Thursday, August 14, 2003

Homegoing

The Rev. Monsignor Henry Francis Zerhusen, 1925-2003 My childhood pastor and lifelong friend, the Rev. Monsignor Henry F. Zerhusen, passed away last Saturday after a long illness. He was 78 years old -- almost reached the four-score mark -- and the life he lived was full and meaningful, so there is every reason to celebrate his homegoing. But after hearing the news of his death, I was left with a deep sadness.

As you know, I left the Roman Catholic Church about a decade ago. The reason: the denomination's leadership and its obvious (to me) lack of concern for the full humanity of women, gays, and others. My departure was difficult for me -- I grew up in a wonderful, liberal, social-justice-focused Catholic parish that was part of the Catholic Worker tradition. When my mother taught catechism to people or attended parish-council meetings (the laity had a voice at Baltimore's St. Ambrose Church when that sort of thing was unheard of), my brother and I ran around the rectory and saw what it was to minister to people and love them unconditionally firsthand. And being the joiner and doer that I am, I got involved: singing in the choir, performing in plays, attending the parish school, spending time with the priests and nuns, hanging and helping out at the rectory. It was grand.

A big part of that was Father Henry. He presided over most of the sacraments I received in the church. He, along with my fifth-grade teacher and social-justice hero (to this day) Sister Charmaine Krohe, passed their commitment to love and justice along to me and to many others. Back then, I harbored a secret desire to become a priest. Once it was expressed aloud, many people berated me for wanting something so unthinkable. But not by Sister Charmaine. And not by Father Henry, who told me that this pull I felt could not be fulfilled at present. "But you never know how hearts may change in the future," he told me as he dried my tears. Indeed, one never knows what the future may bring.

St. Ambrose was that magical parish one recalls when thinking of Catholic communities. In the '60s and '70s, it welcomed more and more African-American members. (My family moved to the 'burbs in '73, but we continued to attend St. Ambrose until 1976, when the commute became untenable.) New modes of worship started being assimilated into the church's celebrations, and a ministry to the area's increasing number of poor and needy residents became the parish's hallmark. Father Henry and Sister Charmaine -- he always treated her as an equal in every way, despite the church's mandate that women be relegated to second-class duties -- led the way.

What I remember is that when parish membership became darker in hue, Father Henry didn't seem to notice. He just loved and welcomed everyone. He gave everything he had to anyone in need -- money, food, time, smiles, hugs, acceptance, love.

And his love was what filled my mind and heart when I visited St. Mark's Church, his last parish, for his wake and funeral. At the wake Tuesday night, Sister Charmaine, who to this day runs the St. Ambrose Outreach Center (an awesome place that does immeasurable good for God's children), gave a stirring eulogy chock-full of wonderful reminisces of Father Henry's funny foibles and wondrous works. And when she was done, all in attendance -- representatives from all the parishes at which Henry had served -- laughed and cried and shared their own remembrances. It was a night I will always remember.

The funeral Mass was also wonderful, but in a different way. Henry was a monsignor, so his send-off was a big-deal for the Archdiocese of Baltimore: Dozens of priests were in attendance, as well as bishops from various parts of the country, the retired archbishop of Baltimore (a wonderful liberal -- meaning out of favor with the pope), and the reigning Cardinal Archbishop (an arch-conservative, very ambitious man who presided over the coverup that led to Baltimore's part in the horrid sex-abuse scandal, William Keeler is also my former boss and present nemesis). It was awesome to see and hear the ritual and the pomp and circumstance Catholics love. Father Henry would have hated it -- and he would have been sad that because Sister Charmaine is female, she would not be allowed to speak, since the Cardinal was in attendance -- but it was enthralling to see the priests all taking part in the communion preparation and hear them speak of Jesus' last supper in unison (so cool; it was the transubstantiation of all transubstantiations!). I suppose you can take the girl out of the Catholic Church but you can't take the Catholic out of the girl...

It also reminded me of the differences that exist between the church leadership and the people who really are the church. The Cardinal made those differences clear; his comments positioned "the bishops and leadership" as being quite distinct from we, the people in the pews. Not that the rabble went unheard: As the Cardinal spoke, progressive Catholics in the audience (myself included) would add "and Mother" to every instance where the Cardinal referred to God as "father"; when he would refer to "men," we would append his phrase with "and women" (much to the Cardinal's visible, though well-contained, chagrin).

I couldn't help but compare Father Henry (none of that "Monsignor Zerhusen" nonsense for him) with the red-hatted man at the altar. Keeler's actions before and during the scandal showed that his priority was the perpetuation of the church; Henry's was about loving God's people. (Sister Charmaine mentioned yesterday that she recalled a liturgy where a grinning Henry, that adorable cherub, folded his hands, looked heavenward, and prayed, "Oh, God, please let the church allow women to be priests. We need them.") And as these thoughts ran through my head, I knew I had to give Keeler a break. Whatever he has done or will do, while holding him accountable is a good and right thing to do, I must respond to him not with anger, but with love. That is what Father Henry did; that is what he would want me to do. Sitting in a pew at St. Mark's, I decided that this was a challenge I would have to face.

An opportunity to put myself to the test presented itself in the final hour of the funeral Mass: My left-wing writings and outspoken criticisms of Keeler and the church have not made me popular in archdiocesan circles. (Many tell me that I am persona non grata there.) So I went back and forth on whether to take part in communion, given everything that has happened and my relatively new status as a non-Catholic. I ultimately decided yes, because I knew that Father Henry would want me to -- he would never turn anyone away.

With great trepidation, I stepped into the line for Eucharist and realized that I would have to partake it from Cardinal Keeler. Anger flooded my body at the thought, and I reminded myself again that the most important thing Henry taught me was to love everyone no matter what. So I went up to Keeler, looked him dead in the eye as I took the communion wafer, and gave him a genuinely warm smile. Felt it too. He smiled back. And I lived up to my challenge and the shared mandate of Jesus and Father Henry, the person from whom I learned the most about Jesus' love.

Father Henry, an instrument of God's grace to all Henry Zerhusen was all about love. He was all love. He was described as a "humble giver of gifts," someone who gave all he had to the needy and poor and never expected anything in return. He judged no one. Period. I know Father Henry was disappointed when I left the Church, but he understood and stayed steadfast in his love for me. He remained an important part of and influence on my life anyway, and will remain so until I die. And he cared for people, giving special attention to the sick, the lonely and lost, those in mourning -- even after his own age and infirmity caught up with him. When my grandpa died three years ago, he showed up to comfort us and say wonderful words at the service -- which was not held in a Catholic church -- despite his illness.

And he was courageous, unafraid to speak openly about how he wanted everyone -- regardless of color, gender, orientation -- equal in the church. That cost him when Rome took a strong stand against Baltimore's growing liberal Catholic ethos. Henry didn't get his monsignorship until he was nearly 70, after popular-with-the-pope conservative Keeler swept into the archdiocese and brought a wave of darkness with him that still hovers malevolently over progressive Catholics here. (And Henry received the promotion, I suspect, only because he was so beloved throughout Baltimore and beyond, and because it was impossible to ignore the many good works he had done and was doing.) Not that he even thought about any cost -- he once told me he didn't give a rat's behind about being a monsignor; he was just a priest. Interestingly, the only times I saw him in his monsignor's robes was when he was lying in state. But he was wrong about being "just a priest." He was the finest priest I have ever known.

And he was just a great guy -- a little clumsy, a bit goofy, very funny, super sharp, always kind. He adored his family and they adored him. He never took himself seriously and was famous for his good-spirited self-deprecating comments. He had been a straight-A student at Catholic University and Villanova, but never lorded his intelligence over anyone. And he just loved people. I recall him coming over for dinner, dressed in street clothes, and just hanging out with us like the regular guy he was. He bowled on the church leagues (he was really good), take us on outings (he would always get lost; riding in a car with Father Henry was almost always a comedy of errors), and hide sweet treats away (he had diabetes -- not a good choice). A typical exchange:
"Father? What's this behind your bookcase? It's cookies! Henry..."

"I don't know how that got there, but they're delicious. Would you like one?"
Father Henry treated everyone in such a way that he would bring the Christ in them outward. He didn't deign to be Christ for people; he saw Christ in all of us, in everyone. He worked to convince every person he met that he or she was the likeness of God, because that is what he believed. And he was mentor to everyone, certainly to me. Whatever dilemma you'd face, be it a problem at home or school, or a moral dilemma like treating gays or women equally (but the bible says...) or dealing with 9/11 perpetrators, his message was the same trite, but true one: "What do you think Jesus would do? Do that. In other words, err on the side of being loving." I am not saying he was in favor of legalizing gay marriage; that question never arose between us, so I do not know that. I am saying that Father Henry loved people, not rules and not hierarchies. His unconditional love and acceptance was a most precious gift I will always treasure.

He even gave me a gift on the day I said goodbye to him: Cardinal Keeler did horrible things, and yes, I believe he needs to be held accountable. But I can still love him and treat him with kindness. And I did. So I know Father Henry was proud of me.

I know few people who are truly saintlike, people I am certain have a direct shot to a seat next to the Almighty. My late great-grandmother Genevieve was one. Father Henry is another. He was my pastor, my mentor, my inspiration, and, for my entire life, my friend. Even as the darkness grows, I do know that surely I have been blessed.

How appropriate, in a way, that Henry died on the anniversary of Jerry Garcia's death, Aug. 9. The former Grateful Dead guitarist sang some words that feel appropriate now:
Fare thee well,
Fare thee well,
I love you more than words can tell.


Safe journey, Father Henry, and thank you. And thank you, God.

from all facts and opinions

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