09 Mar A Letter to Fr. Duffy
by Fr. David May
It’s been nearly a month now since you went home to the Lord, and I’ve been meaning to drop you a line for some time. But you know how it is at times: life takes unexpected turns and keeps us occupied and preoccupied.
But today is the day and this is the moment to offer a little word of thanks for your earthly life and what you did with it. I won’t try to speak for how everybody else saw it, just for myself.
First of all, thank you for believing so strongly in the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives. You loved that God had anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power and how he went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him (Acts 10: 38).
Since you believed so completely that that same Holy Spirit has been given to us, you spent your priestly life doing good, healing, and freeing the oppressed, through your faith in his presence today.
As a young priest, I knew there was something in all this that I needed to learn. Plus I knew that there were plenty of people who could benefit from some extra prayer.
So when I found out you were open to praying over people for healing of one kind or another, I started bringing my directees (people to whom I was spiritual director) to you.
Remember how we’d often pray over one of them on Sunday, the Lord’s day? Remember how I was one of your most regular “customers?”
My directees were being blessed, healed, set free… and I was learning a few things.
One thing I learned was this: I don’t always have to fully understand everything that’s being said for God to do his wonders.
Yes, you prayed in tongues, fair enough, and so would I with you, leaving what it all meant to God, and just hoping to stay out of the way.
But there were other times when you prayed in English… and I still had no idea what on earth you were talking about… and I still don’t!
All I knew at the time was that I was peaceful, that I trusted you, and that people were being blessed, helped in their commitment to Christ, and left the sessions happier and grateful to God.
I figured I was being taught to listen with my heart and not only with my head in matters of discernment!
And I could see that when you claimed the victory of Christ for and with someone, you really claimed it! You meant it!
Your faith was as certain as the trust of a child in parents who cherish him. May I always live from and share such a faith!
Father Jim, I can still hear you booming out one of your favorite passages from St. Paul (Rom 8: 31-39): If God is for us, who can be against us?… Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? If God acquits us, who will condemn?
It was as if you were defending God’s children against all the forces of hell that seek to convince us that the love of God, such a love and such a mercy and such a victory, could never belong to such as us!
Armed with the sword of the Spirit—the Word of God—and the shield of faith to quench the burning arrows launched by the evil one, you provided defense for the faltering and strength for those growing in faith.
I know, I know. Not I, but Christ in me (Gal. 2:20).
This was serious stuff, is serious stuff. The spiritual battle then and now is real, intense, unending. Plus there is today a pall of skepticism and death that hangs over our society like a dank air that we constantly breathe.
This means we have our own share of suffering to bear in order to attain even a minimal gift of faith. In the face of it all, you proclaimed with St. Paul: No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us! (Rom 8:37)
It was obvious over and over again that suffering people, people sharing in the passion of Jesus, found their way to you, Fr. Jim, and that your own suffering was a wellspring of compassion for them.
A Christ-like empathy emanated from you, and they were consoled. And the song you would sometimes sing after a praying over was part of that empathy; it burst out with a twinkle of Irish humor and Duffy mischievousness:
“The best is yet to come! The best is yet to come! Heigh-ho the derry-o, the best is yet to come!”
The “best” might still seem a long way off, but you took the long view. All of life is a preparation for eternity, right?
Finally, I want to mention another great gift and central aspect of your life. It is summed up in one line from St. John’s gospel: (19:26-27)
In our age of unbelief especially, it is the Mother of God who brings the grace of walking in faith. This gift of a Mother was given us at the foot of the cross.
You could laugh and sing and dance, but you were at the same time intimately attached to the cross of Christ, as is any faithful priest or faithful disciple.
I think this work of yours, of sharing in the cross of others, of making their burden somehow a bit lighter, you learned especially from the Mother of God.
You lived in her heart, and I think that so much of what you learned, you learned from her.
As you know, the great paradox of our faith journey is this: more and more as life goes on, we need to take on responsibility in a mature, adult fashion, and at the same time, we need to become more and more like little children.
You have to be like a little child to believe that a permanent commitment to a spouse or to Christ in consecrated life is really possible. You have to become a child, or…you’ll never make it.
But if we, like Our Lady, have the heart of a child, Jesus can take us anywhere. God can ask any little impossible thing of us, and somehow, we can do it!
Anyway it seems to me that’s how you did it, Fr. Jim. While profoundly given to the Lord’s suffering children on this earth, you had one foot in heaven. I suspect Our Lady taught you that little trick.
I often feel more earthbound than I’d like, and I treasure your good-bye to me as a call to look a little higher. Just a couple of days before you died, you took my hands in yours and were praying something I couldn’t understand. (What else is new, right?!).
Suddenly I realized you were praying the Lord’s Prayer and so I joined you in it.
Then came a pause. Again I didn’t understand what you were saying. Then you looked towards the ceiling and clapping your hands said clearly, “Our Lady of Combermere!”
And I said to myself, “You son of a gun! You are so close to them all in heaven! And you bring heaven closer to us. What a gift!”
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Fr. Jim.