July 24, 2019

Missing My Mentor

One of the Gospel Canticles from the Liturgy of the Hours always makes me pause and think:

“Ant. Jesus called her by name: Mary. She turned to him and said: Rabboni. Then he said to her: Do not touch me; I have not yet ascended to my Father, alleluia.”

What is the commonly accepted reason she cannot touch him, when such was not the case with Thomas?

This is precisely the kind of dilemma I would take to my mentor Fr. Ron. We would have lunch over it and probably not even come to an agreement. Most of the time, I loved the way Fr. Ron would challenge me. However, I have to admit, there was also a time when I stopped speaking to him for a while after we got into an argument about whether I was challenging a former pastor of mine enough on a few parish matters. This was only a minor bump in the road for our relationship as we moved beyond this disagreement. I would still tease him that he was the “only priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago that thought a permanent deacon should confront a priest…”

One Saturday morning, I can recall getting a text with the news of Fr. Ron’s death shortly after arriving at the retreat house where I meet my spiritual director. I had mentioned to another deacon friend of mine that I had not heard from Fr. Ron for a while and that we were scheduled to meet for lunch in the next week. I had sent an article to him that I recently wrote and it was unlike him not to follow up. That morning I knew why. My mentor was gone.

Fr. Ron was an ideal mentor for a permanent deacon. Ron was a ”late” vocation having gone to the seminary after retiring from a career in banking. We had a lot in common. He also lived in a world of work pressure, downsizings and office politics. In fact, he became my mentor after one of my first confessions with him. At that time, I was having concerns about how a permanent deacon could be “a witness in the workplace” for our faith. These days most offices are not conducive to Catholic religious vocations. Not only is our faith “out of bounds” for many conversations but as a manager, I have to play a role where I cannot “wear my stole.” My workplace can be a competitive R&D environment. I often reflect that my response to workplace issues has not always been “my peace be with you.” At times this notion was a struggle for me in formation.

Bringing this to reconciliation, I discussed these feelings with a priest that at the time I liked, but didn’t know that well. After talking about my dilemma to him he said to me, “Greg, I’ve had to say Mass in front of people that I fired.” He got it. This was a priest I could relate to. From that day on, I always saw Fr. Ron as my mentor. We discussed many issues in formation. When I was newly ordained, I always sent my homilies to him before preaching. He would tell me quite directly if he thought I nailed it or, if he thought I was going in a wrong direction. We had the most fun with the latter. I very seldom changed my homily based on his comments but, he always made me think about what I was saying and this alone would alter my presentation. He made me a better homilist. Father Ron and Deacon Peter both passed away while being clerics I bounced homily ideas off of. I’ve stopped sending them out to people I like!

Fr. Ron had a love for biblical archaeology and he once used me, as a scientist, to review one of his talks on the subject. Maybe because of all those homily comments he gave me, I shredded it. It was a good presentation but lacked depth and I told him so. Our next lunch I was a little nervous thinking I was in for a little storming attitude from my favorite priest but, he was jovial. He loved the fact that I respected him enough to seriously review his presentation. As an investment banker, Fr. Ron also loved to grill me on the happenings in the pharmaceutical industry. We talked stocks and industry trends. He knew as much about the investment strategies of my company than I did; though we were always careful to keep our talks general.

With the death of my parents, I had many bioethical questions that were not addressed in deacon formation. Struggling at one point, I went to him and he settled me down with a conversation on Catholic conscience and free will. He was later a reference for me when I decided that I wanted to do graduate studies in Catholic bioethics. I think he saw in me a kindred soul and someone who believed in lifelong learning. Contrary to my wife’s opinion, my intent was not lifelong learning as much as having tools for ministry in bioethics situations. I think he was happiest knowing we were going to have plenty of new material to argue over. I have to admit, after each paper I turned in, that I was more interested in his comments than my instructors.

Having a mentor meant I was comfortable getting advice from him in many aspects of my diaconate ministry. I could have frank discussions with him over issues I was dealing with and making sure I was ministering consistently with our Catholic faith. Ron would default to a pastoral approach, like Pope Francis, much more quickly than I did. For this, he again made me a better deacon. I didn’t need to mimic his approach; I needed to confirm that I was staying in bounds on the playing field.

Fr. Ron was a priest who had an appreciation for the permanent diaconate. He had an appreciation that the men in this ministry wore life’s battle scars in a unique way in clerical attire. With him, there was no clerical hierarchy, only brothers in Christ. I loved him for that. One of my saddest recollections is that I never had the opportunity to serve at a Mass with him presiding and me as the deacon. I guess in the end I didn’t need to. Our ministries were bigger than that.

Fortunately, Ron was not my only mentor. Another priest answered my query over Jesus’ rebuke to Mary in a way I think Fr. Ron would have liked:

“An important thing to note with this passage is the fact that this particular encounter with Mary only happens this way in the Gospel of John. None of the other Gospel writers report this encounter in this way. The reason is simply that for John the Ascension of Jesus in the way we understand Jesus’ going to his Father to be glorified all took place at the same time with His Resurrection some time on  Easter night which would have had to have happened right after this encounter with Mary. This returning to the Father needed to happen first before Mary could touch/embrace Him. That’s why Thomas could touch Jesus because by the time of this encounter He had already been glorified/gone to His Father and then returned to offer/give/confer/breathe the Spirit upon his disciples and others.”

When we think of Christ’s Ascension forty days later… this is really the actual ending or termination of His earthly appearances. Jesus can now leave them empowered and filled with the Holy Spirit to go about the task of preaching and evangelizing.”

Perhaps this response to will lead to another lunchtime deliberation with a new mentor.

Thank you, Fr. Ron, for being my friend, my mentor, my sparring partner and my priest. You will be missed. Eternal rest grant unto Fr. Ron, O Lord. May perpetual light shine upon him. Amen.

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Written by
Deacon Gregory Webster

REVEREND DR. GREGORY WEBSTER is a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He was ordained to the Permanent Diaconate by Francis Cardinal George in May 2014 and is assigned to St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in Old Mill Creek, Illinois. Deacon Greg holds a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from Northern Illinois University, M.A. in Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary and an M.A. in Bioethics and Health Policy from Loyola University of Chicago. Deacon Greg and his wife have been married more than twenty-five years and are blessed with three beautiful daughters and two pretty cool terriers.

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Written by Deacon Gregory Webster