November 30, 2007
As a sixth-grade youngster, my teacher, Felician Sister Mary Charitas, taught us what we call the “marks” of the church, those four terms that define how we are the church of Christ. The church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. By one, we are describing our essential unity, of being one in Christ; by catholic, we mean the church is universal — for all people, for all time; by apostolic, we mean we are the church taught by the apostles and led in apostolic succession by the bishops and the Holy Father, called to pass on the “Good News” as they did.
By holy, we are called to become more like God. As founded by Christ and infused with the Holy Spirit, the church itself is holy, despite our individual sinfulness. At the same time, we mean that, through the church, people find the means to become holy, to become more like God. We come to know Christ better through so many within the church who are holy.
I was gently reminded of this the other day when, with a few of our seminarians, I visited Father Patrick Rager. “Father Pat” is only in his mid-40s, but he has spent most of his life teaching by ministry and example what it means to be holy, what it means to be a saint — a call that each of us has in our lives.
Father Pat was a young, athletic seminary student when his knee suddenly gave out during a baseball game. When it kept happening, he underwent a battery of tests where it was determined that his problem was neurological. It would be eventually diagnosed as a form of Lou Gehrig’s disease, but at that point he was forced to give up athletics.
The young man continued with his preparation for the priesthood and was ordained in 1985. He served as parochial vicar at St. Sylvester Parish in Brentwood for two years, but then his condition began to worsen appreciably.
Confined to a wheelchair and eventually virtually bedridden, Father Pat served as chaplain for the diocesan Office for Persons with Disabilities. And, most important, he developed a ministry of prayer and counseling for the sick and disabled. His ministry has put him in touch with people from around the world.
Almost miraculously, Father Pat is with us today, living and ministering out of his mother’s home. His body can no longer do much at all, but his spirit — and his priesthood — is stronger than ever. His ministry as priest remains — despite his almost impossible physical limitations.
During our visit, I thanked him for what he does as a priest and how he does what he does — suffering with such incredible joy. He struggled to gather his strength to respond, as even just a few words requires what most of us would consider superhuman effort.
“It’s Jesus,” he finally said. “It’s Jesus.”
Father Pat sees his ministry as through him, with him and in him. Father Pat is a man in love with the Lord, no matter what burdens life has sent his way.
I am not embarrassed to admit that a few tears were shed in our visit. Not tears of sorrow, not tears of pain. But tears from recognizing that I was, that we were, in the presence of true holiness, in the presence of a saint by any definition of that word.
‘Jesus is in the boat’
Many years ago, Father Pat wrote a short column for the Pittsburgh Catholic on “the faithfulness and dependability of God.” He wrote:
“Storms arrive in all of our lives with some regularity. Many times they arrive without warning. They test our strength and resolve. In these difficult circumstances, we must remember that Jesus is in the boat with us on this chaotic, turbulent sea of life, just as he was in the boat with the apostles, calming them as he rebuked the winds and the waters. For the moment, he may appear silent, but he never forsakes us.”
This weekend, we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent. In the Letter to the Romans that we hear at Mass, the apostle writes: “Brothers and sisters: you know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (13:11-12).
It is a call for us to live as saints. Sometimes that might seem impossible. Until we encounter a saint in our midst. Father Pat teaches us through his holiness that the church is holy. He teaches us that holiness is there for everyone. We need just to “put on the armor of light.”