed the effort involved in speaking louder, but I could see it in his actions. I felt warm from the compliment, but guilty for causing this frail man pain.
It was the feast day of St. Basil, and I remember entering into the nursing home with a little reservation on seeing the retired friars. I watched my grandparents pass away in a nursing home, and there's a cultural aspect of "sending away the elderly" that I grapple with. And so there are times when I just don't feel up to the visitations. It sounds selfish; it sounds un-Franciscan. Yet it is an honest thought.
These are the times when I have to pray for strength and perseverance. Usually a quick prayer and a brief reflection on why I'm visiting retired friars in the nursing home renews my spirit. I realize that it is for the benefit of the "old guys" just as much as it's a benefit for us "young guys." (I've given up trying to argue that I'm not a "young guy" at 35 years!)
And so with a positive and open attitude we went to see Fr. Christopher that day. We'd been told that he wasn't feeling well and that he was resting a lot, yet when we entered his room, he was still eagerly working on some project or answering mail. For as much as Fr. Christopher worked, he always seemed to set it aside when we came to visit. It is as if he knew what was most important; a balance that even I still struggle with.
And so that day we prayed the Office of Readings in his room. The other Novice and I alternated between the Psalms, and then I read the readings. As I read, Fr. Christopher's eyes were closed. You could tell he was allowing the readings to sink in, the way a child may bask in the light of sun on a warm summer day. At different passages, he would nod his head.
"I like how you read," he told me when I finished. "You're very clear and you take your time. Sometimes I enjoy it more to listen to others read than just reading to myself."
He continued talking a little longer, but even in my strain to listen, I could only pick out a few words here and there. I'd like to think he told me I would be a great preacher someday, or that our arrival made his day better. Or perhaps he imparted some great Capuchin wisdom that was meant only for us two Novices that visited that day. Yet we couldn't hear him, and neither of us were comfortable with making him talk any louder than he could at the time.
All these things I sit with now, as I am surrounded by Capuchins here in Our Lady of Angels (formerly St. Augustine's) Church in Pittsburgh. As I prepare to read to Fr. Christopher for the last time, I look and see the old faces of Capuchins mixed with the new faces of guys preparing to join. I see love, not sadness. Even in the short time I had to know Fr. Christopher Rengers, I find it hard to feel sad at his passing. For it is people like Fr. Christopher, those who devote their entire being in the love and understanding of God and God's followers, that truly have earned their eternal reward. Guys like me, still learning the difference between selling a car and Hermaneutics look to friars like Fr. Christopher as a model for how we can be better Capuchins.
Remembering those words: "I like how you read," I prepare to take the ambo as Fr. John Pavlik finishes the Opening Prayer. While I stand before hundreds of people in this church to honor the passing of such a man, my goal is simple: to remember Fr. Christopher's face that day in the nursing home, that serene look of someone basking in the light of the Lord's Word.