Madonna House

The Amateur Who Longed for Perfection

by Fr. David May

I didn’t know Fr. Tom for the first sixty years of his life. I met him in 1986 when he was sixty years old, when I was sent to pick him up at Logan Airport in Boston when he was returning to join Madonna House.

Since I was the newly appointed director of training for priest applicants, I was given the first opportunity to spend some time with him. On that trip, I got to know him a bit, and that’s why I chose the first reading for his funeral Mass from theBook of Lamentation (3:17-26).

It’s a beautiful reading about a people who have touched bottom but have not lost hope; a people who have lost everything but their hope in God, and therefore are able to begin everything all over again.

Fr. Tom knew that journey himself. When we met, he was at that turning point. He knew that Madonna House, and his coming here, was a special gift of mercy from the Lord. He was always so grateful for it.

If there’s anybody, any priest, who had a love for the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, a kind of intuitive understanding of them which transcends most people’s, it was Fr. Tom.

The knowledge and awareness was deep in his heart that Christ first incorporates us into his very being through Baptism, and through this sacrament gives us the grace to share not only in the dying to self but in the rising to new life, as St Paul says so eloquently in the letter to the Romans.

Fr. Tom is the only person I have ever met who kept his baptismal certificate on the wall next to his bed as a reminder of the greatest gift of his life along with the priesthood. Extraordinary! He spoke to us about baptism many, many times.

Then there’s the Eucharist. I’m going to read to you an excerpt from his book God Acts—We React, on that sacrament, because we need to hear it from him.

In this passage, he is speaking about the consecration at the Mass:

“Suddenly everything is transformed. The physical disappears and the reality of heaven becomes present. The chapel disappears and we see Christ. The people disappear and in each other we see Christ.

“The book of the proclaimed Word disappears and all we hear is Christ. The priest disappears and all we see is Christ in him. The bread and wine disappear and all we see is Christ.

“Christ the victorious Lamb stands on the altar, and we are in the heavenly crowd that surrounds him. Like the Apostles at the Transfiguration, we cry out: ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here!’ You are the Christ who has died. You are the Christ who is risen. You are the Christ who will come again.

We celebrate your death. We celebrate your resurrection. We celebrate your ascension. We are ready to greet you when you come again.

“We are ready because you are the centre of our lives. You are everything to us. Without you we are nothing. (p. 102—3rd edition)

Did he love the Mass or what?! It’s all Christ to him, and that’s really true.

He was tireless in celebrating the liturgy. I have seen him come home from a parish where he celebrated the Palm Sunday liturgy five times—the Passion readings five times—absolutely rejuvenated! He was a lesson to all of us priests about where to find your life and your rejuvenation.

Now I want to conclude with three stories. Well, actually, one is a vignette, one is a story, and the third is a word from a memorable homily.

First, the vignette, which is from an email from one of our associate priests, when he was told about Fr. Tom’s death. This priest is from a parish in New York.

He recalled Fr. Tom relating how he was assigned to his first pastorate in the El Paso diocese.

“Fr. Tom said, ‘The bishop called me in, gave me a box of hosts, a bottle of wine, and a list of ten thousand names and addresses, and said ‘God bless you, son!’

“That was his mandate. No church, no rectory, nothing. The story never fails to make me smile, and give me a boost as I endeavour to serve a large community of Latin American immigrants with twelve Sunday Masses.”

Now the story, which I call:

The Perfect
Christmas Liturgy

Fr Tom loved perfection. That can be a grief sometimes when you don’t reach it. And since we never do, we can have a certain grief all the time. On the other hand, at moments God reveals another kind of perfection.

In one of Fr. Tom’s parishes, the church was full for midnight Mass. This parish had a beautiful choir and the people really participated in the liturgy. At the bringing up of the gifts, the choir had sung a Christmas carol, something like “Oh, Holy Night,” beautifully, and there was a moment of silence at the end. It was dramatic.

Then just as Fr. Tom was about to go on to the next part of the Mass, someone stood up and said: “You are all hypocrites! It sounds great, but where is your love for the poor?” And this man ranted and raved for a time, and then he walked away.

Fr. Tom told us this story at a Christmas Mass at Madonna House. He said: “We were all stunned, and we didn’t move. Finally, I said, ‘Find that man. We have to do something for him. Find him.’ No one ever found him.”

That was Fr. Tom’s other vision of perfection. Not what we do, but what Christ calls us to do. Not accomplishing things, but doing what Christ puts before us as the next step on the journey of faith.

Finally, the homily, one which Fr. Tom gave on a day of recollection not more than four years ago: In it, he talked about the difference between “professional” and “amateur”. Let’s call it:

The Amateur Disciple

To all you professionals: please don’t take this the wrong way. “Professional” is a word that’s highly admired in our society today—and for good reason. When we need something, we want professional service. And we priests want to serve professionally. We have a sense of ethics and proper behaviour and all the rest.

Fr. Tom, however, contrasted that word with “amateur,” which he said he preferred. He said he preferred to have an amateur’s approach to discipleship, and he hoped that we all had it too.

So everyone’s thinking, what is he saying? “Amateur” means “not very skilled.” An amateurish kind of tripping and stumbling is not professional. Is this good? Why is it good?

Fr. Tom said that the word, “amateur,” comes from the Latin word,amare, to love. Amateur in Latin means a lover. Amateurs do things just because they love doing them.

He said: “It’s so much more beautiful when we give our lives just out of love for Christ.” Just sheer love, not because of the reward, just out of love.

“I hope we don’t look for rewards,” he said, “but rather for Christ who isthe Reward.”

That was Fr. Tom. For three years, free of charge, he went around spreading the news of the liturgy among seminaries and parishes in Ghana or, before he got sick with leukemia, down in the West Indies. And he was happy for any sign of response to the liturgy he loved so well.

Professional though he was, with three advanced degrees in liturgy, Fr. Tom had an amateur’s love for it. He loved it because Christ loved him first.

—Adapted from the homily at Fr. Tom’s funeral