Originally published August 13
I received a text message on my way to Church last weekend that read, “Hey everybody… Fr. Gus died this morning in his sleep… pray for the repose of his soul and pass on this prayer.”
That text, or the event that it reported, put a lot in perspective that morning. Unlike most South Carolinians who to attend USC, Clemson and occasionally College of Charleston, my senior year of high school I set my sights on the small liberal arts school, Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio (that’s Steu BEN ville. Not “stupid ville”. Hometown of Dean Martin and most densely polluted air you’ll encounter outside of Beijing). Yes, in a switch from the norm, I loaded up a blue minivan and went to Ohio. What led me to attend college out of state and 12 hours away was the fact that this college was run by the Franciscans, an order of Catholic priests who follow the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi.
St. Francis of Assisi, born in the early 1100’s, is famous as being the made into the only figurine to feed more birds than that “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” statue, but he is worth getting to know at a deeper level for his decision to renounce the wealth of his family and radically live all that is taught in the Scriptures, especially to serve Christ in the poor. Many chose to follow his example in the years that followed, to this day the Franciscans are some of Team Catholic’s most valuable players. St. Francis taught a life of conversion, that we’re to grow in holiness through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This spirituality permeated my experience at college, The Franciscans taught us that following Christ, “the way, the truth and the life” meant pursuing both knowledge of God and of the world-- Faith and Reason-- to prepare us for the “real world”.
At an age where one makes decisions that affect the rest of their life (what should I do when I graduate? Should I get married? What do I actually believe? How would I look with a goatee?) Father Gus was a Franciscan on campus who lead us to focus on what was important, but with a loving example. He’d give students the coat off his back in the bitter Ohio winter, would never let a woman walk next to the road and spent hours each week in the dormitory chaplain’s office listening to students talk about anything and everything. He also had a mischievous sense of humor and would often tell everyone that no one remembered his birthday. When his fellow priests would ask why, he’s simply gesture knowingly to all the cakes that were being delivered to their house. He’d regularly put guys in headlocks and chase students down to try to trip them with his cane. He loved us and we knew it, which is why he could get away with calling us out on sin. He saw himself as our spiritual father, and knew that in the end, life was more than graduating and getting jobs and all the post college stuff we were preoccupied with. He was always reminding us that in the end, life was about getting to heaven.
When I received the text message about his death, I was overwhelmed that I now knew someone in heaven. It was like hearing that a friend had finally come home after a long trip. Everything in his life had been oriented towards this moment, when he’d leave earth and meet God face to face. I was not alone in this thought. Facebook statuses, twitters and texts shot around all afternoon from Franciscan graduates now spread out all over the U.S, saying things like, “Father Gus, put Jesus in a headlock ‘til I get there!” and “Pray for me until we meet again!”. The thought of the world minus Father Gus is sad, but as Church began that morning, all I could think was that I this was the mystery St. Paul described, “it is Christ in you, the hope for glory!” (Colossians 1:27). Fr. Gus’s life and death all reminded us what we hope for.
In college, I was encouraged to seek both faith and reason as I matured to adulthood. This is because we have all been created to be in Heaven. Forever. It’s so easy to get caught up in the minutia of day to day living and forget that this isn’t all there is. The life and death of someone like Father Gus snapped me out of my daily routine of checking facebook, hanging out with friends and deciding between a blackberry and iphone and gave me a reality check. I was reminded of what St. Paul told the Hebrews—“we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us” (Hebrews 12:1). A cloud of witnesses is watching and waiting. Are you running to win?